Nutcracker, not suite

Over the years, many people have enjoyed the “Nutcracker Suite.” They’ve been entranced by the magnificent settings, the elegant 19th Century costumes, and the splendid music. And each year, thousands more head to opera houses and theatres to view Tchaikovsky’s musical ballet composed in 1892.

I have watched this classic both as a ballet on stage and as an ice-dance routine. Usually, the ballet is performed just before Christmas because the opening scene is a Christmas tableau with the children waiting for their gifts.

I became interested in this musical again because we have a large music box that plays pieces from Tchaikovsky’s composition. Along with the music, a curtain in the front opens to let us into the music hall, and as the music continues, we are introduced to four sets from the ballet itself.

Initially, as the curtains open, we view the drawing room with Marie holding the wooden nutcracker doll. Her brother Fritz is riding a mobile wooden horse, and Godfather Drosselmeir with a black-patch over one eye is observing. Behind the staircase, a large mouse moves into view and then disappears.

It’s interesting that this music box—about 12 inches by 12 inches by 12 inches—is actually a mechanical device that moves the characters about. There are four revolving set scenes, many of them with dancers against various exotic backgrounds.

My grandchildren are enthralled by this remarkable music box. One of them actually wanted to know the story. So we went looking for the book called “The Nutcracker Suite.”

Lo and behold, we couldn’t find a book with that title. We did, however, find several children’s books called “The Nutcracker.” It turns out that “The Nutcracker and the Mouse King” was a long story published in 1816 by a German fantasy writer, E. T. A. Hoffmann. A gentler version of this story was written by Alexander Dumas Pere in 1844. The original “Nutcracker” ballet company used two parts of this story from Dumas, and Tchaikovsky was chosen to compose the music.

The original story by Hoffmann is a little more graphic than the ballet and its music show us. Godfather Drosselmeir, both a judge and a clever toymaker, is perceived by seven-year-old Marie to be both a wonderful figure and a malevolent force. Marie and her brother Fritz often quarrel, especially when he breaks the nutcracker doll’s teeth.

The first part of the story occurs as a dream that Marie has. She has been allowed to stay downstairs after the others have gone to bed, and when she falls asleep, she breaks the cupboard glass where her brother’s soldiers are stored. In this sequence, hundreds of mice appear in battle gear along with the king of mice with its seven heads.

Marie is terrified, but to the rescue comes the nutcracker doll and many toy soldiers, and a horrendous battle ensues with parts dismembered and legs chewed off.  When the mice seem to have control, Marie tosses her slipper at the mouse-king, and all the mice instantly disappear.

Marie wakes up in bed, and her mother tells her she found Marie at midnight on the floor surrounded by a mess of toys. Hoffmann as story teller makes sure we know the mice and toy soldier battles are fantasy, but to Marie, it’s completely real.

Several scenes in the story are not picked up by the ballet, but eventually the story moves into the set pieces we identify with “The Nutcracker Suite.” A magical marzipan castle, Candytown, and a prince charming complete the story, and though Marie wakes again to ordinary life, she is overwhelmed with the memory.

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