Balanchine on Tchaikovsky and his “music to make everyone weep”

Google loves anniversaries and birthdays and this week on its search page it celebrated Nutcracker’s 120th anniversary.

Following its premiere at the Mariinsky Theatre on 18 December, 1892, the ballet was dismissed by critics who attacked it on many fronts but as we all know, its popularity is now second only to Swan lake on world stages and especially the stages of the United States.

Scholars have analysed Nutcracker’s beginnings, Tchaikovsky’s score and the relevant contributions to the ballet by Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov but for simplicity and directness, I love the memories of George Balanchine who danced in the Nutcracker as a child at the Mariinsky Theatre.

Here are a few of his thoughts, told to Solomon Volkov and published in Balanchine’s Tchaikovsky, Conversations with Balanchine on his Life, Ballet and Music. The book was first published by Simon and Schuster in 1995.

“The Nutcracker is Tchaikovsky’s masterpiece. He said beforehand that he would write music that would make everyone weep!

“Stravinsky told me that he particularly liked Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker because there is no heavy psychology in it, just an entertaining spectacle, understandable without tons of words. And of course Stravinsky was wild about Tchaikovsky’s orchestration in The Nutcracker, especially, I recall, the Chinese dance.

“There’s a lot of Russian music in The Nutcracker but also a lot of stylized numbers. For instance, the guests dance the old German dance, Grossvatertanz, [Grandfather’s Dance] and the overture of the ballet resembles Tchaikovsky’s beloved Mozart.

“The march is also written in Mozart’s spare, light style.

“Tchaikovsky took a Georgian lullaby for the Arabian dance. It’s a Georgian melody, not Arabian – but who cares? It’s a small masterpiece.

“Everything in The Nutcracker is exquisitely crafted. I would call it the Viennese style.

“In St Petersburg we loved Viennese pastries and torts. The Nutcracker is like them.

“I think that people also like The Nutcracker so much because nowadays everyone is interested in how children used to live and play. In my day there was no interest in that.

“Children simply tried to become as much like adults as quickly as possible, and that was all”.

The video is a performance by the Royal Ballet at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, in December 2008.

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Rachel Rawlins in Peter Wright’s production of Nutcracker, Australian Ballet, 2007, photo © Jim McFarlane

Balanchine’s production of The Nutcracker, New York City Ballet, photo © Paul Kolnik