Nov/Dec 2007


As this column encompasses both Thanksgiving and Christmas, it is only appropriate that I reflect on how much I have to be thankful for at this glorious time of year. I have a beautiful brand new baby daughter—Clara—and this happy state of affairs has infused this holiday season with more meaning than ever before.

I asked Clara what I should write about for her first Christmas, but she was strangely reticent. I took that to mean that I should find a topic that would be of interest to others, and for some reason my mother came to mind.



I've somehow avoided this one in the past—perhaps because the tale is so well known.

I am certain you are all familiar with the story: how E.T.A. Hoffman set about to write a charming little Christmas fairy tale for children back in 1816, and how in 1891 Tchaikovsky was so moved by this wonderful story that he turned it into a ballet, and how that ballet remained one of his favorites and has been a staple of the Christmas season ever since.

I am certain we all know that story, right?

Well, it's all wrong...

First of all, E.T.A. Hoffman (the "A" stands for "Amadeus" by the way, his original name was Ernst Theodor Wilhelm Hoffman—he changed the "Wilhelm" to "Amadeus" in honor of Mozart) was not exactly writing the feel good children's story of the year. His original tale, "The Nutcracker and the Mouse King", was dark and full of betrayal, violence, death and bad things in general. The happy ending (the original tale was NOT a dream) seems almost to have been tacked on at the behest of a nervous publisher.
It was actually not until 1845 that the version we all know and love came into being, when Alexandre Dumas, author of "The Three Musketeers" and so many other classics, wrote a revised version, which he originally called "The Story of a Hazelnut-Cracker". This version was decidedly more child friendly, and it is this that was adapted in 1891.

Oh, but Tchaikovsky wanted nothing to do with it! He had to be dragged to the task, and only reluctantly agreed to write the thing if they would also allow him to write and be paid for a one act opera he was far more eager to be working on. As it was, he would always claim to have never really liked "Nutcracker", though of course it has, irony of ironies, become his most famous composition of all.

The Nutcracker Ballet did not even become an instant Christmas classic! The Russian critics panned it at the time, although an abbreviated "Nutcracker Suite" did soon enjoy wide popularity. The actual ballet was not even performed outside of Russia until 1934, and was not performed in the United States until 1944.

And it was still ten more years until, in 1954, George Balanchine produced the New York City Ballet version that, especially when televised a few years later, took the country by a storm, so that of course you cannot now even pretend to muddle through Christmas without stumbling on several different versions of this immortal classic...

And while this is one of Mom's favorite Christmas traditions, I have another reason for warming to the topic this year. Hoffman's protagonist was a young girl named Marie.

Dumas wisely changed her name to the one we all know:


Merry Christmas to All!

—Joe Nolte