December 18 – Mouse King

Today’s factismal: When the Nutcracker debuted on December 18, 1892, it was a flop.

Ask someone about Christmas traditions today and odds are that they’ll mention going to see either a ballet of the Nutcracker or listening to a concert of it. Every tradition has a start, and the Nutcracker is no exception. However, unlike many other holiday traditions (wassailing, gift-giving, sodium bicarbonate), the Nutcracker wasn’t an immediate hit. As a matter of fact, it was a complete flop.

The music was written by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky when he was at the height of his popularity and was based on a well-known and loved children’s story, The Nutcracker and the Mouse King. In the story, a child named Clara falls asleep and dreams that her favorite Christmas toy does battle with the forces of the Mouse King; when she helps the toys win the battle, she is rewarded by being taken to the land of sweets where the various goodies dance for her before she eats them. (Lewis Carol must have been taking notes…) Tchaikovsky kept the story but phrased it as a ballet. He spent the better part of two years working on the score before it debuted in St. Petersburg, but was never happy with the final version.

The Nutcracker being done by the ballet corp that made it popular (Image courtesy San Francisco Ballet)

The Nutcracker being done by the ballet corp that made it popular
(Image courtesy San Francisco Ballet)

And neither was the audience at the debut performance. They found it confusing and boring and many left the theater. Tchaikovsky would later blame his co-worker Marius Petipa for many of the short-comings in the ballet. Petipa demanded that he have control over the music that Tchaikovsky wrote, down to the number of bars in each number and the tempo that they were performed. Tchaikovsky was crushed, but found some measure of content (and healthy music sales) in the response to a much-abridged suite that he extracted from the ballet.

And there the music stayed for nearly fifty years. Though a few daring ballets did perform the entire piece, most considered it a minor work of a major composer and ignored it in favor of more modern productions. And most non-ballet music lovers only knew it through the excerpt that Tchaikovsky had promoted and that Disney used for his failure, Fantasia. But in 1944, the San Francisco Ballet revived the production and made it click. For the first time, the Nutcracker was popular. And ever since, it has been a part of the holiday.

A large part of the reason that it has been so popular is that the music is undeniably catchy. Though it is not Tchaikovsky’s best work (I’d argue for Capriccio Italien), it is one of his most recognizable. Each act has a distinct musical signature that allows the audience to identify and enjoy it almost immediately; in the business, this is known as a hook. But what is interesting about hooks is that we still don’t know how they work and why they are so memorable. Fortunately, there is a group of scientists who are researching this very topic. Called logically enough #Hooked, they are trying to understand hooks so that they can be applied to other areas of our life. If you’d like to take part in their experiment, then swing on by:
http://www.manchestersciencefestival.com/citizenscience/hooked

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