I find it curious that Ernst Theodore Hoffman (above) is considered a romantic. I think of him as a manic depressive, and justified at that, considering that Napoleon spent most of Ernest’s life turning Europe into a slaughterhouse. As a young man Ernst did fall in love, but the lady was married. And when she turned up pregnant Ernest’s family shipped him off to Poland, where he labored as a petty bureaucrat. But he spent his free time composing classical music and writing vaguely creepy stories. One of his more successful tales was a sort of 19th century “Jaws”, except instead of a 25 foot Great White Shark, Ernest’s villain was a mouse bent on revenge. In Hoffman's story seven year old Maria receives a mechanical doll as a Christmas present, which her older brother Fritz promptly breaks. She sits up late trying to repair the toy, until an army of mice attack her doll. She saves the toy by throwing her shoe at the rodents. Now, maybe I'm just waiting for the other shoe to drop, but I think this idea has ballet written all over it. Interestingly, that idea never occurred to Ernst.
Nor did it occur to Alexander Dumas (above), the vulgar and prolific son of a French nobleman and a Haitian slave woman. See, Alex liked the Parisian good life a lot more than he liked writing. He had at least 40 mistresses, but he made enough to afford his profligate lifestyle by out doing Andy Warhol at marketing his art. Alex kept a warehouse full of writers who ground out stories under his direction, such as “The Count of Monte Cristo” and “The Three Musketeers”, and its sequels. And one of his minor best sellers was a direct steal of Ernst's hallucination, which Dumas changed just enough to avoid a lawsuit – like changing Maria's name to Clara.
Then, seventy years after Ernst died of syphilis (the ultimate romance disease), and 12 years after Alex died of a stroke in 1870, the ballet idea finally did occur to Marius Petpa (above), celebrated head of the Bolshoi Ballet Company in Russia. In 1882 the Imperial Theaters hired Marius and Pyotr Illyich Tchaikovsky to create the “Sleeping Beauty” ballet. This was such a critical and financial success that it established the Bolshoi as the world's premier ballet company, and Marius as a world class genius. And then like a modern Hollywood producer looking for a project to fit the marquee talent, in 1890, the theatre brought the pair together again. But this time, having over inflated these two monumental egos, the management merely suggested a sort of theatrical sandwich – a double header, both a serious opera and a light ballet staged on the same night..
The one act opera was clearly intended to be the meat in this theatrical happy meal, and being the foremost Russian composer of the day, Pyotr (above) got first choice of subject matter. He decided on a Danish story of a blind princess named Iolanta.. But then, early in February of 1891, in Saint Petersburg, Marius handed Pyotr a detailed synopsis and bar-by-musical bar outline for a two act classical ballet based the story Dumas had filched. Pyotr was appalled. He though it childish and unworthy of serious application. But, if it meant he got paid to write another opera, he would somehow make the silly ballet work. After struggling for a month he tried to remain optimistic. He wrote to one of this brothers, “I am working with all my strength and reconciling myself to the subject of the ballet.” But he also admitted “I am experiencing a kind of crisis.” This was good, since Pyotr had a lot of experience with those.
See, Pyotr had a secret that held the potential to turn every problem in his life into a crises. He was approaching fifty, and had reached an uneasy equilibrium with his homosexuality. He had tried to go straight but his marriage to Antonina Ivanova (above) had blown up after little more than a month. This raised again the threat of exposure by envious and bigoted court and church officials, who at any moment could end his career. Each contract, including this one, could be his last. What little stability existed in his life was supplied by his younger sister Aleksandra and her seven children with Lev Davydov. Pyotr wrote many of his 11 operas, six symphonies and three ballets on their Ukrainian estate near Kamenka. And now, in March, while on his way to a concert tour of America, and still trying to come up with something presentable for Marius's ballet, he learned of Aleksanda's death.
He had just seen Aleksandra (above) over the Christmas holidays, so he must have known how ill she was. Still, Pyotr was hysterical. And then, pausing in Rouen, France, he managed his agony by putting it to work. His genius was always his ability to combine the Russian musical themes with Western ones, and to subjugate his true identity into the restraints of his art. And in the “grand pas de deux” for the lead dance character of Clara, he weaved in threads from the Russian Orthodox funeral service The musical themes of the entire ballet became darker and more nuanced. As one critic has put it, “In Clara, he found a parallel for his sister.” A ballet about wealthy Victorian children, became, with the talent of Pyotr's genius, a work for people of all ages and for all time.
When Pyotr returned from his wildly successful 25 day American tour (he inaugurated Carnegie Hall in Manhattan) he delivered his musical score to Marius in St. Petersburg, to be animated. But as the opportunity approached, the world renown genius, Marius, suffered his own crises of self confidence. The primary symptom of this understandable panic was an attack of Pemphigus vulgaris, a debilitating skin disease, usually afflicting Ashkebazi Jews – of which Marius was one. Scratching his itching skin produced open sours, which made it impossible for Marius to concentrate on the ballet. So his assistant, Lev Ivanov, took over.
Lev (above) had been with the Bolshoi since he was eight, and had a natural talent as a musician, as well as being an excellent dancer. But where Marius was a classical ballet master, Lev was, like poor Ernest, a romantic. He followed Marius's general guidelines. He had to, the music had already been composed based on them. But Lev also arranged his dancers like an impressionist painter, throwing patterns of sugar plumb fairies and swirling lines of snowflakes on point, about the stage. It was the shape and flow of the dance that interested Lev, and somehow the combination of all these hearts and souls, the romantic Ernst and the hedonist Alexander, the classicist Marius and the dark Pyotr, and now that other romantic Lev, they all gave birth, on 15 January, 1890, to the premier of “The Nutcracker” ballet at the Mariinsky Theater in St. Petersburg, Russia.
The audiences seem to have been enthusiastic, giving five curtain calls to the Sugar Plum Fairy. The next morning Pyotr wrote to his brother, “The opera in particular was to everyone’s liking ... The productions of both...were superb” But it was a very long evening, with the Nutcracker not ending until well after midnight.
The weary critics took it out on the dancers, calling the lead ballerina (above) corpulent and pudgy. The battle scene between the mice and the nutcracker confused them: “Disorderly pushing about from corner to corner and running backwards and forwards – quite amateurish.” The Grand Pas de Deux, so inspiring to the composer, was labeled ponderous and “completely insipid”. A week later Pyotr wrote to another brother, “Once again I am not embittered by such criticism. Nevertheless, I have been in a loathsome spirit, as I usually am...in such circumstances.” After 11 performances the double bill was closed.
Less than a year later, in October 1893 Pyotr would die during a cholera outbreak, his secret still secure. Although many have suggested he committed suicide, he did not. Lev Ivanov followed nine years later. Finances forced him to work until his death “in harness”, in December of 1901. About the same time the Bolshoi brought in the upstart Alexander Gorsky to replace the aging Marius (above) as director. While watching his intended replacement rehearsing on his stage, Marius was heard to shout, “Will someone tell that young man that I am not yet dead?!.” Within a year it did not matter; Marius was quietly retired. He did die in 1910, at the age of 92.
A year after its premier the opera Iolanta would be preformed by itself in Hamburg, Germany. But although still performed occasionally, it is now largely forgotten. The Nutcracker, on the other hand, had to wait almost 20 years before it would be performed again, staged this time by the Bolshoi's new director Alexander Gorsky, in Moscow. He saved it. Alexander savaged Marius choices, paring away minor roles, replacing the children cast as Clara and the prince, with adults, thus adding a romantic story line for them. Standing alone, the ballet was now far better received, and short enough for modern attention spans. And after the Second World War, it became the classical Christmas season production for every ballet company in the world, responsible for up to 40% of their income.
It just goes to show you – those silly romantics may be naive simpletons, but their ideas grow stronger with time because they are positive and simple, and keep being reinvented. When in doubt, we are always inspired by the romantics within us.
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