Last year I refused to write about The Nutcracker, which was fine and normal of me. I said it’s the kind of thing you get sick of, which I stand by. Here’s the thing, of course: The Nutcracker is obviously a masterpiece, but you do get sick of it. If you disagree, then please listen attempt to listen to The Nutcracker sometime in, oh I don’t know, May, and tell me how that works for you. But I caved this holiday season, because I am both a big, weak baby, and also because I actually went to go see The Nutcracker for the first time in my life.
The Nutcracker, as I hope you know, was composed by Pyotr Tchaikovsky, the king of melody himself. The story for The Nutcracker comes from an E.T.A. Hoffman short story called The Nutcracker And The Mouse King which was then adapted by Alexandre Dumas (the same, yes, as the one you’re thinking). Don’t remember the story? Well, it, uh, doesn’t really matter at all, but it is about a girl who falls in love with her Christmas toy, a hot nutcracker, who kills a big rat and then takes her on a journey to a fantasy land where then they (the characters) basically watch a movie that you (the audience) also watch.
It premiered in ballet form in 1892, one of the composer’s later works given he died about ten months in October of 1893, and it had only some success at the time of its debut. Here’s the thing: I agree. Those at the time said the acts were uneven (yes) and the shift from the battle between the Rat King and the Nutcracker to fantasy world is abrupt (yes, same) and that there are too many children (agree!!). I still had an incredible time seeing The Nutcracker because ballet is deranged and I’ve never seen so many lithe adults in my whole life. If you have never seen a ballet before, let me tell you what it’s like. You know how when you go to see a basketball game live and you are extremely keyed into how loud their shoes are? Ballet is like that, but with toe shoes. And if you’ve never seen a basketball game live, then I don’t know what to tell you. Just imagine sounds for all of these.
The recording I’m choosing is Seiji Ozawa with the Boston Symphony Orchestra from 2015. I won’t break down the whole ballet because I’ll be honest, the first half… is fine. It’s fine! The March, sure, everyone knows it, it’s world famous. What is there to say? It’s a march. Okay, what I’ll say is: my junior year of high school, my marching band show’s theme was Marching Metamorphosis, which included a very jazzy rendition of the March from The Nutcracker. A few months ago, my brother texted me and said, “I think this is the best show our high school marching band ever did,” to which I agree. That’s what I have to say.
Now, as I said earlier, the second half of The Nutcracker is basically a movie. Once the Nutcracker AKA The Prince has defeated the Rat King, he and Clara go to the Land of Sweets which is ruled by the Sugar Plum Fairy. In celebration of the murder of the Rat King, the Sugar Plum Fairy treats Clara and the Prince to a display of dances from different candies from international locales. Hence we have: the Divertissement. These are the classics! You’ve got your Arabian Dance, your Chinese Dance, your Russian Dance. In the version I saw, the Russian Dance became cowboy-themed which was a very 2017 thing to do, but. Whatever.
What follows the Divertissement is, of course, the Waltz Of The Flowers, in which all of the Sugar Plum Fairy’s children appear from under her skirt and dance a waltz. Here’s the take, here’s my take. This is the only true evergreen song from The Nutcracker. These others are seasonal treats, but Waltz Of The Flowers, not unlike Ariana Grande’s Santa Tell Me, is evergreen as all hell. I love this piece, and I could listen to it in the middle of June and not feel like a psychopath in the slightest. I love the loftiness, the playfulness, the HARP!!!! Damn, the part at 2:40… how are you not just pumping your first in the air because you’re so excited about, uh, candy?? This piece makes candy seem like the most important thing in the whole universe, for which I am immensely and forever grateful. The Nutcracker could feasibly end after Waltz Of The Flowers and I would be totally fine, truly. I mean, the ending is nice and Clara wakes up and the nutcracker is just a nutcracker, whatever, whatever, but go back to the part where the children who are candy are all dancing to a gorgeous waltz and I’m set for life. This is the song.
Should you listen to The Nutcracker this holiday season? Sure, why not! I was raised Jewish, always harbored an intense fondness for Christmas, and I inevitably find a work day slow enough to listen to the ballet over and over again on repeat. There’s an intense joy to it—I mean, I guess it is literally meant for children—and it somehow warms my heart even more than late 19th century Russian audiences were like, “yeah, uh, this is, uh, fine,” because so much other Christmas music is, dare I say, also fine. (The second the holiday is over, however, you can go back to Swan Lake.)