The Dark Roots Of 'The Nutcracker' And The Man Who Wrote It
ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.
And in this part of the program, a repeat airing of a story about a man responsible for a work that is a staple of the holiday season. His name used to be hugely famous, but nowadays it draws blank stares, even from people who know his work. E.T.A. Hoffmann, born 1776, died 1822 in the Kingdom of Prussia. I came across his name last Christmas season in Matthew Guerrieri's book "The First Four Notes."
(SOUNDBITE OF BEETHOVEN'S "SYMPHONY NO. 5 IN C MINOR")
SIEGEL: The book is about how Beethoven's 5th symphony. And as Guerrieri writes, one of the most influential reviews of that work was written by E.T.A. Hoffmann in 1810, not long after the symphony was first performed.
MATTHEW GUERRIERI: It was really both the first extended review of the fifth symphony that we have, and it was also really this one particular review that is the bridge between Beethoven as a composer of the classical era and Beethoven as this sort of almost musical mascot of the German Romantic movement, which became really one of the most long-lasting and persistent images of Beethoven that we have.
SIEGEL: One of the most striking things about this review is it's, of course, by Ernst Theodor Amadeus Hoffmann. And Hoffmann had not heard Beethoven's Fifth.
GUERRIERI: At this time, no he hadn't. He had the score in front of him, so essentially it's a review of the score. It says he had just gotten it; it had just been published.
SIEGEL: It was also arranged for piano for four hands, so that gave him some assist in understanding what it sounded like. But he was applying quite a musical head to this task, to be able to write about a symphony without actually hearing it.
GUERRIERI: Yes, it's a feat of imagination in a lot of ways. But it would have been standard for the time. It also explains why it's a review much more about the nuts and bolts of the piece of music, than how it actually would be experienced in a concert hall. And I think it's one of the reasons that he's able to, in the review, talk about the experience of it in the language and in a manner that's far more heightened than we would ever really experience.
SIEGEL: Before Hoffmann gets into what, as you say, amounts like a play-by-play of the symphony, he wrote this: Music reveals an unknown kingdom to mankind, a world that has nothing in common with the outward material world that surrounds it, and in which we leave behind all predetermined conceptual feelings in order to give ourselves up to the inexpressible.
GUERRIERI: And that's representative of the language he uses throughout. And to our ears that sounds very, very esoteric and very high-flown. But what the Romantics were really trying to do - and Hoffmann was very much a member in good standing of the German Romantic movement - they had this problem of trying to put into language how it is we experience beauty.
SIEGEL: Hoffmann was actually named Ernst Theodore Wilhelm Hoffmann. But he changed the Wilhelm to Amadeus out of admiration for Mozart. And he didn't just write about music. He composed music. He also drew. He painted. And here's the connection to this time of year, Hoffmann wrote stories - spooky tales that trespassed the border between fantasy and reality.
They were such famous stories, other composers read them throughout the 19th century and set them to music. For example, Jacques Offenbach's opera, "Tales of Hoffmann."
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Singing in foreign language)
SIEGEL: One of the episodes in "Tales of Hoffmann" was based on a story called "The Sandman," in which evil inventors create a robotic girl. It was loosely the basis for Leo Delibes' ballet "Coppelia."
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
SIEGEL: In many of Hoffmann's stories, inanimate things come to life. He was a champion of the imagination run wild. Jack Zipes, a retired professor of German and comparative literature at the University of Minnesota, says Hoffmann was rebelling against the dominant movement of his time - the Enlightenment, with its emphasis on rational philosophy.
JACK ZIPES: He believed strongly, as most of the German Romantics at that time, that the imagination was being attacked by the rise of rationalism in Germany or in German-speaking countries, or throughout Europe. And that the only way that an artist could survive would be to totally become dedicated to another way of looking at the world and reclaiming nature, reclaiming innocence, reclaiming an authentic way of living, and not conceding anything to the rise of rationalism in society at that time.
SIEGEL: One of Hoffmann's stories was about a little girl, Marie, and her Christmas toys. Hoffmann's title for it was "Nutcracker and Mouse King." In his original version, a beautiful nutcracker gets broken. At night, Marie goes to check up on him and he's come alive - a story-within-a-story begins. Armies of mice and toy soldiers battle in what is either the child's delirious nightmare, or perhaps another reality into which she has wandered.
The French writer Alexandre Dumas adapted the story, altered the original version. He made it lighter and less scary. And in 1892, a team of Russians turned that story into a ballet.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
SIEGEL: The ballet, "The Nutcracker," did not enjoy great success at first, but the music by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky eventually did. And staging it has become a Christmas season ritual.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
SIEGEL: Something fundamental happened to Hoffmann's story in this progression from dark to light. Marie became Klara. The young girl's flights of imagination became sweeter and more tame. Her family - they're called Silberhaus, German for Silver House in the ballet - also became sweeter.
Again, Jack Zipes.
ZIPES: The family in his story, in contrast to the ballet, is called Stahlbaum, which means Steel Tree. And the Klara who is the protagonist of Hoffmann's story, is a young girl of about seven, eight or nine, is imprisoned within the regulations of the family. The family follows rituals in a prescribed way, and she feels somewhat constrained by this.
And it's not until this very weird, provocative godfather by the name of Drosselmeier - it's very difficult to translate the word Drosselmeier, but it's somebody who stirs things up. And Drosselmeier certainly shakes things up. He brings these amazing toys that he has made and ignites the imagination of the young people in the celebration of Christmas.
SIEGEL: In the 1980s, the Pacific Northwest Ballet wanted to return to the Hoffmann version. They asked an illustrator and writer who was famous for his own dark voyages with childhood demons to take a look. Maurice Sendak, who created "Where the Wild Things Are."
MAURICE SENDAK: So when I did read it, I became very interested, 'cause it was a very bizarre story, is a very bizarre story and that, of course, would appeal to me. It meant something. I mean, it had bite and muscle the way the Grimm fairy tales do. So I thought, if we could put up on the stage in Seattle anything approximating Hoffmann, without diluting or bashing Tchaikovsky, then perhaps we would have something that was interesting.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
SIEGEL: That was from a 1984 NPR interview. He published a Nutcracker book that year. His version of the ballet, with his sets and libretto, is the only "Nutcracker" that Professor Jacks Zipes says captures the spirit of Hoffmann.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, "THE NUTCRACKER")
SIEGEL: Now, stories evolve from one author to another and one medium to another. But Jack Zipes says that what's been lost from "The Nutcracker" in most productions is Hoffmann's very attitude toward imagination, reality and childhood.
ZIPES: There is a great deal of damage done to Hoffmann's story, because at the end of his story, Marie moves off into another world, or it seems that she's going off into another world - a world of her own choosing. Whereas in the ballet, it's a harmless diversion that is full of sort of dancing and merriment, but there's nothing profound in the ending of the ballet as it exists. And it's also true of Dumas' story - ends in a very fluffy, saccharine way.
Whereas Hoffmann wanted to make sure that Marie is shown to be aware of the fact that there was a contrast between the reality in which she is living and the world to which she is going, which is a world of her imagination, a world of her choice, where she can also make decisions that are more in accord with her own imagination and more in accord with her own creativity.
SIEGEL: Reading the Hoffmann story of "The Nutcracker and The Mouse King," and thinking of the ballet, it reminded me of "The Wizard Of Oz," actually, in which a young girl has what she thinks is a real experience, but actually she's been dreaming and she's been delirious and in the end, the message is there's no place like home.
In the end of the Hoffmann story, there's no place like getting away from home. There's no place like breaking loose from this reality.
ZIPES: Right. Well, the MGM movie of "The Wizard Of Oz" also ruined L. Frank Baum's "The Wizard Of Oz," because he went on to write 13 more stories, and Dorothy eventually leaves Kansas forever and lives in Oz. And the same thing happens in Tchaikovsky's version of "The Nutcracker" because of the fact that Maria makes a concession to reality and gives in.
But nevertheless, one of the interesting things about Sendak is that he said that the music retains Hoffmann's spirit and it's that which he tried to change in his version. He saw in the music itself something that excited him, something that really touched upon the essence of the Hoffmann story, and it's this essence is in almost all of Hoffmann's fairy tales, and essentially it's that we have to keep in touch with the child within us.
SIEGEL: By the way, E.T.A. Hoffmann challenged his readers to liberate their inner child from the routines of lives led in deference to the rational real world, but he was no bohemian in his own life. He was trained as a lawyer and worked as a judge. His art couldn't pay the bills. E.T.A. Hoffmann was a towering figure after his death in 1822, for the rest of the 19th century.
But Professor Zipes says, that fame faded by the end of the century.
ZIPES: And even today, most American intellectuals, American professors of literature, have not read Hoffmann, and it's a shame, because they're very relevant to our own society today, where the imagination is being deteriorated throughout our country.
SIEGEL: Professor Zipes, thank you very much for talking with us today.
ZIPES: Thank you for inviting me.
SIEGEL: That's Jack Zipes talking about the life and work of writer, composer and painter E.T.A. Hoffmann, whose work inspired the ballet "The Nutcracker." We also heard the late Maurice Sendak and writer Matthew Guerrieri.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.