Today, The Nutcracker ballet is as much a Christmas tradition as eggnog, jingle bells, and mistletoe. But centuries ago – long before a nutcracker appeared on stage – miners in the rural Ore Mountain region of Germany began carving the ubiquitous household statuettes. The whimsical, dual-purpose figurines were toys that inspired children's play, and tools that cracked nuts for all.
Tune to WRTI 90.1 for Tchaikovsky's The Nutcracker on Friday, December 22nd from 11 am until 12:30 pm. We're broadcasting the complete ballet in two acts, with Vladimir Ashkenazy conducting the Royal Philharmonic. It's all part of WRTI's holiday classical playlist.
German folklore about the mysterious powers of the nutcracker were the foundation for E.T.A. Hoffmann’s 1816 fairy tale, “The Nutcracker and the Mouse King.” Much later, the tale inspired the music for what is probably the most popular ballet in the world: Pyotr Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker. The ballet, choreographed by Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov, premiered in St. Petersburg, Russia in 1892, but it didn’t become the sensation it is today until choreographer George Balanchine returned it to the stage in the 1950s.
Was the powerful nutcracker an early version of today’s super-human action figure? You decide.
On a visit to The German Society of Pennsylvania in 2015, Meridee Duddleston asked Hardy von Auenmuller, a past president of the Philadelphia-based organization, about growing up with nutcrackers.
A Christmas ballet tradition finds its origin in a German tradition of old. WRTI’s Meridee Duddleston looks at nutcrackers – before and after the dance.
Meridee Duddleston: Young Clara cradles the wounded nutcracker in her arms. And not long after, the colorful, regal and fully healed prize toy leads her to the dreamy place where sugarplum fairies and all manner of delights reside.
Why a nutcracker?
Hardy von Auenmuller: There is something mysterious about a nutcracker. He obviously has powers that exceed that of an ordinary person.
MD: Powers beyond the superhuman strength to crack nuts – the kind linked to leaps of imagination. More than six decades ago, Hardy von Auenmuller, of The German Society of Pennsylvania, was a boy growing up in southeastern Germany near the Czech border. Miners in the area had been carving the intricate wood figures in their spare time for centuries.
HVA: All these figurines that were wooden-carved we used to play [with]. Some families may have put them away for the rest of the year in certain showcases and they would allow you only on given holidays to play with them, because, after all, they were precious.
MD: Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker was born of a German fairy tale featuring the magical nutcracker and a mouse king and the mystique lingered on.
HVA: All the entire month of December, that’s when they came alive again and became part of our seasonal toys.
MD: The magical nutcracker may not be the first instance of a toy coming to life, but it’s one whose allure fails to fade away.