Critical response to Tchaikovsky's Casse-Noisette (The Nutcracker), the ballet-féerie premiered in December 1892 in St. Petersburg, has historically been mixed. An aesthetic mongrel, the original production joined the highbrow expectations of Romantic ballet with the popular conventions of the féerie and challenged its first audience just as much as its immediate predecessor, The Sleeping Beauty. To this day, writers object to the original libretto's uneven distribution of pantomime and dance and its lack of a coherent story, of continuous development, and of a satisfying conclusion. This article offers an alternative reading that reconstructs the dramatic disruptions and turnabouts and relates them to the first production's aesthetics and politics. The ballet's composer and choreographers, using music, action, and dance, repeatedly placed the audience in a position of wonder and awe similar to that of the young heroine Clara. This aesthetic captured Alexander III's particular “scenario of power” (Richard Wortman) in late-nineteenth-century Tsarist Russia, projecting imperial court culture and sovereign power onto a fantastic canvas.
The Aesthetics and Politics of Wonder in the First Nutcracker
A former fellow of the Mahindra Humanities Center at Harvard University, Damien Mahiet received a PhD in musicology from Cornell University and a MA in political thought from Sciences Po Paris. He studies the cultural and political history of music in Europe and the United States, with a particular focus on the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. With Rebekah Ahrendt and Mark Ferraguto, he is the co-editor of Music and Diplomacy from the Early Modern Era to the Present (Palgrave Macmillan, 2014).
Thanks are due to conductor Daniel Boico, whose friends in St. Petersburg helped me access iconographic archives, and composer Michael Early for sitting at the piano and discussing the score with me. Richard Leppert, Simon Morrison, Annette Richards, James Webster, David Yearsley, two anonymous readers, and Dana Gooley contributed crucial feedback on various iterations of this research in recent years. I am, as always, indebted to Angela Early and Mark Ferraguto for their intellectual companionship.
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Damien Mahiet; The Aesthetics and Politics of Wonder in the First Nutcracker. 19th-Century Music 1 November 2016; 40 (2): 131–158. doi: https://doi.org/10.1525/ncm.2016.40.2.131
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