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French revolutionary musical borrowings in The Nutcracker —wny?

As I said in my last post, where I think I’ve discovered a French counter-revolutionary song as a source for one of Tchaikovsky’s musical borrowings in The Nutcracker, I had a vague recollection of having read about the theory of Nutcracker being an allegory of the French Revolution.  Eventually, I remembered that I’d read it in German. But two hours of Googling words that I knew were in the book came up with nothing  (for the record, this should have done it, but didn’t: <Petipa, Tschaikowski, Carmagnole site:de>). At least I remembered that the book was in the RAD library, so I went there and asked:  “About ten years ago, I read a book in German. It was silver. It was something to do with Tchaikovsky and Petipa, but that wasn’t necessarily in the title. Can you help?”

Thanks to the brilliance of the library staff, we found it. The source was Lopukhov’s notes on Petipa’s sketches for Nutcracker, published in Eberhard Rebling’s (1980) Marius Petipa: Meister des klassischen Ballets; Selbstzeugnisse, Dokumente, Erinnerungen, three pages which argue – I think quite convincingly – that Petipa’s notes clearly indicate he had  the French Revolution in mind.

In fact, Wiley does mention this very briefly  in the 1984 article I already cited, On Meaning in the Nutcracker, and cites Lopukhov as his source in a footnote, but apart from Rebling’s translation, it’s not available, and you certainly won’t find it via Google, because Rebling’s book hasn’t been scanned.

Wiley says quite rightly that a revolutionary theme would be inappropriate for an Imperial ballet theatre, but as Lopukhov says, the evidence is there. Given Tchaikovsky’s allegiances, and the nature of the quotations, is it reasonable to think that their idea was to incorporate counter-revolutionary ideas? You can’t just ignore those parents dressed as incroyables who turn up in the party scene. Directly after their appearance to polonaise-style music, the dance of aristocrats par excellence, the children dance ‘Bon Voyage Cher Dumollet’, which Lopukhov claims was a satire on the exile of Charles X to England (a claim I can’t substantiate from other sources, yet).  But then the song I identified as Reveil du Peuple that ends the party scene is also counter-revolutionary in spirit.

All the French borrowings may indicate nothing more that  Tchaikovsky was so depressed and blocked that he just picked up any theme going in order to finish a score that had become a problematic task. Between Tchaikovsky, Petipa and Vsevolozhsky, the plot, the scenes and the re-use of music for different purposes than the one it was originally intended (like the tarantella from act 1 that became the male solo in Act 2) may make the score unfathomable. But of all the borrowings, I think Le reveil du peuple is the most interesting, and the one which gives Act 1 the greatest coherence once you know what it is. The longer I live with Nutcracker, the darker and more mysterious it gets, something that Wiley’s article gets right to the heart of.

Both Lopukhov and Wiley say that there’s more to Nutcracker than meets the eye. Lopukhov says the problem with Nutcracker is not how to stage it, but to know what it means. Wiley says: ‘A persistent fault of Tchaikovsky criticism has been to point out the obvious in his work without exploring the possibility that subtle messages might be lying just below the surface.’ (1984:26).  It’s a shame that no-one seems to have taken up these thoughts since the 1980s.  And if you rely on Google, you’re unlikely to find the evidence that you’ll need to make a start.

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Jonathan Still, ballet pianist