Tag Archives: the nutcracker

The right kind of eyes

nutcrackerA quick post before I take a holiday break. N and I finished The Nutcracker by ETA Hoffmann. It was a wonderful read, and N loved it right the way through — at least until quite close to the end.

One night while I read aloud, she worked away on a Nutcracker scene in her room, placing a doll in a cradle as Princess Pirlipat, with a larger doll playing the role of Marie Stahlbaum nearby. A Yeoman of the Guard tree ornament played Nutcracker himself, and several other dolls and animals filled in the backdrop.

Now and then she paused from her work to study Maurice Sendak’s drawings. “He’s good,” she said solemnly. “He’s really good.”

marie sleeping

As the story drew to a close, it became clear that Marie and Nutcracker, aka young Drosselmeier, had fallen in love. “In a year and a day he called for her in a golden carriage drawn by silver horses. At the wedding, two and twenty thousand of the most brilliant figures adorned with pearls and diamonds danced, and Marie is believed to be still the queen of a country where sparkling Christmas woods, transparent marzipan castles, in short, the most wonderful things, can be seen if you have the right kind of eyes for it.”

maurice sendak nutcrackerN does have the right kind of eyes, to a point. She has no problem with transparent marzipan castles, with dolls that come alive at night, with mice that have seven nasty heads, with towns made of candy, and sweet-toothed giants swallowing sweet towns whole, with cities made of gingerbread, and rivers made of honey, orange and lemonade, all emptying into Almond Milk Lake, where the plump little fish look just like hazelnuts. That houses are made from chocolate, roofed with gold, and trimmed with shelled almonds and candied lemon peel, is no surprise to her. Was Marie dreaming or was the world she traveled through (in a jewel-encrusted gondola drawn by golden dolphins) real? Either way, N accepted it.

But what was absolutely unfathomable — what yanked her right up off the page and straight out of this winter wonderland — was the news that Nutcracker and Marie would marry.

“What?!” she cried as I read the last words. “She’s seven! Mom! Marie is seven years old! She can’t get married!”

As Godfather Drosslemeier would say, “Stuff and nonsense!” Then and there, N was through with The Nutcracker, classic or no. But I suspect she’ll be drawn into its candy world once again next year.


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The Nutcracker by ETA Hoffmann

danse des mirlitons

Ivan Vzevolozhsky’s Nutcracker costume sketch for The Dance of the Reed-Flutes, 1892

Fellow blogger Nathalie Foy offered a fabulous post today: she plans to make an advent calendar of Christmas books, their own or the library’s, and unwrap one each night to be read aloud.

My mind has turned to Christmas too. Just last night N and I looked over our own collection of Christmas books and picked one we added to the pile at this summer’s library sale: The Nutcracker by ETA Hoffmann, wonderfully illustrated by Maurice Sendak.

Most people  nowadays are probably more familiar with the ballet version, which simplified the story a great deal, but also brought it to new life through dance and music. The ballet is hugely popular. I have many friends who see it every year and consider it a Christmas tradition. I remember seeing it here in Toronto about a decade ago, when my lovely niece Sophia was one of the dancers, handpicked from the National Ballet School.

maurice sendak nutcracker

Interestingly, the ballet was poorly received when it was first staged in 1892, one of the main criticisms being that it was not faithful to Hoffmann’s story. We’re just a couple of chapters in, and loving it from the first-page description of Godfather Drosselmeier, a strange family friend with a dark but compelling presence:

“Judge Drosselmeier was anything but handsome. He was short and very thin, his face was seamed with wrinkles, he had a big black patch where his right eye should have been, and he had no hair at all, for which reason he wore a beautiful white wig, a real work of art. And Judge Drosselmeier was himself a skilled craftsman, able to make and repair clocks. When one of the fine clocks in the Stahlbaum house was sick and unable to sing, Godfather Drosselmeier would come over, remove his glass wig and yellow coat, and put on a blue apron. For a while he would stick sharp instruments into the clock. Little Marie felt real pain at the sight. But it didn’t hurt the clock in the least; on the contrary, it came back to life and made everyone happy by whirring and striking and singing merrily.”

Every year at Christmas, Drosselmeier makes gifts “of wonderful artistry” for the children Fritz and Marie — but the gifts are too wonderful, and the parents always put them away for safekeeping, so the children can never actually play with them. On Christmas Eve when the story opens, Drosselmeier offers a magnificent miniature castle with chimes playing, doors opening and closing, and tiny ladies and gentlemen in all their splendour, strolling around rooms aglow in candlelight.

It’s a beautiful creation, but mechanical rather than human, and since the things inside it move like clockwork, with no possibility for surprise, the children quickly lose interest. Fritz turns to his toy hussars, and Marie discovers a nutcracker made in the shape of “an excellent little man…. With Marie it was love at first sight, and the longer she gazed at the sweet little man, the more delighted she was with his good-natured face. His light green, slightly too prominent eyes were also full of kindness, and his well-curled, white-cotton beard was most becoming, as it brought out the sweet smile of his bright red lips.”

The family takes turns cracking nuts with him, but Fritz chooses a huge, hard nut, which breaks the Nutcracker’s jaw. From here, the story turns increasingly strange, as Marie is drawn in to the Nutcracker’s magical world.

franz, post nut crack

Sendak’s illustrations, as always, are delightful. I can’t help but see little Max from Where the Wild Things Are in careless nut-cracking Fritz. These are so different from the images that normally come to mind when I think of The Nutcracker — swirling sugar plum fairies and elegant ballerinas en pointe.

It’s amazing to think that this story was written almost 200  years ago, in 1816, and that now in 2012 I’m curling up with my daughter at night, reading a tale that has lasted all this time. Last year she loved A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens, and was not at all daunted by the old-fashioned language and the delicious but cumbersome descriptions. So I’m thrilled to add The Nutcracker to our eclectic collection of this season’s books, which includes:

The Gift of the Magi by O. Henry
The Friendly Beasts by Tomie dePaola
Names for Snow by Judi K Beach
The Huron Carol by Ian Wallace
Bella’s Tree by Janet Russell
The Night Before Christmas by Clement Clarke Moore
The Christmas Miracle of Jonathan Toomey by Susan Wojciechowski
The Little Tree by e.e. cummings
The Olden Days Coat by Margaret Laurence
Sadie and the Snowman by Allen Morgan
How the Grinch Stole Christmas by Dr. Seuss
A City Christmas Tree by Rebecca Bond
The Polar Express by Chris Van Allsburg
Owl Moon by Jane Yolen

Thanks Nathalie for inspiring this post!


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I Can Be

Somehow we recently found ourselves at Barbie at the Symphony, a very girly extravaganza featuring a full symphony orchestra on stage in their lovely black attire, dignified instruments gleaming, and behind and above them an enormous screen on which an animated Barbie floated in time with the music. The idea behind these concerts is to get kids to fall in love with the symphony, just the way (I suppose) cartoons or boiled down picture books of classics like Huckleberry Finn or Anne of Green Gables are meant to make them embrace literature. As I sat watching Barbie and listening to the works of Tchaikovsky, Beethoven, and Dvorak, I wondered whether such crazy attempts made any sense at all. Why not give them the real thing when they are ready, instead of substituting it with something void of all the complexities that make it meaningful?

Here’s how Barbie at the Symphony worked. The conductor came on and introduced the orchestra, and told us that these talented musicians would be playing musical accompaniment to clips of Barbie movies. Being such a huge and busy star, Barbie herself was unable to be with us in person, but periodically she would arrive via satellite – from Venice or Paris, zipping around the world with phenomenal speed and not a hair out of place – and she’d touch base with us and make sure we were all having a good time watching her in clips of her movies.

Beethoven: an irascible, irritable man

We settled in. The beautiful music soon drowned out the whining toddlers and the sound of potato chips being crunched and Koolaid Jammers being slurped through straws. N and I were unfamiliar with Barbie movies, but we quickly learned that they were (sometimes very loosely) based on things like The Nutcracker, Swan Lake, and the Grimms’ Twelve Dancing Princesses, and so in some bizarre way they were a natural fit with a symphony orchestra. Every once in a while, the conductor told a little story – like how Beethoven went deaf but still continued to compose, conduct and play music. (I guess he subscribed to the Barbie philosophy of “I Can Be Anything”). And I thought to myself that he’d been cranky as well as hard of hearing, and apparently somewhat pigheaded. I couldn’t imagine he’d think much of Barbie at the Symphony; but Joseph Haydn may not have minded the affair, and he was sometimes called the “father of the symphony.” Apparently he had a wonderful sense of humour and liked practical jokes. He may have particularly enjoyed the part of the performance where the conductor invited Barbie herself, via satellite, to conduct the orchestra from her place on the screen. She flashed a smile with her bright white teeth, pulled out her wand, and proceeded to guide the performers through the piece. I guess the feat was all the more amazing given that the orchestra couldn’t see her.

Barbie animation is saccharine and dreamy, just the kind of thing so many little girls love. And it seemed to me as soon as she appeared in her flowy dresses, the little ones forgot all about the orchestra working so hard to accompany her. I, however, became more and more curious about the people on stage. There were some who smiled wryly throughout; others who looked mortified, as if they couldn’t understand this strange path their instruments had led them on. But for the children, Barbie was more real than any of the performers on stage. And not just other people’s children, I must admit. At one point when the conductor was addressing the audience sans Barbie, my very own N, feeling a little dozy I guess, slipped her coat on backwards like a blanket, and put her hood over her face. “Tell me when Barbie comes back on, Mom.” At least she had the decency to whisper.

And yet I was heartened when, right at that moment, the conductor asked, “Does anyone here play a musical instrument?” and N whipped down her hood and shot up her hand with a jolt of enthusiasm. She plays piano, but that’s a topic for another post. For now it’s enough to say it’s not always easy to get her to practice. I sometimes think it’s because the learning curve is so steep, seemingly never-ending – she wants to be good at it already, rather than to learn inch by inch, note by note, while the pieces get harder and harder. In theory, Barbie should be able to help with that. The “I Can Be” line of dolls transforms Barbie into everything from Pet Vet to Pizza Chef to Race Car Driver, just by changing her outfit – though there are also of course the Ballerina, the Bride, the Ballroom Dancer, and the Rock Star. You can be anything, is her message to little girls, and yet, dressed in their pink dresses and sparkly tiaras, gazing up at her with adoration, they seem mostly to want to be her. And interestingly enough, when you visit the “I Can Be” page on the Barbie website, you see that very message in a cloud of pink: I Can Be … Barbie.

Joseph Haydn might have had a chuckle

By the end of Barbie at the Symphony, the screen went blank and the orchestra played a piece without their glamorous artificial hostess. Little girls got up from their seats and danced in the aisle, swaying to the music and arching their arms up high and twirling, as Barbie had done in so many of her performances. And watching them, I couldn’t deny that they were embracing the sounds the instruments made. But would they take away anything more than memories of Barbie herself? I Can Be … doubtful. But I can also be hopeful. In the end, N and I thoroughly enjoyed our evening at the symphony, just the two of us a little dressed up and out on the town. We had fun. For me it was food for thought, and for her – well, that’s for her to decide.


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