In 1926, Sergei Diaghilev, founder of the renowned ballet company Ballets Russes, hired Polish-born impresario and ballet director Julian Braunsweg to produce a performance at the prominent Deutsches Künstlertheater in Berlin. After a successful opening night, the production flopped. Swallowing his pride, Braunsweg knocked at Diaghilev’s door and raised the issue of his unpaid expenses. According to Neil Tierney’s account in The Unknown Country, “Diaghilev listened attentively, and then replied gravely, ‘Young man, why do you think you will make money in ballet? Look at my shoes’…and uncrossing his legs, Diaghilev turned up the sole of his shoe—it was in holes! ‘You see? I have never made any money in ballet and you never will!’”
There is one enduring exception. “Nutcracker is the only production that produces any revenue—everything else loses money,” said Mikko Nissinen, artistic director of the Boston Ballet, in an interview in Dance Magazine. The New York City Ballet’s cancellation of the 2020 show due to COVID cost the company $14.5 million. Renowned choreographer George Balanchine remarked in 1954 that the production was not always so popular: “We used to rely on a touring company to give us a truncated version of this full-length work, a ballet people used to call Nutcracker Suite because people knew [Tchaikovsky’s] music better than the ballet.” At age fifteen, Balanchine danced as the Nutcracker Prince in the Mariinsky Theater production in Saint Petersburg. Later, in life, he successfully revived it in New York City as an unabridged, evening-long ballet. Until 2020, it had run every Christmas without interruption since 1954.
As we prepare to celebrate Christmas, G. K. Chesterton admonishes us that “in the season of divine forgiveness we ought surely to extend our pardon even to the highest in the land.” This sinner’s cold, hard heart is not yet ready to forgive our politicians for the policies that robbed children of last season’s Nutcracker. But we can be grateful that professional and amateur Nutcracker productions have resumed this year.
In this season of charity, perhaps we can reconsider the unjustly maligned reputation of Fritz, the troublemaker child in the Nutcracker ballet. The ballet centers on a young girl named Marie (“Clara” in some productions) who receives a wooden nutcracker doll for Christmas, during a holiday party. Fritz, her brother, is the spoiled wrecker of the fun. Wild after too many sweet treats, he leads his friends in an intimidating gallop around the girls at the party. His rough handling ultimately unhinges the nutcracker’s jaw.
Balanchine’s production is based on Alexandre Dumas’s The Nutcracker of Nuremberg, which is an adaptation of German author E. T. A. Hoffmann’s 1816 fairy tale “The Nutcracker and the Mouse King.” In Balanchine’s ballet, Fritz is a troublesome boy. But in Dumas’s The Nutcracker of Nuremberg, Fritz is not just some unruly child. He has a powerful imagination; in his mind, he is a skilled general whose strict discipline forms his toy hussars into a formidable battle unit. His sister Marie thinks him cruel: “You whip your horses and the other day you had one of your soldiers shot.” Fritz seems likely to become a decorated Bavarian field marshal.
“I whip my horses when they are balky,” replied Fritz with his most blistering air. “As to the soldier I ordered shot, he was a miserable vagabond that I have not been able to do anything with during the whole year he has been in my service. He ended one fine morning by deserting, bag and baggage, which in every country in the world demands the death penalty.”
In “The Nutcracker and the Mouse King,” E. T. A. Hoffmann’s Fritz is rococo—all movement, surprise, and drama. On the other hand, the toymaker Drosselmeyer—the godfather of Marie and Fritz—is Bauhaus. His automatons are programmed to dance in a simulation of romance. His little toy men and women endlessly circle the same pattern in his mechanized dollhouse. “The machinery has to work as it is made,” he tells Fritz, who replies in contempt: “If your fine little figures in the castle can only go on doing the same things, they are not worth much, and I don’t particularly care about them!” Aquinas might have quibbled with the phrasing, but not the sentiment.
Like Fritz, Hoffmann was a restless soul, and searched for something beyond the mechanical repetitions of the everyday. Born into a strict Protestant household in Königsberg, Hoffmann grew sympathetic to the Catholic Church after he moved to his uncle’s house in Prussian Silesia and attended the local Jesuit church. He abhorred theatrical sacred music and held Palestrina above all others. He befriended Capuchins, Benedictines, and Dominicans, some of whom ended up inspiring characters in his many short stories. While his weird and eerie tales are touched by the occultism of nineteenth-century Germany, he joined other Romantic authors in idealizing the medieval Church, even as his overindulgence in wine weakened his willpower.
He sobered up enough to court a woman named Michaelina, and married her in a Polish Catholic church. They later moved to Warsaw. Hoffmann eventually became immersed in the Catholic community there, and began to compose Mass settings. He named his daughter Cecilia after the patron saint of music. When she died after only two years of life, Hoffmann requested that his Mass setting be sung in Warsaw’s Church of St. Bernard on St. Cecilia’s feast day.
E. T. A. Hoffmann’s favorite line of Scripture was “My kingdom is not of this world.” He was no materialist. Hoffmann had all the human weaknesses of Fritz and hoped for supernatural relief from his sins. He knew why John the Baptist leapt like the dancer Baryshnikov in his mother’s womb. Christ was born to save.
Stephen Schmalhofer is the author of Delightful People.
Help First Things continue to speak the truth in love. Support our 2021 year-end campaign with a tax-deductible contribution today.
Click here to subscribe to First Things.