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Gothic Chills in Hoffmann’s “Nutcracker”

Updated on September 26, 2013

Clara and her nutcracker prince date back much further than you would think: the story of the nutcracker which most people are familiar with is more than likely a paraphrased version of Tchaikovsky’s ballet. However, the original tale is called Nussknacker und Mausekönig or The Nutcracker and the Mouse King and was written almost eighty years before Tchaikovsky’s musical version. The story was written by Ernst Theodor Amadeus Hoffmann (1776-1822), a tortured genius who composed music, drew pictures, wrote plays, novels, and short stories, and never once received the recognition he longed for. Today, he is known only through the semi-biographical (and rather cynical) opera Les Contes d'Hoffmann, source of the world-famous Barcarolle.

Hoffmann's illustration for "Der Sandmann"
Hoffmann's illustration for "Der Sandmann" | Source

First came the horror story...

How on earth could a gorgeous ballet and one of the most beloved children’s stories of all time have originated in the mind of a deranged alcoholic who died of syphilis after vainly trying to become the successor to Mozart? Hoffmann is the same guy who wrote Der Sandmann, a Freudian allegory about a man who falls in love with a life-sized doll (elements of which were used both in Offenbach’s opera and in the ballet Coppélia)! The reason for this is that E.T.A. Hoffmann’s Nutcracker underwent considerable revision before it became the story we know today.

Simply put, Hoffmann’s Nutcracker is a horror story. Like all his written works, it is a nightmarish haze of disturbing elements. The author himself realized he had created a mishmash of a traditional fairy tale and adult horror. Consequently he was not surprised that it never became a success. In 1844, however, Alexandre Dumas, père (author of The Three Musketeers) rewrote Hoffmann’s story in French. This version, sometimes known as The Nutcracker of Nuremburg, was used as the source for Tchaikovsky’s ballet. However, since Dumas basically did nothing except plagiarize and slightly re-spin the original story, it is forgivable when most music textbooks list E.T.A. Hoffmann’s story as the ballet’s inspiration.

Somewhere along the way, the heroine’s name was changed to Clara, although in both Hoffmann’s and Dumas’ stories her name is Marie.

Portrait of E.T.A. Hoffmann
Portrait of E.T.A. Hoffmann | Source

The Necessity of Hoffmann’s Story

As ghoulish as Hoffmann usually is, The Nutcracker and the Mouse King is actually one of his more charming tales. Despite the gothic elements, it has a steady storyline (an oddity for Hoffmann!) and in fact carries the plot much further than the ballet does.

Tchaikovsky really drops the story after Act I. However, the nightmare instigated by Clara/Marie’s mysterious godfather, which culminates with the heroine throwing her shoe at the mouse king, is just the beginning in the original; and although Marie and her prince do take a trip to Candy-land, it is a very minimal part of the story and it must be said that Hoffmann gives a much more satisfying ending to it all.

Although Hoffmann’s life and works are frightening, his Nutcracker is fascinating and belongs alongside other holiday horror stories such as Dickens’ A Christmas Carol and the ghost stories of M.R. James.

Read the Original Story

Nutcracker and Mouse King and The Tale of the Nutcracker (Penguin Classics)
Nutcracker and Mouse King and The Tale of the Nutcracker (Penguin Classics)
This book contains the original Nutcracker story by E.T.A. Hoffmann as well as Alexandre Dumas' revamp


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    • Petra Newman profile image

      Petra Newman 

      8 years ago

      Very interesting. I was surprised at Hoffmann's persona of a drunken almost ghoulish man who created the wonderful Nutcracker story. Thank heavens, Alexandre Dumas rewrote the story to the beloved tale we know today. Great hub and research.


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