To mark the 200th anniversary of the death of ETA Hoffmann we look closer at his disturbing short stories, which, ironically, inspired two of the lightest confections of the ballet repertoire: The Nutcracker and Coppélia. Both stories (Hoffmann’s, and the inspired librettos) involve inanimate objects coming to life, or appearing to do so, and causing everything from strangeness and joviality in the ballets to true incidents of horror in the Hoffmann tales.

Nußknacker und Mausekönig, illustrated copper plates after original drawings by P. C. Geißler
© Staatsbibliothek Bamberg (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Tchaikovsky’s ballet is based on Hoffmann’s short novella, The Nutcracker and the Mouse King, but the libretto diverges enormously from the original, cutting out virtually all of the darkness and realism, as well as much character development. The Nutcracker has been staged countless times and in millions of ways. However, it always follows a similar pattern: a young student dancer will win the coveted role of Clara (sometimes known as Marie from the Hoffmann tale) when she is between the age of 7 and 17; and the audience meets her at her family’s Christmas Eve party.

In the ballet, her slightly mysterious but entirely good-natured uncle, Drosselmeyer, attends the party and presents her with a special present, a Nutcracker. When it meets a mishap thanks to Marie’s brother, the ballet version shows Drosselmeyer assisting in mending the doll, often imbuing it with innocent magical powers that take Marie into a wonderful dream. Giant mice fight life-sized toy soldiers, led by her Nutcracker, who comes to life to protect her. The Mouse King/Queen is quickly vanquished, Marie’s Nutcracker transforms into a Prince, who summarily escorts her into a magical dream world, first full of snow, then through the Kingdom of Sweets, populated by internationally based dancing sweets and ruled by the beautiful Sugar Plum Fairy and her Cavalier. At no point is Marie distressed by the fact that a wooden toy has become alive and her companion! When she wakens from her dream, back home, her Nutcracker is a cherished wooden doll once again.

In Hoffmann’s much more elaborate plot, Marie finds the Nutcracker herself and mends it with a bit of ribbon from her dress. In doing so she sees a flash of a human face on her wooden doll. She is unworried by this odd occurrence of a doll showing signs of life, and falls asleep with her Nutcracker. In her dream it is a seven-headed Mouse King and she doesn’t awaken the next morning from a lovely dream, but with a physically injured arm.

There is also a complex plot in which Droselmeyer returns several days later, delaying Marie’s entrance to the Kingdom of Sweets and tells The Tale of the Hard Nut to explain the Nutcracker’s invention: in order to keep the greedy Mouse Queen, Madam Mouserinks, and her sons from eating the bacon for a party held at the court, Drosselmeyer invented the mousetrap. But Madam Mouserinks swore revenge and transformed Princess Pirlipat into a wooden figure. Only by eating the kernel of the Krakatuk nut would she become beautiful again. Years later, Drosselmeyer eventually found the nut and his nephew agreed to crack it. But when the Princess awakened, her saviour took on an ugly form and she rejected him in shock. Madam Mouserinks was killed and once more swore revenge. Drosselmeyer’s nephew would only regain his old shape by killing her seven-headed son and finding a woman who truly loves him despite his looks. You guessed correctly, this would be Marie. However, this plotline hardly ever gets told in a Nutcracker production, Christian Spuck's Zurich choreography being one of the few exceptions.

The ballet premiered at Russia’s Imperial Ballet in St Petersburg in December 1892, choreographed by Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov, and was initially considered rather unimportant, dismissed by contemporary critics. The gentle Christmas story, the use of numerous children and the delayed appearance of the prima ballerina (the Sugar Plum Fairy) in the Act 2 were unpopular. Tchaikovsky’s score, however, would ensure that the work remained in the repertoire, eventually becoming one of the most popular and enduring ballets of all time. 

While not performed as frequently as The Nutcracker, Léo Delibes’ Coppélia is the second of the great ballets inspired by a Hoffmann tale; in this case, on his profoundly disturbing work Der Sandmann. Like The Nutcracker, the stage libretto deviates – and lightens! – the originally deep and dark story considerably, but in Coppélia, the contrast is more extreme, given that Hoffman’s story truly is a gothic nightmare.

The ballet opens in a pastoral Galician town, where young Swanilda and her boyfriend Franz quarrel when his head is turned by a lifelike doll (Coppélia). He believes her to be a real girl sitting in a window, however, she is merely the masterpiece of gentle, quirky, creative Dr Coppélius. Though occasionally a bit of a cantankerous person, balletic Dr Coppélius is never cruel or evil. The darkest moment in the performance is his discovery of the disarray of his workshop. This, however, is very easily sorted when the lovers apologise, and the town mayor gives him a large bag of money to recreate as many new dolls as he wishes, in innocent perpetuity. The ballet ends with a joyous communal wedding between Franz and Swanilda.

The story bears almost no resemblance to the original, except in small ways that are innocuous on the surface, but unsettling once you have read Der Sandmann. Coppélia is often known as The Girl with the Enamel Eyes; however, the way eyes are used in Hoffmann’s tale and in the ballet are very different. The ballet simply features a lifelike doll, who blinks her enamel, but realistic looking eyes flirtatiously, causing an innocent lover’s spat. But Der Sandmann presents a nightmarish recount of real children’s eyes being taken out of their heads for use in the dolls. Left blind, their eye sockets are filled with sand. Here, Coppelius is an alchemist attorney who enjoys harming children in various ways and who obtained his knowledge in a hideous manner. Most of all, he – together with Spalanzani and his “daughter”, the doll Olimpia – drives the tale’s hero Nathanael into madness and death.

From one of the most disturbing stories I’ve ever read to one of the lightest ballets in the repertoire is quite a leap. But this is the legacy of ETA Hoffmann, who wrote the darkest stories that evolved into soft, cherished ballets.