Opera and Ballet Stories in Music    

Lesson 10: The Nutcracker and the Mouse King - Chapter 1: Christmas Eve

by E.T.A. Hoffman

Performer: LibriVox - Sandra Cullum

Instructor Note: You may wish to listen to the assigned Nutcracker music softly (Music in lesson 'Lesson Guides') in the background while listening to each chapter.

During the long, long day of the twenty-fourth of December, the children of Doctor Stahlbaum were not permitted to enter the parlor, much less the adjoining drawing room. Frederic and Maria sat nestled together in a corner of the back chamber. Dusky twilight had come on, and they felt quite gloomy and fearful, for, as was commonly the case on this day, no light was brought in to them.

Fred, in great secrecy, and in a whisper, informed his little sister (she was only just seven years old), that ever since morning be had heard a rustling and a rattling, and now and then a gentle knocking, in the forbidden chambers. Not long ago also he had seen a little dark man, with a large chest under his arm, gliding softly through the entry, but he knew very well that it was nobody but Godfather Drosselmeier. Upon this Maria clapped her little hands together for joy, and exclaimed, "Ah, what beautiful things has Godfather Drosselmeier made up for us this time!"

Counsellor Drosselmeier was not a very handsome man. He was small and thin, had many wrinkles in his face, over his right eye he had a large black patch, and he was without hair, for which reason he wore a very nice white wig. This was made of glass however, and was a very ingenious piece of work.

The Godfather himself was very ingenious also, he understood all about clocks and watches, and could even make them. Accordingly, when any one of the beautiful clocks in Doctor Stahlbaum's house was sick, and could not sing, Godfather Drosselmeier would have to attend it. He would then take off his glass wig, pull off his brown coat, put on a blue apron, and pierce the clock with sharp-pointed instruments, which usually caused little Maria a great deal of anxiety. But it did the clock no harm. On the contrary, it became quite lively again, and began at once right merrily to rattle, and to strike, and to sing, so that it was a pleasure to all who heard it. Whenever he came, he always brought something pretty in his pocket for the children, sometimes a little man who moved his eyes and made a bow, at others, a box, from which a little bird hopped out when it was opened, sometimes one thing, sometimes another.

When Christmas Eve came, he had always a beautiful piece of work prepared for them, which had cost him a great deal of trouble, and on this account, it was always carefully preserved by their parents, after he had given it to them.

"Ah, what beautiful present has Godfather Drosselmeier made for us this time!" exclaimed Maria.

It was Fred's opinion that this time it could be nothing else than a castle, in which all kinds of fine soldiers marched up and down and went through their exercises. Then other soldiers would come, and try to break into the castle, but the soldiers within would fire off their cannon very bravely, until all roared and cracked again.

"No, no," cried Maria, interrupting him, "Godfather Drosselmeier has told me of a lovely garden where there is a great lake, upon which beautiful swans swim about, with golden collars around their necks and sing their sweetest songs. Then there comes a little girl out of the garden down along the lake, and coaxes the swans to the shore, and feeds them with sweet cake."

"Swans never eat cake," interrupted Fred, somewhat roughly, "and even Godfather Drosselmeier himself can't make a whole garden. After all, we have little good of his playthings. They are all taken right away from us again. I like what Papa and Mamma give us so much better, for we can keep their presents for ourselves, and do as we please with them."

The children now began once more to guess what it could be this time. Maria thought that Miss Trutchen (her great doll) was growing very old, for she fell almost every moment upon the floor, and more awkwardly than ever, which could not happen without leaving sad marks upon her face, and as to neatness in dress, this was now altogether out of the question with her. Scolding did not help the matter in the least.

Frederic declared, on the other hand, that a bay horse was wanting in his stable, and his troops were very deficient in cavalry, as his Papa very well knew.

By this time it had become quite dark. Frederic and Maria sat close together, and did not venture again to speak a word. It seemed now as if soft wings rustled around them, and very distant, but sweet music was heard at intervals.

At this moment a shrill sound broke upon their ears—kling, ling—kling, ling—the doors flew wide open, and such a dazzling light broke out from the great chamber, that with the loud exclamation, "Ah! ah!" the children stood fixed at the threshold.

But Papa and Mamma stepped to the door, took them by the hand, and said, "Come, come, dear children, and see what Christmas has brought you this year."

    Opera and Ballet Stories in Music    

Lesson 10: The Nutcracker and the Mouse King - Chapter 1: Christmas Eve

by E.T.A. Hoffman

Performer: LibriVox - Sandra Cullum


Read the chapter and listen to the musical selection for one week.

Over the week:

  • Read the synopsis.
  • Review any vocabulary terms.
  • Read about the composer.
  • Complete the enrichment activities.


The Nutcracker Suite, Op. 71a is a ballet written by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky in 1892. It is performed by many ballet companies during the Christmas season. The story of the Nutcracker ballet is based on E.T.A. Hoffmann's story 'The Nutcracker and the Mouse King.' In the fantastically strange story, a girl named Maria Stahlbaum (often named Clara in the ballet version) receives a Nutcracker from her uncle on Christmas Eve. The Nutcracker transforms into a handsome prince. With the help of Maria, the prince defeats the Mouse King and his army of mice. Maria and the prince travel to the Land of Sweets and see magical dances and wondrous people and places. This lesson features chapter 1 of 'Nutcracker and the Mouse King' along with the ballet overture, or opening music of the Nutcracker ballet.


Ballet: A theatrical presentation of such dancing, usually with music, sometimes in the form of a story.
Nutcracker: An implement for cracking nuts.
Suite: An excerpt of instrumental music from a larger work that contains other elements besides the music. For example, the Nutcracker Suite is the music (but not the dancing) from the ballet The Nutcracker.
Opus: A work of music or set of works with a specified rank in an ordering of a composer's complete published works.
Overture: A musical introduction to a piece of music.


  1. Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky was born in 1840 in Votkinsk, Russia. Examine his picture.
  2. Zoom in and find Tchaikovsky's country of birth on the map of Europe below.
  3. Tchaikovsky took piano lessons starting at age five and wrote his first composition, a waltz in honor of his deceased mother, at the age of fourteen.
  4. Although as an adult Tchaikovsky first worked as a civil servant, he found his way back to music, enrolling in the Saint Petersburg Conservatory.
  5. Tchaikovsky worked as a music professor and a composer and was eventually voted into the French Académie des Beaux-Arts.
  6. Tchaikovsky died in 1893 at the age of 53, possibly from cholera due to drinking bad water.


Activity 1: Recite the Ballet Information

  • Recite the name of the composer and the name of the ballet.

Activity 2: Narrate the Story

  • Narrate the events aloud in your own words.

Activity 3: Listen to the Nutcracker Overture

  • An overture is defined as 'a musical introduction to a piece of music.'
  • After reading the story, listen to the assigned movement: Overture (time 0.00-3.24)

Activity 4: Examine the Musical Score

A musical score is the written form of a musical composition showing all instrumental and/or vocal parts.

Examine the pages from the musical score of 'The Nutcracker.'

  • What is the name of the composition detailed within the musical score?
  • Who composed this musical score?
  • Which instruments do not play any notes on this page?
  • Which instruments do play notes on this page?
  • Listen to beginning of the overture in the video above. Can you hear the instruments play as indicated?