The Nutcracker Ballet is one of Tchaikovsky's most enchanting works. The magical music evokes a nostalgic Christmas atmosphere...
The two-act ballet is based on the book "The Nutcracker and the Mouse King", by E.T.A. Hoffman, a famous writer and music critic.
The original plot is actually quite dark and bizarre. The book's publisher had to get the story cleaned up into a happier, charming children's fairytale.
A choreographer at the Mariinsky Theater in Russia named Marius Petipa read the story and loved it. In 1891 he commissioned Tchaikovsky to write a ballet score for the plot.
Tchaikovksy was probably the most famous Russian composer at the time. So the result was bound to be good!
When he started writing the Nutcracker ballet music, Tchaikovksy didn't like the project at all. He wanted to change the setting and change bits of the story.
But while he was writing it he grew to like it. Although in the end he still didn't think that his music was all that good (as usual)!
The first performance was in December 1892 at the Mariinsky theater.
The premiere was actually performed by students, and got some pretty bad reviews! One reviewer wrote "for dancers there is rather little in it, for absolutely nothing, and for the artistic fate of our ballet, one more step downward"
Even though the critics didn't like it, the Russian public did. In the 20th Century it became hugely popular in America as well. Nowadays at Christmas time there are loads of productions of the ballet, as well as new interpretations and video versions.
The story starts on Christmas Eve in the grand and beautiful house of a German family. Grandfather Drosselmeyer arrives and gives the children, Clara and Fritz, presents.
Clara's present is an ornate nutcracker doll, which delights everyone at the party. Fritz is jealous though, and breaks the doll. But Grandfather fixes it magically for Clara, who later falls asleep with the doll under the Christmas tree.
The next part of the story takes place in Clara's dream. She shrinks, while the toys below the tree spring to life. The room fills with an army of mice, lead by the evil Mouse King.
The Nutcracker doll wakes up, and leads the toys in a battle against the mice. The Mouse King and Nutcracker fight one-on-one, but loses and gets captured.
Desperately, Clara throws her slipper at the Mouse King, who falls unconscious and is taken away by his mouse army.
The Nutcracker then transforms into a Prince, and takes Clara first to an enchanted forest, and then to the Land of Sweets.
There, the Prince tells the Sugar Plum Fairy about their battle with the mouse army. She celebrates with a collection of exciting and magical dances.
After a grand finale, Clara wakes up on Christmas day under the Christmas tree with the Nutcracker doll in her hands.
If you like the Nutcracker, you'll probably like Tchaikovsky's other ballets:
The Nutcracker Ballet was the first work by a major composer which made use the celesta (like a piano, but more glassy). It's featured heavily in the popular "Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy".
The celesta was brand new at the time, and there was a bit of a race between composers to see who could use it well first. I think Tchaikovsky won!
The hugely well-known Nutcracker Suite is a highlight reel of 8 great moments and dances from the ballet.
Here are my two favorite famous dances from the Nutcracker Ballet...
First, the Trepak or Russian Dance:
And the Arab Dance:
There are a ridiculous number of recordings of the Nutcracker. So I'm going to recommend two of the very best...
The Kirov Orchestra conducted by Valery Gergiev possibly claims the top spot. The orchestra is exquisitely talented, the conducting exciting and vigorous, and the sound quality immaculate. The entire ballet is on one CD as well - perfect! From 1998, on Philips.
Secondly, the Royal Ballet has a DVD of the ballet (produced by the BBC). Since the ballet is, apart from the music, also a visual treat, this is an excellent way to enjoy it even more. This is a very traditional production, with top-class dancers filmed in excellent quality. Good stuff!
If you like my site, please click "Like"... thanks!