The Nutcracker Suite

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky

The Nutcracker Suite

Op. 71a, TH35

Recommended recording

Curated by Maryna Boiko, Primephonic Curator

About this work

From a strictly professional point of view, Tchaikovsky should have been a happy man in 1890. Finally acknowledged as the greatest Russian composer, he had produced symphonies, concertos, ballets, and his latest opera, The Queen of Spades, had been hailed as a masterpiece. He had accepted an offer to conduct his works at the opening of Carnegie Hall in New York, and had in hand commissions from the Imperial Opera Directorate at St. Petersburg for a one-act lyric opera and another ballet.

His personal life, however, had become a train wreck and he was clinically and deeply depressed. Then, his long-time patroness, the Mme. Nadezhda von Meck, suddenly withdrew both her friendship and her financial support. His brilliant new opera was suddenly withdrawn after only 13 performances. In January 1891, he wrote his brother Modeste, "I am very tired...Is it wise to accept the offer of the opera?...My brain is empty; I have not the least pleasure in work."

Further -- the choice of subject for the new ballet had been made for him. It was to be a setting of Alexandre Dumas' adaptation of E.T.A. Hoffmann's tale The Nutcracker and the Mouse King. Tchaikovsky insisted the work was unsuitable as the framework for a ballet, but set to work on it. Incredibly, he sketched out the entire first act before setting sail for America in March, but not before advising the Opera Directorate that the work could not be finished before December and would thus be ready for the following season, not the very next.

An unexpected musical highlight of the trip was the discovery in Paris of an instrument called a celesta, and immediately fascinated with it, he ordered his publisher to obtain one for use in the new ballet. By early July, the second act had been sketched and Tchaikovsky set to work orchestrating the lengthy work. This took until March 1892 and it was at this point that the suite came into existence. A concert in St. Petersburg on March 19 was to include his orchestral fantasy Voyevode, but Tchaikovsky substituted instead a 20-minute suite consisting of excerpts from the ballet. These are not performed in the same order as in the ballet itself and are ordered thus: Overture; No. 2 March; No. 14 Variation 2 (Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy); No. 12d Trepak (Russian Dance); No. 12b Coffee (Arabian Dance); No. 12c Tea (Chinese Dance); No. 12e (Dance of the Mirlitons), and No. 13 (Waltz of the Flowers). The celesta appears in the Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy.

Rising above his suicidal state of mind, Tchaikovsky crafted wonderful short dance tunes for the suite. The opening overture is scored for high strings and winds only and is a cheerful curtain raiser. The march is brisk but suggests toy soldiers as opposed to real ones, and the Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy is positively ethereal in its use of the celesta. The Russian Dance is as furious and rousing any 60-second piece could be, and the Arabian and Chinese dances are tiny jewels which, if not particularly authentic, are brilliantly evocative. Possibly the most brilliant and original work is the Dance of the Mirlitons -- a flute trio -- and the suite ends with the perfectly beautiful Waltz of the Flowers. It is music such as might have been crafted by Mozart himself had he persevered into the Romantic age and approached this same subject. It remains one of his most enduring works.