Share post:

Katie Mohar


The Story of The Nutcracker

Dec 17

Share post:

Text copyright © Katie Mohar. All rights reserved.

The Story of the Nutcracker
Photo by Kurt Weigel on Unsplash

The story of The Nutcracker ballet is about believing in the magic of Christmas, even amid gloom. Composer Pyotr Tchaikovsky’s famous ballet turns 130 this month! The Nutcracker premiered on December 17, 1892 and its timeless message of hope remains popular with audiences of children and adults alike.

Tchaikovsky did not write the story that inspired The Nutcracker. In 1816, a German writer named E. T. A. Hoffman wrote a fairy tale called “The Nutcracker and the Mouse King” and Russia’s Imperial Ballet commissioned a ballet version of Hoffman’s story. French and Russian choreographers arranged the dancing and action sequences. The story was simplified and the main character’s name was changed from “Marie” to “Clara.” Tchaikovsky was commissioned to write the musical score. 

Tchaikovsky struggled to set The Nutcracker to music. Despite enormous talent, depression weighed on his spirit. Tchaikovsky’s patron and friend, Nadeschda Filaretowna von Meck, had recently surprised him by ending their 13-year relationship. Soon after, Tchaikovsky’s sister Alexandra died.

“Today even more than yesterday I feel the absolute impossibility of portraying the ‘sugar-plum fairy’ in music”

– Pyotr Tchaikovsky in a letter to his brother Modest Tchaikovsky

Hope infused Tchaikovsky’s soul when he discovered a delightful new musical instrument while traveling through France: the celesta. The celesta, or bell piano, has a keyboard but uses bells instead of strings. He worked the celesta’s charm into “The Dance of the Sugarplum Fairy.” The celesta’s bells give Tchaikovsky’s Sugar Plum Fairy her memorable, haunting “voice.” (See video below.)

Tchaikovsky died in 1893 without seeing the success of his ballet. The 1892 debut in St. Petersburg, Russia fell flat. Audiences then were unaccustomed to children playing such a central role in a “serious” ballet. They were also unfamiliar with ballets being accompanied by complex symphonic music. Tchaikovsky was an innovator, and audiences were not ready to digest his high-quality entertainment.

It took 42 years for The Nutcracker to gain global recognition! In 1934, the ballet made its London debut. In 1944 – 52 years after Tchaikovsky’s debut – the San Francisco Ballet debuted the ballet in America.

Fun Facts: The Story of the Nutcracker

  • While the ballet debut flopped, audiences adored Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite, Op. 71a when it debuted as a concert performance in March of 1892. Tchaikovsky received multiple encores! Apparently, Russian audiences loved the music but not the notion of pairing the music with ballet dancing.
  • The Nutcracker Suite, Op. 71a consists of eight musical numbers that Tchaikovsky hand-picked from his score of The Nutcracker ballet.
  • The Nutcracker became so popular in America that many major ballet houses rely on the production for roughly 40 percent of annual earnings!

Share this history with your family as you gather together this holiday season, especially if you have plans to watch or listen to The Nutcracker!

Toronto Symphony Orchestra Principal Keyboard Patricia Krueger plays music from Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker on the celesta.

Source: Encyclopedia of Christmas written by Tanya Gulevich; illustrated by Mary Ann Stavros-Lanning.