In 1890 Ivan Vsevolozhsky, the director of the Imperial Theatres, commissioned Tchaikovsky to compose a double-bill program featuring both an opera and a ballet. For the opera, the composer chose a subject from the Danish writer Hermann Hertz’s drama King René’s Daughter, which he liked very much, and that would become Iolanta. For the ballet, he chose Hoffmann’s famous tale The Nutcracker and the Mouse King from the Serapion’s Brothers collection. The fairy tale is used not in the original, but in its French adaptation made by Alexandre Dumas-father under the title “The Story of a Nutcracker”. Tchaikovsky, according to his brother Modest, at the beginning put the plot of The Nutcracker in writing himself to the director of the theatre, Ivan Vsevolozhsky, and only afterwards proceeded to work together with the choreographer Marius Petipa. The celebrated master, who at that time had been working in Russia for more than 40 years and had staged numerous ballet performances, gave Tchaikovsky extremely detailed instructions as to what the character of his music should be, and the composer set to work. In the spring of 1891, however, the work was forcibly interrupted as he was invited to the United States for the grand opening of Carnegie Hall, and although Tchaikovsky kept composing on the steamer while sailing, he realised he would not be on time. He sent a letter from Paris to Vsevolozhsky asking him to postpone the premiere of Iolanta and The Nutcracker until the following season. It was only after his return from America that the work moved faster. In January and February 1892 Tchaikovsky completed the ballet and orchestrated it. In March, at one of the symphony concerts of the Russian Musical Society, the suite of music to the ballet was performed under the baton of the composer himself. The success was overwhelming: five of the suite numbers were encored at the audience’s request.
As Petipa was already seriously ill, the production of The Nutcracker was carried out according to his script and detailed instructions by the Mariinsky’s second ballet master Lev Ivanov – a graduate of the St Petersburg Theatre School, who at that time had already finished his career as a dancer and had been working as a ballet master for seven years. Rehearsals for the ballet began at the end of September 1892, and the premiere was on 18 December at the Mariinsky Theatre in St Petersburg, on the same night as Tchaikovsky’s opera Iolanta. The conductor was Riccardo Drigo. Critical reception was ambivalent, both positive and sharply negative. But the ballet has remained in the Mariinsky’s repertoire for more than 30 years. In that same year, 1892, the suite from the ballet The Nutcracker was published in an appendix for four hands by Anton Arensky, and two years later his appendix for four hands of the ballet’s full score was published.
The Nutcracker occupies a special place among Tchaikovsky’s late works: the work differs from the traditions of the ballet genre, as its musical images are constructed innovatively. For the first time, the celesta, a musical instrument brought from Paris at the composer’s request, is heard in the ballet. In this, his last ballet, Tchaikovsky turned to the theme that is embodied in Swan Lake and Sleeping Beauty – the victory of strong love over evil forces. The composer goes even further in the way of symphonising the music, enriching it with all possible means of expression. The fusion of expressiveness and imagery, theatricality and the deepest psychologicalism takes place in an amazingly natural way. The scene of the tree’s growth in Act I is accompanied by music of truly symphonic sweep. At first unsettling, haunting, painting the fuss of mice and strange night visions, it gradually expands and blossoms into a lovely, endlessly unfolding melody. The music subtly echoes everything that happens in the scene that follows: the shouts of the sentinel, and the drumming, the toy soldiers, and the fanfare, the screeching of the mice, and the tense skirmish, the wonderful transformation of the Nutcracker. The waltz of the snowflakes beautifully conveys the feeling of cold, the play of moonlight, and at the same time – the conflicting feelings of the heroine who finds herself in a mysterious magical world. The Divertimento of Act II includes various dances: the chocolate dance (a brilliant Spanish dance), the coffee dance (a sophisticated and passionate Eastern dance), as well as the lively, folk-inspired Russian trepak; the stylized dance of the shepherds, and the comic dance of Mama Zhigon with the little children crawling out from under her skirt. The climax of the divertimento is the famous Waltz of the Flowers with its varied melody, symphonic development, flamboyance and solemnity. Amazingly exquisite and delicate is the dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy. A lyrical climax to the whole ballet is the Adagio (in the original staging – of the Sugar Plum Fairy and the Prince, and nowadays – of Clara and the Nutcracker).