Fairy-ballet in 2 acts and 3 scenes, Op. 71 (1891–92).
Tchaikovsky's original score contains an Overture and 15 numbers. Act I is divided into two scenes (comprising Nos. 1–7 and Nos. 8–9). The titles of numbers in French (italic type) and Russian (Cyrillic) are taken from the published score, with English translations added in bold type.
The story is set in eighteenth-century Germany.
Act I. It is Christmas Eve in the home of President Silberhaus of the Town Council and his children, Clara and Fritz (Scene 1). The parents are decorating the tree. Nine o’clock strikes, on a clock consisting of an owl which flaps its wings at each stroke. The children burst into the room with some friends, and all join in a lively march round the room, before breaking into a galop. Then the other children’s parents enter, dressed as fops and dandies. A general dance follows, which is interrupted by the arrival of Councillor Drosselmeyer, who is Clara’s godfather. The children are alarmed at his odd appearance, until they see that he has brought them toys: a mechanical doll, a toy soldier, Harlequin and Colombine. He produces these from a large cabbage and from a large pie, much to the children’s delight. Silberhaus orders the more expensive toys to be moved to his study, but Clara and Fritz want to play with them. Clara bursts into tears. To console them, Drosselmeyer gives them a huge Nutcracker in the form of a soldier, which enchants Clara. Fritz hears the noise of the nuts cracking, and tries to seize the nutcracker. When Clara reluctantly lets him play with it, he tries to crack a nut so big that it is the Nutcracker which breaks. Clara picks up the broken Nutcracker and cradles it in her arms., singing it a lullaby, while the boys tease her. The scene ends with a general Grandfather dance. After everyone has gone to bed Clara comes down to see her Nutcracker, which seems to be giving off a mysterious light. Midnight strikes, and mice appear from every corner. The dolls spring to life, and gingerbread soldiers left over from tea begin to march to and fro. She tries to run away, but her legs will not carry her. The Christmas-tree grows enormously in size. Dolls and soldiers join in battle with the mice, who overwhelm the soldiers. Then the Nutcracker summons his old guard, and fights the King of the Mice. Just as it appears that the Nutcracker is about to be overwhelmed, Clara throws her slipper at the King of the Mice, and kills him. The Nutcracker is transformed into a handsome Prince, and he offers Clara a journey to his kingdom. The room is transformed into a pine forest (Scene 2), and the night sky clears to reveal a host of stars. Clara and the Prince are guided through the forest by gnomes with torches. Snowflakes fall and they are met by the King and Queen, who join their subjects in a swirling waltz.
Act II. In the palace of the Kingdom of Sweets (Confiturenburg), the Sugar Plum fairy appears to welcome the travellers to the delights of her kingdom. Beside a river of rose water, Clara and the Prince appear and are welcomed in the Great Hall of the palace. The Prince is greeted by his sisters, and tells how Clara saved his life. She is thanked profusely. The company settle dawn to a splendid banquet and divertissement. Dances from Spain, Arabia, China and Russia are followed by a shepherds’ pastoral dance, using toy flutes. Then the old-woman-who-lived-in-a-shoe dances with all her children and a group of clowns. A waltz for the Sugar-Plum Fairy’s attendants, is followed by a Pas de deux for the Prince and the Sugar-Plum fairy. The entire court joins in the final waltz, and the curtain falls on a final tribute to Clara.
The Tchaikovsky Handbook, vol. 1 (2002), p. 118
Composed at Frolovskoye, Rouen and Maydanovo between mid/late February and late June/early July 1891. Orchestrated at Maydanovo, January–March 1892. Written at the request of the Director of the Imperial Theatres, Ivan Vsevolozhsky.
Preliminary talks between the composer and the Director of the Imperial Theatres took place in November and December 1890 . On 22 January/3 February 1891, Tchaikovsky wrote to Anatoly Tchaikovsky: "At the end of the week I shall be going to Saint Petersburg for final discussions with the director about the opera [Iolanta] and the ballet" . Tchaikovsky stayed in Saint Petersburg until 11/23 February, where, evidently, he received the choreographer Marius Petipa's manuscript plan of the first act of the ballet, which was dated "5 February 1891" [O.S.] .
According to Modest Tchaikovsky, the composer was "very little pleased by the subject of The Nutcracker" , more precisely with the nature of the ballet’s scenario, since E. T. A. Hoffmann's fairy tale, upon which it was based, had long ranked high in the composer's estimation, and was the reason for his agreeing to write the ballet The Nutcracker.
Tchaikovsky's unfavourable attitude to the using The Nutcracker for a ballet scenario is reflected in a letter from Ivan Vsevolozhsky to Tchaikovsky of 9/21 August 1891: "I have experienced agonies of remorse for asking you to do this ballet. I know that it is unappealing to you. You are an exceptionally kind soul for not refusing me" .
It is not possible to establish the exact date on which work on the sketches was begun. By 12/24 February the composer had not begun work , but by 18 February/2 March some scenes had been composed—No. 1 (the decoration of the tree) and No. 2 (march—entrance of the children), after which came a number of characteristic dances: Chinese and Spanish dances, a tarantella, an English dance, and the start of a Trepak.
On 18 February/2 March, Tchaikovsky went again to Saint Petersburg. Before his departure he a received a letter written by Ivan Vsevolozhsky, dated 15/27 February: "I hope to see you in Saint Petersburg before your departure for America. I want to pass on to you some ideas for the ballet, which do not fit in with Petipa's scheme. He is what the French call vieu jeu . All the solos and variations he devised for the first act, would be of little interest to the public. You need now only to compose great dances, and not for dancers, and all those variations... would only irritate the majority of the audience" .
Returning to Frolovskoye on 22 February/6 March, Tchaikovsky made notes in his sketchbook after the start of the Trepak: "Not finished, because during a visit to Saint Petersburg I learned that Vsevolozhsky did not want dances here and, probably, they will be carried over to the 2nd act".
The arrangement of the sketches allows us to infer the order in which the music was written—the composer adhered to the essence Marius Petipa's plan, indicating any deviations from it in his notebook. After meeting with Vsevolozhsky, Tchaikovsky crossed out the names of the characteristic dances in Petipa's balletmaster plan, and instead wrote: "Galop pour les enfants et entrée des parents en incroyables... 16 mesures rococo (tempo menuet). Bon voyage, M. Dumolet", the latter being the title of a humorous 18th century French song, subsequently used in the music for this number. But the composer did not write the music for this scene straight away, noting down only a few sketches eventually used for the gallop, beside the note: "This is the start of the coda, composed during a stroll in Piter [Petersburg]".
Next he continued with Petipa's plan and on 22 February/6 March set about the music for Drosselmeyer's entrance. The author’s sketch book includes two dates—23 February/7 March and 27 February/11 March—which allows us to establish that on these days he finished the scene with Drosselmeyer, and wrote the scene with the children and the Nutcracker (No. 5), except for the Grossvater . Omitting the Grossvater, Tchaikovsky wrote in his sketch book: "Talk to Petipa regarding the Grossvater, how many times it should be repeated, and whether it should be varied, and have Jurgenson obtain the [musical] notes". There is a second note, apparently made later: "Grossvater—see the end of the copybook after everything else".
Beside one of the sketches for No. 5 (the scene described as "Lullaby, twice interrupted by the noise of Fritz and his friends on drums and pipes"), Tchaikovsky noted: "Le vacarme"  "... (child's trumpet), cuckoo (sol, mi), rattle, drums, cymbals as in Haydn's symphony (or three of these, depending on whatever children’s instruments will be available)".
On 19 February/3 March, Tchaikovsky wrote from Saint Petersburg to Pyotr Jurgenson: "I require children's instruments (from the symphonies of Haydn and Romberg), because I want to make use of them in my forthcoming ballet. Send them, if you please, to Frolovskoye without delay. And also send notes, explaining how the children's instruments should be played" . On 23 February/7 March, Jurgenson responded: "I am sending you a box of instruments by train" .
On 25 February/9 March, the composer wrote to Modest Tchaikovsky: "I am working with all my strength and reconciling myself to the subject of the ballet. I think that by the time I leave a considerable part of the first act will have been done" . On 27 February/11 March, after sketching the night scene (Clara’s vision), Tchaikovsky wrote: "Here I am leaving out a lot, up to the Waltz of the Snowflakes". Indeed, he omitted the battle scene between the mice and toys, and start of the second scene of Act I—depicting the forest at night—and instead the composer went on to the Waltz of the Snowflakes. After this he wrote: "Return to No. 22" (on Marius Petipa’s plan No. 22 was the start of the battle scene), and sketches for the battle of the mice and toys followed.
This concluded Tchaikovsky’s work on the ballet before his departure abroad on 6/18 March. On the day of his departure from Saint Petersburg, the composer discussed the ballet with Marius Petipa . It seems that at this meeting the outline scenario for Act II was finalised. In any case, the balletmaster’s plan of this act was sent to Tchaikovsky only while he was abroad. On the copy of the manuscript of the plan is Petipa’s note: "This was sent on 9 March 1891 [O.S.] to Mr. P. Tchaikovsky in Paris" .
Work on the ballet continued during his journey: "I will try to work on the boat. Even on the way here I composed a little of the ballet", Tchaikovsky wrote from Berlin on 8/20 March 1891 . It has not been established whether Tchaikovsky composed anything on his way to Berlin. In Paris, where Tchaikovsky arrived on 10/22 March, work on the ballet did not come easily. On 15/27 March, he wrote to Vladimir Davydov: "On 6 April/25 March, I shall leave Paris for an unknown destination, in order to work on the ballet" , and on 30 March/11 April he reported to Praskovya Tchaikovskaya from Rouen: "I came here yesterday for a few days’ rest and solitude from Parisian life" . Evidently, in Rouen Tchaikovsky resumed work on 31 March/12 April. This date, together with the note "Rouen" was made by the composer on the inside front cover of his notebook, which on its first pages contains sketches for the opening of the second scene of Act I . The date "Rouen, 12 April" was also written by Tchaikovsky on the choreographer's manuscript plan of Act II.
Tchaikovsky stayed in Rouen until 5/17 April. During this time he wrote the opening of the second scene, and the numbers he had previously omitted from the first scene of Act 1: Petit galop des enfants, Entrée des parents, "Bon voyage, M-r Dumolet"; then there followed sketches for the Grossvater dance and some additions to the dance of the Incroyables .
On 3/15 April, Tchaikovsky wrote from Rouen to Ivan Vsevolozhsky: "As I expected, during my three weeks in Paris, it goes without saying that I could not write a single note. I came to Rouen in order to work a little. And I have been here nearly a week, working all hours; two days remain before I sail for America. In this time I will have prepared the sketches for the first two scenes of the ballet. But the question is, when will I be able to do the rest?". Tchaikovsky then asked Vsevolozhsky whether the productions of the ballet and opera could be postponed until the next season: "I could complete my voyage to America without the torments, the doubts, and the fears; return home calm and rested from any conceivable traumas experienced in Paris and America, and enjoy working little by little, confident that I will be writing two masterpieces (pardon my immodesty)" . On the same day, Tchaikovsky wrote of this to his brother Modest .
The next day, in a deep depression caused by the unexpected news of his sister's death, he wrote: "Even more than yesterday and the day before, I feel absolutely incapable of depicting Confitüremburg in music" .
On 20 April/2 May the composer wrote from New York to Eduard Nápravník: "I cannot start working again before June at the earliest... otherwise whatever I tried to write would turn out wretchedly" .
Ivan Vsevolozhsky agreed to postpone the ballet and the opera, and further work on the ballet was only resumed after Tchaikovsky’s return from America, in Maydanovo at the end of May 1891. "On 9th May [O.S.] I floated away from America ... on 20th May [O.S.] I arrived in Petersburg, and this morning here. Now I have started to work" .
On 3/15 June 1891, the composer told Pyotr Jurgenson that he was writing Act II of the ballet; he also asked him to send to Paris for a new orchestral instrument ("Celesta-Mustel"), "with a divinely unusual sound", which he wanted to use in the symphonic ballad The Voyevoda and in the ballet .
Letters to various correspondents during June refer to work on the ballet. On 2/14 June the composer wrote to Anna Merkling: "At this moment my work is coming along very successfully" . On the same day he wrote to Praskovya Tchaikovskaya: "Work is proceeding intensively, and I’m glad that my travels are over" .
On 25 June/7 July in a letter to Vladimir Davydov, Tchaikovsky wrote: "As promised, I can inform you that last evening I finished the rough sketches of the ballet. You remember when you were here that I boasted that I had something like five days’ work remaining to finish the ballet. It turned out that I hardly managed it in two weeks. No! Old age is obviously taking its toll... The ballet is immeasurably worse than The Sleeping Beauty—of this I am certain. Now let’s turn to the opera" . On the same day, the composer told Modest Tchaikovsky and Aleksandra Hubert that he had finished the sketches, complaining that he was greatly tired, and "it seems the old man starting to take his last breaths" . In a letter to Sergey Taneyev of 27 June/9 July 1891, Tchaikovsky also reported that he had finished the ballet "with a feverish haste and the constant doubts that I would muster the energy to finish the ballet in rough" .
The sequence of sketches in Act II indicates that the composer adhered to Marius Petipa’s plan. In the divertissement, Tchaikovsky used dances that were originally written for Act I. And so, where the plan called for "Dances", under the title Le chocolat, Tchaikovsky noted: "Spanish dance, see 1st copybook"; the same applied for the dance Tea—"See 1st copybook" (the Chinese dance was used). Near to sketches for the dance Polichinella, Tchaikovsky wrote: "No. 3—Giroflé-Giroflá, popular French song", i.e. here he employed an authentic folk song . In the Pas de deux, Tchaikovsky omitted the male variation, and on a blank page he wrote: "Transfer from the 1st act (formerly the tarantella) but ½ tone lower", and wrote out the first two bars.
After finishing the sketches of the ballet, Tchaikovsky left to spend some days in Saint Petersburg, and on his return he began to compose the opera Iolanta, and also to correct the full score of the opera Yevgeny Onegin. It was considerably later that Tchaikovsky set about the instrumentation of the ballet, in January 1892, after he had already orchestrated the opera. He began by orchestrating the few numbers which were to be performed as a Suite from the ballet. In a letter to Pyotr Jurgenson of 25 January/6 February 1892 from Saint Petersburg, the composer reported: "I want to find the time to orchestrate some numbers from the new ballet, which I promised to play in the local Musical Society concert on 29 February" [O.S.] .
On 28 January/9 February he wrote to Pyotr Jurgenson: "I have started the instrumentation of those numbers from the ballet which are to go into the suite, and then I will do the remainder. I think it will be finished by the summer" . The date at the start of the fair copy of the suite reads: "8 Feb. 1892 [O.S.], Maydanovo". On 17/29 March, Tchaikovsky wrote to his brother Modest: "My work is in full swing, and soon only the final markings will remain, and I hope to completely finish the score by Passion Week" . On 23 March/4 April the instrumentation was completed (according to the date on the manuscript score). On 25 March/6 April he wrote to Jurgenson: "I have finished the ballet, all that remains is to add the final markings and put everything in order" .
Tchaikovsky was occupied from 15/27 July until late August/early September 1892 with proof-reading the score of the ballet, being published by Pyotr Jurgenson, while at the same time preparing the opera Iolanta for publication .
The Nutcracker was arranged for piano by Sergey Taneyev, but in view of the difficulty of this arrangement, Tchaikovsky made a simplified one of his own. This work was carried out at the end of August .
The premiere of the ballet, and the opera Iolanta, took place on 6/18 December 1892 in Saint Petersburg, at the Mariinsky Theatre, conducted by Riccardo Drigo, and produced by the balletmaster Lev Ivanov.
In Moscow the first production of The Nutcracker did not take place until 21 May 1919, in a production by the balletmaster A. A. Gorsky.
Музыкальное наследие Чайковского (1958), pp. 175–182
This page was last updated on 04 April 2013