Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky was born in Russia in 1840. After studying music in St. Petersburg, he devoted himself to composition with the support of his patron, Nadejda von Meck. He composed several masterpieces, including Swan Lake (1876) and Eugene Onegin (1878), becoming famous for the richness of his harmonies and soaring melodies. Of Western inspiration, the music of Tchaikovsky also incorporates popular Russian folk music. He is universally regarded as one of the greatest Romantic composers.
After the success of Sleeping Beauty (1890), the Mariinsky Theatre decided to add another full-length ballet to its repertoire and commissioned a collaboration between Tchaikovsky and choreographer Marius Petipa. Petipa based his libretto for The Nutcracker on Alexandre Dumas’ French version of a tale by E.T.A. Hoffmann. Tchaikovsky wrote parts of the work in the United States, where he had been invited to conduct at the opening of Carnegie Hall in 1891. After returning home, he had an assortment of drums, trumpets and children’s toys brought in from abroad. In the variations of the Sugar Plum Fairy, he also introduced the celesta, a new instrument at the time.
Petipa fell ill and was replaced by his assistant, Lev Ivanov, who finalized the choreography, creating wonderfully inventive characters and scenes for the ballet. The dances in the first-act party, the behaviour of the real children, the portrayal of the wind-up dolls, the battle scene between the tin soldiers and the rats, the marvellous idea of the snowflakes, and the classic beauty of the pas de deux are among the elements that continue to make The Nutcracker such an enduring masterpiece. The ballet’s success also certainly owes much to Tchaikovsky’s brilliant score, which perfectly captures the world of dreams of Clara, the young heroine.
An enduring triumph restaged thousands of times since its creation, The Nutcracker is a staple of the repertoire of numerous companies. The most famous versions include those of Vassili Vainonen (1934) for the Kirov Ballet; George Balanchine (1954) for the New York City Ballet; Fernand Nault (1963) for the Louisville Ballet in Kentucky (later staged by Les Grands Ballets); Rudolf Nureyev (1967) for the Royal Ballet; John Neumeier (1971) for the Frankfurt Ballet; Mikhail Baryshnikov (1976) for the American Ballet Theatre; Maurice Béjart (1998); and Jean-Christophe Maillot (1999) with the title Casse-Noisette Circus.