In 1890, the administration of the Imperial Theatres commissioned Pyotr Tchaikovsky (1840–1893) to compose a one-act opera and a ballet
. The composer chose Hoffmann’s fairy tale “The Nutcracker” in its French version by Alexandre Dumas, père. Tchaikovsky’s famous American tour in 1891 interrupted the work, and the pieces were not finished on time, so the premieres of the ballet The Nutcracker
and the opera Iolanta
were postponed for a year. During that downtime the composer’s co-author, the legendary choreographer Marius Petipa, fell seriously ill, and the work was completed by the second ballet master of the Mariinsky Theatre, Lev Ivanov, who used Petipa’s sketches. A long-awaited premiere took place on 6 (18) December 1892, conducted by Ricardo Drigo. But much earlier, in March of the same year, a suite from the ballet was performed in a symphony concert of the Russian Music Society conducted by Tchaikovsky.
One of the peaks of Tchaikovsky’s work and the quintessence of his style, The Nutcracker explicitly shows the composer’s approach to the genre. Ballet in the early 19th century looked a lot like patchwork: an array of loosely connected numbers. Mostly thanks to Tchaikovsky and Petipa ballet acquired single dramaturgy like symphony music, based on the contrast and interaction of the main themes and images.
In over 120 years The Nutcracker has been staged in many great theatres and by many great choreographers including Alexander Gorsky, George Balanchine, Fyodor Lopukhov, Vasily Vainonen, Igor Belsky, Yury Grigorovich, Mikhail Baryshnikov, and Aleksey Ratmansky. The original version underwent some changes. For example, the main character’s name, Clara, was at first changed to Marie and then, in the Soviet period, to Masha. The famous Adagio (the lyrical apotheosis of the ballet) is now performed by Masha and the Nutcracker and not by the Prince and Sugar Plum Fairy.
“The brilliant symphony of childhood” (Boris Asafiev), The Nutcracker is still one of the most beautiful music fairy tales about good overpowering evil.