The Kennedy Center

The Nutcracker Suite, No. 1

About the Work

Painting of Tchaikovsky Composer: Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky
© Richard Freed

As this week's set of subscription concerts ends on Tchaikovsky's birthday, Mstislav Rostropovich has prepared a program made up entirely of the beloved Russian composer's works. The opening work is one that has tended to drift away from the so-called standard concert repertory in the last half-century, even as the ballet itself from which it was drawn has strengthened its position in the dance repertory. Until about the middle of the last century, the Nutcracker Suite was one of the most popular of all concert works. It was one of those performed and illustrated in the famous Walt Disney-Leopold Stokowski collaboration Fantasia. The suite's popularity in its own right, in fact, that when the ballet itself began being performed more and more frequently quite a number of people referred to the complete stage work as the Nutcracker Suite. Three generations of American listeners cut their musical teeth on this music?in the concert hall, in Fantasia , in broadcasts and recordings?and it would never have come into being if Tchaikovsky had not visited America at the time he did.

This happens to be the only suite Tchaikovsky himself arranged from any of his three ballet scores. As already noted, it was created and performed before he completed the ballet itself. (The score for The Nutcracker, Op. 71, was finished about a month after the premiere of the suite, and the ballet was first staged, also in St. Petersburg, at the Maryinsky Theater on December 18, 1892.) The motivation for his so doing actually had little to do with the ballet, and a good deal more with Tchaikovsky's eagerness to beat his colleagues to the punch in introducing a new sound to Russia. In 1891, when he passed through Paris on his way to New York to take part in the opening concerts at Carnegie Hall, he heard Victor Mustel's newly developed instrument the celesta, which intrigued him particularly in respect to the ballet commission he had just accepted from the Maryinsky. As he revealed some time later, he had been troubled by ?the absolute impossibility of depicting the Sugarplum Fairy in music,? but Mustel had provided a heaven-sent solution. As soon as Tchaikovsky returned home from America (where he conducted in Baltimore and Philadelphia as well as New York, and visited Washington and Niagara Falls) he had his publisher, Pyotr Jurgenson, order a celesta for use in The Nutcracker, swearing him to secrecy ?lest Rimsky-Korsakov and Glazunov get wind of it and manage to make use of its unusual effect before I do.?

At that time The Nutcracker was nothing more than a bunch of sketches and the premiere of the ballet was still a year and a half in the future. In order to assure himself of being the first composer in Russia to introduce the celesta, Tchaikovsky incorporated the instrument into the score of his tone poem The Voyevoda, which he had sketched in full but not yet scored. That work (a ?symphonic ballad,? Op. 78, after a poem by Mickiewicz, unrelated either musically or in subject matter to Tchaikovsky's much earlier opera of the same title, which was based on a play by Ostrovsky) was completed early in October 1891 and introduced in a concert the composer conducted in Moscow the following month. Tchaikovsky was so thoroughly dissatisfied with it that he did not even wait till the end of the concert, but ordered the score burnt during intermission. (The parts were salvaged by Alexander Siloti, who had produced the concert, and the piece was published after Tchaikovsky's death. Some thirty years ago it was among the works recorded by the National Symphony Orchestra under Antal Doráti during his tenure as music director.)

Tchaikovsky had intended to use The Voyevoda to introduce the celesta not only in Moscow but also in St. Petersburg, where he had scheduled a concert four months later. His displeasure with the work meant that he would have to find some other vehicle for beating out Rimsky and Glazunov on their home ground, and his solution was to create the Nutcracker Suite to take the place of the originally scheduled Voyevoda in the St. Petersburg concert. As he had confidently expected, the Dance of the Sugarplum Fairy, the section in which the instrument was heard, made such an impression on that occasion that it had to be encored. The ballet itself, so enormously popular everywhere now, was rather a failure when it was first performed, on a double bill with the opera Yolanta, in the same city nine months later.

Since the music of this suite is so familiar, there is hardly a need to offer any sort of analysis or description beyond the listing of the titles of the eight sections?except perhaps to note that only the first two, the Miniature Overture and the March, are from the first of the ballet's two acts, and the remaining six come from the divertissement and general celebration in the Land of Sweets. The Dance of the Sugarplum Fairy, the piece that made the celesta famous, is still the most celebrated use of the instrument in all music, but the suite's other sections are no less remarkable for their musical substance and Tchaikovsky's masterly use of orchestral color. The concluding Waltz of the Flowers is surely the most imaginative and grandly achieved specimen of a form which Tchaikovsky, in his concert works as well as those for the stage, made his own, no less stunningly and distinctively than Johann Strauss had done in Vienna.