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The Nutcracker Op.71

Tchaikovsky: The Nutcracker

A Fairy-Tale Dream in Music

Posters announcing to St Petersburg the world premiere of Tchaikovsky’s new ballet The Nutcracker in December 1892, declared that the famous composer had written a "fairy tale" ballet. Certainly the score, recorded here in its entirety, abounds with entrancing music sketched in magical orchestral colours.

The commission was to compose a ballet based on Dumas the Elder’s version of a Christmas fairy tale by E.T.A. Hoffmann. The miniature overture played on the upper instruments of the orchestra sets a sprightly tone. It is Christmas Eve in the Siberhaus home and a huge, glittering Christmas tree is the centre of the activity, watched by little Clara and her brother Fritz. After children and guests dance, Counsellor Drosselmeyer shows the company three life-size dolls which more realistically. Then to his godchild Clara he gives a special present, a sturdy wooden man who cracks nuts in his wooden mouth. The boys seize it from Clara, and the toy is broken. After the guests depart, Clara sadly puts the broken Nutcracker to rest, and all go off to their beds leaving the house silent. As midnight strikes, Clara comes downstairs to care for her injured Nutcracker. All at once she sees and hears mice stirring, the Christmas tree grows enormously, the toys come alive and a battle rages between mice, led b the seven-headed Mouse King, and the toys, urged on by the gallant Nutcracker. Clara flings her slipper at the Mouse King, destroying the monster, and the mice are defeated. A great forest appears as the Siberhaus parlour fades; the Nutcracker becomes a handsome prince who crowns Clara and flies away with her to the enchanted kingdom, while snowflakes waltz and the first Act ends.

Act II, unlike the story ballet of the first part, is a "gala" in the tradition of court ballets. As Queen of the Kingdom, the Sugar Plum Fairy rewards Clara’s heroism with a festival in the Magic Castle. The exotic dances which make up the entertainment, climaxing in the Waltz of the Flowers, are familiar from frequent playing in the Suite which Tchaikovsky arranged from the ballet and which received a rapturous hearing nine months before the ballet’s premiere. The ensuing pas de deux of the Sugar-Plum Fairy and her Cavalier uses the most original instrument in the whole score, the Carnegie Hall in 1891. He loved its "glistering tones" and instructed that it be secured for him secretly. He did not want Rimsky-Korskov or Glazounov to know of its existence, for he wanted to use is as a surprise in The Nutcracker. The waltz finale epitomises Tchaikovsky’s typically grand and flowing treatment of this dance throughout the score. The ballet had a lukewarm reception at first. Traditionalists found the rich effects (a wordless chorus of women’s voices for the wind in the forest. Toy instruments, and the like) and the story and spectacle centred on children, too strange.

Although Tchaikovsky himself had misgivings about the ballet, the glory of the work is definitely its score, beautifully suited to the fairy-tale dream and the world of child wonder portrayed by Hoffmann’s story.


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