The Nutcracker, fairy-ballet

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The Nutcracker (Russian: Щелкунчик, English: Shchelkunchik), Op. 71, is a fairy-ballet in two acts, three tableaux, by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, composed in 18911892, and based on The Nutcracker and the Mouse King (German: Nußknacker und Mausekönig), a story by E. T. A. Hoffmann (1816). Alexandre Dumas' adaptation of the story was set to music by Tchaikovsky (after the libretto of Marius Petipa) and has become the most popular ballet performed around Christmas time. It is appealing to children and adults alike and has been a standard yearly feature of theatres in many cities. A selection of eight of the more popular numbers from the ballet was made by the composer, forming The Nutcracker Suite, designed for concert performance. The titles of the ballet (simply The Nutcracker) and the suite (The Nutcracker Suite) are frequently confused.



The story has been published in many book versions including colorful children's versions. The plot revolves around a blonde German girl named Clara Stahlbaum, or Clara Silverhaus. In some Nutcracker productions, Clara is called Marie. [1] (In Hoffmann's tale, the girl's name actually is Marie or Maria, while Clara - or "Klärchen" - is the name of one of her dolls.)

Act I

The curtain opens to see the Stahlbaums' house, where a Christmas party is being held. Clara, her little brother Fritz, and their mother and father are celebrating with friends and family, when the mysterious godfather, Herr Drosselmeyer, enters. He quickly produces a large bag of gifts for all the children. All are very happy, except for Clara, she being the only one who does not receive a gift. Herr Drosselmeyer then produces three life-sized dolls, who each take a turn to dance. When the dances are done, Clara approaches Herr Drosselmeyer asking for a gift. Sadly, Drosselmeyer is out of presents. Clara runs to her mother in a fit of tears.

Drosselmeyer conjures up a Nutcracker. Clara is happy, but her brother Fritz is jealous, and breaks the Nutcracker. Drosselmeyer chases him off and mends the toy.

The party ends and the Stahlbaum family go to bed, but Clara is concerned about her Nutcracker, and comes out to the Christmas tree to see it. She falls asleep with the Nutcracker in her arms. When the clock strikes midnight, Clara hears the sound of mice. She wakes up and tries to run away, but the mice stop her. The Nutcracker and his band of soldiers rise to defend Clara, and the Mouse King leads his mice into battle.

A conflict ensues, and when Clara helps the Nutcracker by throwing her slipper at the Mouse King, the Nutcracker seizes his opportunity and stabs him. The mouse dies. The mice retreat, taking their dead leader with them. Clara cries for her Nutcracker, who is also dead, and her tears bring him back to life.

The two then dance, and the Nutcracker turns into a prince, who leads her into the land of the Sugar Plum Fairy, where dancing Snow Flakes greet them.

Act II

The people of the Land of Sweets dance for Clara and the Prince in the dances of Dew Drop Fairy, Spanish, Chinese, Arabian, Russian, Mother Ginger, Polichinelle, Marzipan, Sugar Plum Fairy, and Waltz of the Flowers. Clara wakes up under the Christmas tree with the Nutcracker toy in her arms.

History of the ballet

Tchaikovsky composed the ballet in 18911892, but he was unsatisfied with it and considered it to be one of his less successful pieces.

The first performance of the ballet was held as a double premiere together with Tchaikovsky's last opera Iolanta on December 6/18, 1892, at the Mariinsky Theatre in St Petersburg, Russia. The ballet was conducted by Riccardo Drigo and choreographed by Lev Ivanov. However, this performance had just limited success.

The current popularity of The Nutcracker is due in part to Willam Christensen, former Ballet master of the San Francisco Ballet, who imported the work to the United States in 1944. The success of the ballet and George Balanchine's choreography for his own 1954 version created a winter tradition of Nutcracker performances in the United States.

The music

The music in Tchaikovsky's ballet is some of the composer's most popular. The music belongs to the Romantic tradition and contains some of his most memorable melodies which are frequently used in television and film. The Trepak, or Russian dance, is one of the most recognizable pieces in the ballet, along with the famous Waltz of the Flowers and March, as well as the ubiquitous Dance of the Sugar-Plum Fairy. The ballet contains surprisingly advanced harmonies and a wealth of melodic invention unsurpassed in ballet music. Nevertheless, the composer's reverence for Rococo and late 18th-century music can be detected in passages such as the Overture, the "entrée des parents," and "Tempo di Grossvater" in Act I.

One novelty in Tchaikovsky's original score was the use of the celesta, a new instrument Tchaikovsky had discovered in Paris. He wanted it genuinely for the character of the Sugar-Plum Fairy to characterise her because of its "heavenly sweet sound". It appears not only in her "Dance," but also in other passages in Act II. Tchaikovsky also uses toy instruments during the Christmas party scene.

Suites derived from this ballet became very popular on the concert stage. The composer himself extracted a suite of eight pieces from the ballet, but that authoritative move has not prevented later hands from arranging other selections and sequences of numbers. Eventually one of these ended up in Disney's Fantasia. In any case, The Nutcracker Suite should not be mistaken for the complete ballet.

Although the original ballet is only ninety minutes long, and therefore much shorter than Swan Lake or The Sleeping Beauty, some modern staged performances have omitted or re-ordered some of the music, or inserted selections from elsewhere, thus adding to the confusion over the suites. In fact, most of the very famous versions of the ballet have had the order of the dances slightly re-arranged, if they have not actually altered the music.

  • A filmed German-American co-production, first telecast in the United States in 1965, hosted and narrated by Eddie Albert, and choreographed by Kurt Jacob, featured a cast made up from several companies, including Edward Villella, Patricia McBride and Melissa Hayden from the New York City Ballet. It cut the ballet down to a one-act version lasting slightly less than an hour, and drastically re-ordered all the dances, even to the point of altering the storyline (Clara and the Nutcracker must now journey to the Castle of the Sugar Plum Fairy, where the Fairy will wave her wand and turn the Nutcracker back into a Prince). But all of the music was from the actual "Nutcracker" ballet, and not from any other source.

  • In Baryshnikov's American Ballet Theatre version, staged in 1976 and first broadcast on TV in 1977, all of the original Tchaikovsky score is used, but the order of most of the dances in Act II (the section of the ballet with the least plot) is changed, and the "Arabian Dance" had to be omitted in the television version in order to bring the program in at ninety minutes with three commercial breaks. Baryshnikov also turned the "Intrada" (slow section) from the "Pas de Deux" into a dance for Clara and the Prince rather than one for the Sugar Plum Fairy and her Cavalier. He made it the emotional climax of the ballet by placing it just before the Final Waltz and Apotheosis, rather than just before the Tarantella - this in a scene that ordinarily has no big emotional moment.

  • In the Royal Ballet, London's 1985 version, Tchaikovsky's score is used and the original order of the dances is not changed at all, but the Mother Ginger dance is omitted. This version was re-staged with some of the same dancers taking different roles, as well as with new dancers, in 2001. In the 2001 version, Alina Cojocaru danced the role of Clara, a role danced in 1985 by Julie Rose. Anthony Dowell, who had danced the Sugar Plum Fairy's Cavalier in 1985, danced the role of Drosselmeyer in the 2001 version.

  • The 1954 George Balanchine New York City Ballet version, first broadcast on TV in 1957, and filmed for movie theatres in 1993, adds to Tchaikovsky's complete score an entr'acte that the composer wrote for Act II of "The Sleeping Beauty". It is used as a transition between the departure of the guests and the battle with the mice. During this transition, Clara's mother appears in the living room and throws a blanket over the girl, who has crept downstairs and fallen asleep on the sofa; then Drosselmeyer appears, repairs the Nutcracker, and binds the jaw with a handkerchief. And the "Dance Of The Sugar Plum Fairy" is moved from near the end of Act II of "The Nutcracker" to near the beginning of the second act, just after the Sugar Plum Fairy makes her first appearance.

  • Rudolf Nureyev's 1967 version for the Royal Ballet, in which he dances both the roles of Drosselmeyer and the Prince, but not the Nutcracker, changes the order of some of the musical numbers, repeating the music of the "mice attack" near the end. It was filmed in 1968.

  • Finally, Pacific Northwest Ballet's "Nutcracker", staged in 1983 and filmed for movie theatres in 1986, with sets and costumes by Maurice Sendak, adds a duet from Tchaikovsky's opera The Queen of Spades which is heard during the Christmas party sequence. Also, the Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy is placed very early in the second act, rather than its traditional place toward the end, and is danced by the dream Clara.

However, nearly all of the CD and LP recordings of the complete ballet present Tchaikovsky's score exactly as he originally conceived it.

Pop version

In 1962 a novelty boogie piano arrangement of the "Marche", entitled "Nut Rocker", was a #1 single in the UK, and #21 in the USA. Credited to B. Bumble and the Stingers, it was produced by Kim Fowley and featured studio musicians Al Hazan (piano), Earl Palmer (drums), Tommy Tedesco (guitar) and Red Callender (bass). "Nut Rocker" has subsequently been covered by many others including The Shadows, Emerson, Lake & Palmer, and the Dropkick Murphys. "Nut Rocker" is commonly connected to the NHL team the Boston Bruins.


"Taking the Nutcracker Home" by Jeffrey Gantz This article, however, has one glaring error - it states that the Baryshnikov "Nutcracker" was first telecast on PBS, when in fact, it was first telecast on CBS, complete with three commercial breaks - one between the Overture and Act I, one between Acts I and II, and one placed after the ballet ended and before the closing credits appeared onscreen. It moved to PBS in later years, when commercial TV began to telecast even fewer classical music programs than they were showing already. On PBS, it was/ is usually shown during Pledge drives, where the pause between Acts I and II provides the opportunity for a pledge break.


(Numbers given according to the piano score from the Soviet collected edition of the composer's works, as reprinted Melville, NY: Belwin Mills [n.d.], in English where possible, with explanations added here in square brackets).

Act One

Tableau I

  • 1. Scene of decorating and lighting the Christmas tree

  • 2. March

  • 3. Little Gallop [of the children] and entry of the parents

  • 4. Scene dansante [Drosselmeyer's arrival and distribution of presents]

  • 5. Scene and dance of the Grandfather

  • 6. Scene [Departure of the guests -- night]

  • 7. Scene [the battle]

Tableau II

  • 8. Scene [a pine forest in winter]

  • 9. Waltz of the Snowflakes

Act Two

Tableau III

  • 10. Scene [Introduction]

  • 11. Scene [Arrival of Clara and the Prince]

  • 12. Divertissement

    • a. Chocolate (Spanish dance)

    • b. Coffee (Arabian dance)

    • c. Tea (Chinese dance)

    • d. Trepak (Russian Dance)

    • e. Dance of the Mirlitons [also known as "Dance of the Reed-Flutes," "Dance of the Shepherdesses," and "Marzipan"]

    • f. Mother Ginger and the clowns [or "Mother Ginger and her children"]

  • 13. Waltz of the Flowers [also known as "Dew Drops"]

  • 14. Pas de Deux (Sugar-Plum Fairy and the Prince)

    • Variation I (for the male dancer) [Tarantella]

    • Variation II (for the female dancer) [Dance of the Sugar-Plum Fairy]

    • Coda

  • 15. Final Waltz and Apotheosis


The suite derived and abridged from the ballet became more popular for a time than the ballet itself, partly due to its inclusion in Walt Disney's Fantasia. The outline below represents the selection and sequence of the Nutcracker Suite culled by the composer.

  • I. Overture

  • II. Danses caractéristiques

    • A. Marche

    • B. Dance of the Sugar-Plum Fairy [ending altered from ballet-version]

    • C. Russian Trepak

    • D. Arabian Coffee

    • E. Chinese Tea

    • F. Reed-Flutes

  • III. Waltz of the Flowers

The version heard in Fantasia, however, omitted the Overture and the March, and the dances left were placed in a different order:

  • I. Dances caractéristiques

    • A. Dance of the Sugar-Plum Fairy

    • B. Chinese Tea

    • C. Reed-Flutes

    • D. Arabian Coffee

    • E. Russian Trepak

  • II. Waltz of the Flowers

The pianist and conductor Mikhail Pletnev adapted some of the music into a virtuosic concert suite for piano solo:

  • A. March

  • B. Dance of the Sugar-Plum Fairy

  • C. Tarantella

  • D. Intermezzo

  • E. Russian Trepak

  • F. China Dance

  • G. Andante


  •   In E.T.A. Hoffmann's original version of 1814, the family was named Stahlbaum. In Alexandre Dumas' French adaptation of 1844 the name was changed to Silberhaus.

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