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About The Nutcracker by Tchaikovsky

The Nutcracker

About the ballet, The Nutcracker by Pyotr Tchaikovsky

The Nutcracker: The Story Behind the Story

In 1892, Russian composer Pyotr Tchaikovsky adapted a popular children’s story by E.T.A Hoffman into one of his most famous and perhaps the greatest ballet of them all. The story by Hoffman was The Nutcracker, a tale of child’s favorite Christmas toy, a nutcracker, which comes alive and whisks her away to a magical land full of dolls. An essential Christmas treat, sweets and magical escapades, the nutcracker is a fascinating part of Christmas culture. 

Almost synonymous with the Christmas season in North America, it is performed in most major ballet companies and enjoyed by audiences throughout. Let us indulge into the story of the nutcracker before we dive into the play’s history. It begins with young Marie at the Stahlbaum house who receives a nutcracker on Christmas eve. As she and her brother, Fritz, play with it, they accidentally crack its jaw by trying to crack a nut too hard. Marie bandages the jaw and alone with it, momentarily sees it come to life and subsequently witnesses a battle between the dolls and mice. This leads to more magical adventures culminating in the removal of a curse on the nutcracker and a happy ending where Marie weds the Nutcracker. 

Tchaikovsky’s ballet is based on Alexandre Dumas’s rendering of Hoffman’s story although, Tchaikovsky himself didn’t like the ballet. He considered the ballet and its music inferior to his previous works and even wrote to a friend about it. The original production was a failure even though Tchaikovsky’s musical score was praised and laid the foundation for widespread acclaim. The other unique thing about this ballet was that Tchaikovsky used the Celesta for the music, which made him one of the first composers to do so. Unfortunately for Tchaikovsky, it was only posthumously that the ballet gained fame. 

Most notably, “The Nutcracker” Op. 71 is for children and the wonders that accompany it. Though its premiere at the Mariinsky Theatre in Saint Petersburg in 1892 was a flop, it has garnered popularity starting from the mid-20th century. The first performance of "The Nutcracker" in the United States was in 1940. A shorter version of it was performed in New York City by the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo although the first full length performance was in 1944 by the San Francisco Ballet. 

The music in the ballet is extremely lighthearted and melodious, utilizing the high parts of the orchestra and clever combinations of woodwind instruments to create a doll-like fantasy sound-world. The musical form of “The Nutcracker” is an ABA form, also called the Ternary form. This means that the opening starts with an A type, followed by the B type and then again by the A type. The style of this music fits most with a ballet and the musical period is romantic.

The story behind the celeste itself is charming and coincidental. On a return trip to Russia from America, Tchaikovsky passed through Paris where he discovered the celeste. The sound produced by the instrument was perfect for the magical tone of the ballet and as such, the composer took steps to acquire and use it in ballet. This was a novel step at the time and has played a crucial role in its success over time. 

“The Nutcracker”, for all intents and purposes, is one of the most famous and traditional ballets around the world, especially in North America. As such, it deserves the name it has garnered for itself and will remain a classic for ages to come.

Music pieces from “The Nutcracker” Op. 71:

From Act 1

Miniature Overture 

  • Original music duration: usually about 1:45
  • Tempo: Allegro Giusto 
  • Original key:  Bb major 

The Christmas Tree: Decorating & lighting up the Christmas tree

  • Original music duration: usually about 3:30 
  • Tempo: Allegro non troppo – Più moderato – Allegro vivace
  • Original key: D major

March

  • Original music duration: usually about 2:30 
  • Tempo: Tempo di marcia viva
  • Original key: G major

Children's Gallop and Dance of the Parents: Children's galop - entrance of the parents

  • Original music duration: usually about 2:20 
  • Tempo: Presto – Andante – Allegro
  • Original key: G major

Arrival of Drosselmeyer: Drosselmeyer's gifts

  • Original music duration: usually about close to 4:30
  • Tempo: Andantino – Allegro vivo – Andantino sostenuto – Più andante – Allegro molto vivace – Tempo di Valse – Presto
  • Original key: A major

Grandfather’s Waltz: Dance of the grandfather

  • Original music duration: usually about 4:30 
  • Tempo: Andante – Andantino – Moderato assai – Andante – L'istesso tempo – Tempo di Gross-Vater – Allegro vivacissimo
  • Original key: C major

Clara and the Nutcracker

  • Original music duration: usually abbot 3:00
  • Tempo: Allegro semplice – Moderato con moto – Allegro giusto – Più allegro – Moderato assai
  • Original key: E minor

The Battle between the Nutcracker and the Mouse King: The nutcracker fights the mouse king's army, & victoriously transforms into prince charming.

  • Original music duration: usually about 3:00
  • Tempo: Allegro vivo
  • Original key: D minor

Pine Forest in the Winter: Journey through the snow to the Christmas tree

  • Music duration: usually about 4:00
  • Tempo: Andante
  • Original key: C major

Waltz of the Snowflakes: Snow crystals

  • Original music duration: usually about 6:30 
  • Tempo: Tempo di Valse, ma con moto – Presto 
  • Original key: E minor

From Act 2

The Magic Castle in the Land of Sweets: The magic castle on the mountain of candy & sweets 

  • Original music duration: usually about 4:00
  • Tempo: Andante
  • Original key: E major

Clara and the Nutcracker Prince Charming

  • Original music duration: usually about 5:00
  • Tempo: Andante con moto – Moderato – Allegro agitato – Poco più allegro – Tempo precedente
  • Original key: E major

Spanish Dance (Chocolate): Character dances (divertissement)

  • Original music duration: usually about 1:10
  • Tempo: Allegro brillante
  • Original key: Eb major

Arabian Dance (Coffee): Character dances (divertissement)

  • Original music duration: usually about 3:00
  • Tempo: Commodo
  • Original key: G minor

Chinese Dance (Tea): Character dances (divertissement)

  • Original music duration: usually about 1:00
  • Tempo: Allegro moderato
  • Original key: Bb major

Russian Dance (Trepak, Candy Canes): Character dances (divertissement)

  • Original music duration: usually about 1:10
  • Tempo: Tempo di trepak, molto vivace
  • Original key: G major

Marzipan (Dance of the Reed Flutes): Character dances (divertissement)

  • Original music duration: usually about 2:15
  • Tempo: Andantino
  • Original key: D major

Mother Ginger and the Clowns (children, polichinelles): Character dances (divertissement)

  • Original music duration: usually about 2:30 
  • Tempo: Allegro giocoso – Andante – Allegro vivo
  • Original key: A major

Waltz of the Flowers

  • Original music duration: usually about 7:00
  • Tempo: Tempo di Valse
  • Original key: D major

Dance of the Prince and the Sugar Plum Fairy (Intrada): Pas de deux

  • Original music duration: usually about 5:00
  • Tempo: Andante maestoso
  • Original key: G major

Tarantella (Variation No. 1): Pas de deux

  • Original music duration: usually close to 1:00
  • Tempo: Tempo di Tarantella
  • Original key: B minor

Dace of the Sugar Plum Fairy (Variation No. 2): Pas de deux

    • Original music duration: usually about 2:15
    • Tempo: Andante ma non troppo – Presto
    • Original key: E minor

    Coda

    • Original music duration: usually about 1:20
    • Tempo: Vivace assai
    • Original key: D major

    Final Waltz and Apotheosis 

    • Original music duration: usually about 3:45
    • Tempo: Tempo di Valse – Molto meno
    • Original key: A major 

    References:

     

    Piano solo sheet music of pieces from The Nutcracker in multiple levels available: