For some reason, Americans turn to Tchaikovsky for special holiday celebrations: 1812 Overture for the Fourth of July and The Nutcracker at Christmas. The story of The Nutcracker, based very loosely on The Nutcracker and the Mouse King by E.T.A. Hoffmann, takes place during and after a Christmas Eve party.
In Hoffmann’s original story, the Stahlbaum family receives a nutcracker doll as a Christmas gift from the childrens’ godfather Drosselmayer. Marie especially loves it. Unfortunately, Fritz accidentally breaks it trying to crack too hard a nut. Marie bandages it with a ribbon from her dress and waits for Drosselmayer to come fix it. She dreams that some mice come, fight with her dolls, and capture the nutcracker, so she throws her slipper at the king of the mice.
So far, all of this serves merely as a prelude to the elaborate and very imaginative story Drosselmeyer tells Maria, about his feud with the Mouse Queen, her spite, and as a result, how nutcrackers came into existence and why they look as they do. Tchaikovsky loved Hoffmann’s work, and so eagerly agreed to write a ballet on his nutcracker story. Unfortunately, the choreographer Marius Petipa chose to base his work on Alexandre Dumas’ adaptation. Tchaikovsky immediately hated it for being so far removed from Hoffmann’s imaginative tale.
In Petipa’s version, the Stahlbaums have become the Silberhaus family and Maria has been renamed Clara. Fritz deliberately breaks the nutcracker out of spite at a big party. Drosselmeyer has a surprisingly small role. What’s left of the story he told Maria in the original story does nothing to explain the mice at all. The Director of the Imperial Theatres, who had commissioned it, determined that Petipa’s plan for dances and variations would not please the audience and suggested improvements to Tchaikovsky.
Tchaikovsky began composing The Nutcracker in February of 1891 and only slowly warmed up to the project. He had to interrupt work on the ballet for a tour that took him to Germany, France, and the United States. During that time, he learned of his sister’s unexpected death, which made working on happy and carefree music especially difficult for him. The premiere had been intended for that Christmas, but Tchaikovsky asked for a postponement.
The Nutcracker‘s first performance took place in December 1892. Its first audience did not greatly appreciate it. Critics did not like its unfaithfulness to Hoffmann’s original story any more than the composer had, and apparently people disliked the choreography and the appearance of some of the dancers. Most of them did praise the music, and the suite of dances Tchaikovsky had already issued before the ballet’s premiere became immediately popular. The ballet, however, had only sporadic performances for half a century
The San Francisco Ballet presented the first full-length performance of The Nutcracker in the United States in 1944. George Balanchine and the New York City Ballet began a series of annual performances of The Nutcracker ten years later. The tradition of performing the complete ballet at Christmas has since spread across the entire country.
The Nutcracker has by now gained worldwide popularity, especially at Christmas, but nowhere else does its popularity rival what it enjoys in the United States. Besides major opera companies, enough regional and college productions take place annually, or at least with some regularity, that probably every region of the country has had the opportunity to see it .