Although December is upon us, it is still too early for Christmas carols. However at this time of year many ballet companies stage productions of The Nutcracker with the music by Tchaikovsky. Infact in the US most major ballet companies generate 40% of their annual ticket revenues from performances of this beautiful and famous ballet.
By the time Tchaikovsky composed the music for The Nutcracker he had become one of the best-known composers of his day and was widely considered the greatest Russian composer of all time. In 1880 he received an invitation from Prince Vselvolozhsky, director of Imperial Theatre in St Petersburg and the famous French dancer/choreographer Marius Petipa to write the music for a new ballet with the libretto based on a story by ETA Hoffman "The Nutcracker and the Mouse King". It had its premiere at the Marinksy Theatre in St Petersburg on Sunday 18th December 1892. Although the original production was not a success, the twenty minute suite that Tchaikovsky extracted from the ballet was. This ballet has become a favourite throughout the world since the 1960s.
A interesting aspect of the orchestration is the inclusion of a then unknown instrument called a "Celesta" which is a keyboard instrument in the form of a small piano in which metal plates over resonating boxes are struck by hammers. Tchaikovsky first heard the instrument in Paris and determined to beat Rimsky-Korsavkov or Glazunov in using the instrument he had it secretly shipped from Paris to St Petersburg and used it in his ballet. It is especially prominent in the Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy.
The story centres around a young girl's Christmas Eve and her awakening to the wider world and young love. Having been given a doll for Christmas, Clara falls asleep and in her dream the nursery comes to life. The story has everything dreams are made of, goodies, baddies and a handsome young Prince as well as the mystery and magic of Christmas.
The recording I recommend is by one of my favourite conductors Sir Simon Rattle and in this recording he conducts the Berlin Philharmonic. A review of the recording in Gramophone Magazine said "The Nutcracker has become a perennial favourite, and this magnificent recording underlines its magical and musical magnetism"….need I say anymore?