Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky
The composer who created The Nutcracker and redefined classical music.
It was evident from a very young age that Russian composer Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840–1893) had a heightened sense for music. Upon entering his bedroom one evening his governess found the nervous child in tears: “It’s this music!” he cried, although she heard nothing. “Get rid of it for me!” Tchaikovsky pointed to his head, “It’s here! Here! It won’t give me any peace!” Lucky for the dance world, Tchaikovsky learned to embrace his gift. These melodies that danced in his head were mere glimpses of the genius that would lead him to create three innovative scores for the Imperial Russian Ballet (now the Maryinsky): The Sleeping Beauty, Swan Lake and The Nutcracker.
Unlike the less-complex scores for the Romantic story ballets of the 19th century, Tchaikovsky ushered the classical ballet form into a new era where the score no longer served as background music to the dancing. Instead it supported the dancing, heightened dramatic depth for each individual character and enhanced the overall experience. “Tchaikovsky is the one who broke the mold of the relationship between music and dance,” says Jonathan McPhee, music director and principal conductor for Boston Ballet. “Without him we wouldn’t have Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet, Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring or the Ballets Russes.”
But the child prodigy, who mastered the piano by age 8 and wrote his first composition at age 4, was not encouraged to pursue music. His father, a mining engineer in the industrial town of Votkinsk, Russia, wanted him to become a lawyer. From the age of 10, Tchaikovsky was sent to boarding school in St. Petersburg and entered the civil service at 19. But the mundane routine of everyday life was not for him. In a letter to his sister Sasha, Tchaikovsky wrote that he couldn’t continue “to receive a salary for my entire life under false pretenses” and that he “must sacrifice everything to develop what God gave me in the womb.” By age 22 he had enrolled at the St. Petersburg Conservatory. After graduating, he moved to Moscow, where he excelled as a music theory professor for over 10 years before garnering enough patron funds to focus solely on a composing career. While his status as a composer grew, it wasn’t until Tchaikovsky began conducting his own works in his late 40s that he established himself and gained the attention of the Imperial Russian Ballet.
He was first commissioned to collaborate with Imperial Theatre ballet master Marius Petipa on the well-received, opulent The Sleeping Beauty (1890). This artistic collaboration flourished, producing The Nutcracker (1892) and Swan Lake (which was originally composed in 1877 for the Bolshoi Theatre, and later revived by Petipa in 1895). But The Nutcracker was particularly challenging for Tchaikovsky. It was difficult to finish, and finding inspiration for the characters was a struggle for him, even though Petipa gave him orders for each scene, detailing the number of bars and appropriate feeling for the music.
In his studies of Tchaikovsky, musicologist Roland John Wiley documents that the emotional turmoil faced during this time might have provided the composer inspiration for Act II. For instance, Wiley believes that the “death-defyingly serious adagio music of the grand pas de deux” was Tchaikovsky’s hidden homage to the loss of his sister Sasha, since it bears a close resemblance to a melody in the Russian Orthodox funeral service. Tchaikovsky also used special chords and sounds to denote the distinction between the magical and everyday elements, like the celestial tinkling sound for the Sugar Plum Fairy.
Because The Nutcracker was unconventional for its time—the mimed first act with child leads and the lack of a plot resolution didn’t follow the elite Imperial Ballet formula—it received mixed reviews and disappeared after its 11-show 1892 debut. It would only resurface as a ballerina showcase from time to time. It made North American appearances in the early 20th-century tours of Russian ballet companies, but it didn’t officially premiere in America until 1944 at the San Francisco Ballet. And in 1954, George Balanchine transformed the ballet into an American Christmas tradition. “Balanchine used to say that he wanted people to be able to come to New York City Ballet, and even if they didn’t care what was going on onstage, they could close their eyes and love the music,” says Andrews Sill, assistant music director for NYCB. “And with Tchaikovsky you can do that.”
Interestingly enough, The Nutcracker is the only Tchaikovsky score that has remained throughout the years as the composer originally intended it. Sills says this is because “the music is dramatically so perfect for the story, to tamper with it would break the flow.” And although he died less than a year after The Nutcracker debuted, Tchaikovsky would be as pleased with the international success of his magical ballet today as he was with the completion of his final work, the Sixth Symphony, upon which he said, “On my word of honor, I have never been so satisfied with myself, so proud, so happy to know that I have done something so good!” DT
Did You Know?
* Tchaikovsky was the first composer to use the celesta, a piano-like instrument he discovered in Paris while writing The Nutcracker.
* Tchaikovsky composed parts of The Nutcracker while at sea on his way to conduct his Coronation March at the inaugural concert at Carnegie Hall in New York City.
* Tchaikovsky had a terrible fear of mice, which could’ve inspired the climactic battle music he wrote in Act I of The Nutcracker.
* In addition to his three ballets, 10 operas, four concertos, six symphonies and four string quartets, Tchaikovsky wrote more than 100 piano works. His most popular orchestrations: Eugene Onegin, 1812 Overture, Romeo and Juliet Fantasy Overture and Symphony No. 6 (“Pathétique”).
* Some of Tchaikovsky’s music later inspired Balanchine to create original ballets: Suite No. 4, Op. 61, in Mozartiana (1933); Suite No. 3 for Orchestra in Theme and Variations (1947); and Piano Concerto No. 3, Op. 75, in Allegro Brillante (1956).
“Boson, Tchaikovsky, and birthdays,” by Clive Barnes, Dance Magazine, January 1994
“Nutcracker” Nation: How An Old World Ballet became a Christmas Tradition in the New World, by Jennifer Fisher, Yale University Press: New Haven and London, 2003
“Nutcrackers, Notcrackers and Joy to the World,” by K. C. Patrick, Dance Magazine, December 2000
Peter Tschaikowsky and the Nutcracker Ballet, by Opal Wheeler, E. P. Dutton & Company, Inc.: New York, 1959
Tchaikovsky, by Roland John Wiley, Oxford University Press, Inc.: New York, 2009
Tchaikovsky: His Life & Music, by Jeremy Siepmann, Sourcebooks, Incorporated, 2007
“The Nutcracker,” starring Mikhail Baryshnikov and Gelsey Kirkland, Kultur Video, 2004
The Nutcracker: A Story & A Ballet, by Ellen Switzer, Atheneum: New York, 1985
Freelance writer Courtney Rae Kasper is a former Dance Teacher editor.
Photo by Paul Kolnik, courtesy of New York City Ballet