The Nutcracker: A Series Introduction


Regardless of one’s personal religious beliefs, Christmas means that a whole bunch of classical musicians are valued and loved at this time of year and perhaps even more importantly, paid. And a whole lot of instrumentalists are making their rent off this baby right here.

I mean not this exact one. This one is special.

Canon Fodder is presenting a SIX PART WALKTHROUGH SERIES on Tchaikovsky’s ballet and holiday classic, The Nutcracker. It’s gonna go like this:

This is just the first post! It’s just an introduction! If you don’t care, wait for the next post for a proper walkthrough to appear but I think if we’re doing five posts, we might as well spend some time talking about the man and the work before we jump into some DENSE, AWESOME MUSIC.

The only thing you should know before the rest of the posts in this series is the following note on recordings/”movements”:

Every recording divides up this work a little differently, as is, unfortunately, a common symptom of classical music. Turns out that 19th-century composers weren’t thinking with 21st-century track technology for some dumb reason…lead poisoning probably.

Anyway, to standardize these posts, we’re going to *as much as Youtubely possible* use the Berlin Philharmonic’s 2010 recording with Simon Rattle, because I think it’s a lovely example of a fairly standard Nutcracker with just enough spice to be fun. I will definitely be referencing some other recordings I love throughout the series. The Nutcracker in performance and recordings can vary WILDLY based largely on whether or not it’s being performed live with dancers (no dancers = a lot more tempo variation).

So that’s that! Ignore the rest if you’re in a huge rush to get to your Nutcracker show or something but honestly, there’s some hot 19th c goss in here.


Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (henceforth referred to as Pyotr or Tchaik because we’re very close now), was born in a small Russian town in 1840. As a child, Pyotr was definitely interested in music. His mother found him awake one night after a party pointing at his forehead and crying “Oh this music, this music! Take it away! It’s here and it won’t let me sleep!”. This freaked his parents out but additionally they really couldn’t handle the concept of their child being a composer because that just was not a full-time job option in Russia at this point. Maybe a cool hobby, something you did on the side.

Russian society to literally all composers at the time

His family did buy an ORCHESTRION, which is a very cool/weird, 19th c instrument that kinda/sorta approximates an orchestra and both Pyotr and his father would play it. His father’s income was getting dodgy so they sent him off to boarding school ASAP so that he could start contributing to the family. His mother was either very cold to little Pyotr or disturbingly overly doting upon him according to different (apparently USELESS) sources, but everyone seems to agree that the separation from his mother was totally traumatizing for him. When he was fourteen, his mother died while he was away at school, sparking his first composition in her memory.

He tried to get a normal job in St. Petersburg and did it for a few years before he started dabbling in some music theory classes at the local conservatory. That’s the gateway drug to composition!


Anyway, before long he was taking lots of classes. He composed a cantata for his final project but was too nervous to attend the concert, prompting a professor to threaten to withhold his diploma. But it was pretty clear to everyone he was too good for any nonsense like that and they let him slide by. In fact, he was so good he picked up a very mysterious patron, Nadezhda von Meck. While the two exchanged over 500 letters (mostly about her), she made it a requirement that they never meet in person, even when they were literally staying in the same estate (obviously one big and fancy enough to afford such isolation). Anyway, she completely bankrolled him, making him possibly the first full-time composer in Russia and you can read lots more about them in this lovely NYT piece by Tommasini.


Tchaikovsky was a gay man. We all seem to agree on that. Also that it was not a super pleasant experience to be a closeted gay man in Russia in the late 19th c and Tchaik had some complicated feels about his…feels. Some of the information we have comes from his brother Modest, but due to the socio-political climate of Russia in the 1860s and also in the 2000-teens, there are some censorship issues that prevent me from speaking with a lot of authority on what Tchaikovsky was feeling towards any men in his life. We think he was likely involved with a violinist student of his, Iosif Kotek, for some period of time and Modest reports he was in love with a fellow student while he was at boarding school. I wish I had better Tchaik gay love stories!! I swear we will put any and all new love info here.

He had an engagement to a Belgian soprano, Désirée Artôt, and called her the only woman he ever loved, but the engagement broke off because she didn’t want to move to Russia, but also…maybe there were some other problems?

Later Tchaikovsky married a former student, Antonina Mikyukova, and thought that they had a deal to not do like, sexy marriage things and just be friends, but apparently, there was a misunderstanding. When Tchaik realized the situation he was in, he almost had a breakdown and had to call upon his patroness to help him pay off his wife to just divorce him after two and a half months.

But all that came after The Nutcracker. At this point, he’d just done Swan Lake in 1876 and Sleeping Beauty in 1889. His opera Iolanta had been commissioned in 1890 by the Mariinsky Opera but they worried it wasn’t going to sell enough tickets so they convinced Tchaikovsky he needed to also write a holiday ballet. Air-tight contracts are important guys. Avoid these situations. Somehow, he got it all done and in his trademark self-deprecating style, he wrote to his brother,

“Remember when you were here I boasted that I had something like five days left to finish the ballet? It turned out that I only just managed it in 2 weeks. No! The old man is evidently declining. Not only is his hair thinning and turning silver as snow, not only are his teeth falling out and refusing to chew food, not only are his eyes weakening and becoming easily tired, not only are his feet starting to drag rather than walk—but his singular remaining faculty is starting to fade and disappear. The ballet is infinitely worse thatThe Sleeping Beauty“—of this I’m sure. Let’s see how the opera will turn out” [38]. (Letter to brother, Modest)

V. Rare footage of Tchaikovsky looking a lot like Andrea Martin

The Nutcracker is based on Alexandre Dumas Père’s (Three Musketeers) adaptation of a short story by E.T.A Hoffman (yes THAT Hoffman), which is a great Grimms-ian Christmas story if you ever are looking to pep up your holiday traditions! Some quick things about the original story that are important:

  • It’s a little darker. Some people feel it emphasizes Clara’s (Marie in the storie) separation from her family and growing independence more than the ballet version.
  • Drosselmeyer has a glass wig. A GLASS WIG!!!!!

Okay that’s all you need to know about that for now.

Random side note about Tchaik is that there are multiple accounts of him just being a real sweetie to kids which is a soft spot for me. Apparently, the kids in the first Nutcracker cast were having a difficult time with their toy instruments that they were playing live onstage (take note, ballet students of today!). Even though they never really did a very good job, he sent them all a nice note and a box of candy. Also he had a favorite nephew named Vladimir whom he liked to call “Bob”. I mean, that’s very sweet.


I wish there was an Orchestrion that came with a lil Lisa Vanderpump on tambourine…

Ok, quick overview of what Tchaikovsky’s whole thing is in classical music. He’s a romantic composer, and he struggled with Russians feeling his music was too western and Western Europeans being entranced with how Russian his music was. He didn’t quite fit into the cool kid musical movements in Russia, which is why I’m sorry to tell you he wasn’t in THE MIGHTY HANDFUL, my favorite Russian boy band/actually just a group of five Russian composers.

What Tchaikovsky does exceptionally well is melodies. Some of them are very folky (Russian mostly but also some other folk traditions) and some of them are very typically Western European classical melodies. I mean, it feels like you get a new melody practically every other minute in The Nutcracker, which is like churning out 30 songs on your new album (the lengths are pretty much the same as pop songs too which might help contribute to this work’s popularity).

There are some in the musical world, a freshman-year-of-college version of myself included, who love to hate on Tchaikovsky because he is just so damn easy to love. These people just want to be cool and difficult and you should ignore them, or maybe buy them a glass of wine because they’re working through some stuff. Tchaikovksy might not be your cup of tea but there’s no way this is BAD music. Even if he was getting some pushback from some musical premiers at the time, he ended up being bestowed with the Order of St. Vladimir 4th class (which came with a hereditary nobility title) by the Tsar, he was the second Russian to be admitted to the Académie des Beaux-Arts in France, and he got an honorary Ph.D. in Music from University of Cambridge so…


Other techniques that are just SO Tchaikovsky include using unusual meters or switching up meters. This is pretty typical in Russian folk music, and creates a forward moving momentum that keeps ballerinas pirouetting to the end of the piece. Tchaikovsky also likes to use repetition and/or sequences, which are when you repeat the same melodic phrase in different keys. His repetitions of melodies tend to have minor changes… just enough to keep the orchestra and audience on their toes.


So…I tried to figure out how many productions there are JUST in the United States this winter and it was totally impossible because in addition to virtually every major and minor ballet company, so many teeny-tiny schools in the country are doing some amalgamation of the Nutcracker. No seriously…it’s not even just ballet companies…

So what is it about The Nutcracker that makes it such a classic? At its premiere, audiences (not…incorrectly…) identified some clear second act issues and like other ballets we’ve seen on this blog, Tchaikovsky initially received more success with his suite from the ballet than the work itself.

But…it was first performed outside of Russia in 1934 in England, then it made its way onto the San Francisco Ballet stage in 1944. But it was legendary choreographer George Balanchine’s 1954 production that really launched the ballet here in the US. America in the 1950s was super primed for a show about families, Christmas, and escaping reality for a while and the show became synonymous with Christmas in the United States…

Why does it persist? Oh here’s a bullet list of some reasons

  • It has a huge cast, including lots of children, so it’s a great vehicle for a company to involve their youngest students. Plus all their parents have to come (kidding…sort of).
  • The lack of specificity meant that companies could alter their productions to make the show more relatable to their audiences, like the Chicago-based Joffrey Ballet’s production set at the Chicago World’s Fair, or Moscow Ballet’s “Great Russian Nutcracker” where it all takes place in Moscow and they changed Clara’s name to “Masha” because it’s the cutest and more Russian.
  • It’s a unique ballet plot in that it has a child protagonist, and also while there’s a love element in there it’s all very innocent and not the main plot takeaway.
  • Everyone loves snacks.
  • The music is so damn good. At an early performance of the Suite, Tchaikovsky was “literally dragged up onto the stage and pelted with flowers.”

So…I think that about sets us up to talk about that music. THE PARTY COMES NEXT AND IT’S JAM-PACKED WITH JAMS Y’ALL.

Here we goooooooooooo

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