8 Magical Facts About ‘The Nutcracker’

Early on in the project, Tchaikovsky called his work “colorless, dry, hasty, and wretched.”
The Royal Ballet's Steven McRae and Roberta Marquez as the Prince and the Sugar Plum Fairy in 2012.
The Royal Ballet's Steven McRae and Roberta Marquez as the Prince and the Sugar Plum Fairy in 2012. / Robbie Jack/GettyImages

Every holiday season, hordes of people who barely ever think about ballet show up to watch their local dance company perform a magical tale complete with evil mice, dancing desserts, and the most dazzling anthropomorphic blizzard that ever existed. It’s The Nutcracker, composed by Russia’s Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky—of Swan Lake and The Sleeping Beauty fame—and for many people, Christmas isn’t really Christmas without it. Here are eight facts about its origins and legacy.

1. The Nutcracker was based on a creepy story by E.T.A. Hoffmann.

In 1816, German writer E.T.A. Hoffmann penned “The Nutcracker and the Mouse King” (sometimes translated as “Nutcracker and the King of Mice”), a story in which a young girl named Marie Stahlbaum (German for “steel tree”) receives a nutcracker from her godfather, Drosselmeier. Marie experiences the same fantastical adventures as Tchaikovsky’s protagonist later would: Her nutcracker comes to life, and he whisks her off to a land of sweets after she helps him defeat an evil mouse king.

But Hoffmann’s tale is darker than the ballet. Marie is so startled when the mouse king’s legions of mice initially reveal themselves that she accidentally breaks a glass cabinet and cuts open her arm. The rest of the story takes place as Marie is laid up recovering from her injury. During the days, Drosselmeier entertains her with stories of the nutcracker and a mother mouse seeking vengeance for the murder of her family. At night, the seven-headed mouse king blackmails Marie into giving him various possessions, from candy to clothes, threatening to harm the nutcracker if she fails to comply.

Not only is Marie wracked with fear for a good chunk of the story, but she’s also frustrated that her parents refuse to believe anything she says. At the very end, Marie opts to live out the rest of her days ruling over the land of sweets with her nutcracker-turned-human. 

2. There’s a reason Marie is sometimes named Clara.

For a children’s story, “The Nutcracker and the Mouse King” is a pretty nuanced portrayal of the way in which children experience imagination and reality without any separation. It’s also an indictment of adults who dismiss them for doing so. As German literature scholar Jack Zipes told NPR in 2012, it’s important that the story culminates with Marie in a world that she chose, “whereas in the ballet, it’s a harmless diversion that is full of sort of dancing and merriment, but there’s nothing profound in the ending of the ballet as it exists.” The exact ballet varies by production, but it usually implies (or explicitly reveals) that Marie has dreamed the whole thing.

The main reason The Nutcracker is so much lighter than its source material is that it’s actually based on a much lighter adaptation of Hoffmann’s story written by Alexandre Dumas in 1844. This also explains why the protagonist in many of today’s Nutcracker productions is named Clara or Klara: In Dumas’s version, it’s Klara Silberhaus (German for “silver house”).

3. Tchaikovsky did not have a good time composing The Nutcracker.

photograph of Tchaikovsky circa 1890
Tchaikovsky circa 1890. / Rischgitz/GettyImages

In 1890, Ivan Vzevolovsky, director of the Imperial Theatres (an Imperial Russia–era consortium of theaters), was looking to recreate the recent success of The Sleeping Beauty by having the team behind it develop a new ballet. Tchaikovsky would compose the music and the Mariinsky Theatre’s ballet master Marius Petipa would choreograph the dances for the in-house ballet company.

It was reportedly Vzevolovsky who selected Dumas’s fantastical Christmas tale as the basis for the story, which Tchaikovsky wasn’t too keen on. According to his brother, Modeste Tchaikovsky, “the subject of The Nutcracker did not much please him.” Plus, it was one half of a double bill: Tchaikovsky was also on the hook for an opera, Iolanthe, that would premiere right before The Nutcracker.

In April 1891, Tchaikovsky complained in a letter to Vzevolovsky about “the prospect of urgent, wearisome work” and the “agonizing effort” it took to do it, characterizing his output so far as “colorless, dry, hasty, and wretched.”

“The awareness that things are not going well torments me and agonizes me to tears, to the point of sickness; a consuming depression constantly gnaws at my heart, and I have not for a long time felt as unhappy as now,” he wrote. “As always happens with very nervous and impressionable people with unbalanced natures, whose wounds are easily reopened, everything which is now worrying and troubling me took on monstrous proportions, turned into some kind of feverish nightmare which gives me peace neither day nor night.”

In the end, he just asked for an extension, which Vzevolovsky granted. Iolanthe and The Nutcracker would open in 1892.

4. Tchaikovsky debuted a selection of the music in concert first.

In March 1892—about nine months before the ballet was scheduled to premiere—Tchaikovsky conducted a concert in St. Petersburg for the Russian Musical Society. He’d originally planned to feature his fantasy overture Romeo and Juliet and a symphonic ballad called Voyevoda, but his trusted peers had reacted poorly enough to the latter that he’d decided to scrap it from the set list.

In its place he debuted eight pieces of Nutcracker music, including a truncated overture, “March” (of the toy soldiers), “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy,” “Russian Dance,” “Arabian Dance,” “Chinese Dance,” “Dance of the Reed Flutes,” and “Waltz of the Flowers.” The audience was so enamored with this selection, now known as The Nutcracker Suite, that they demanded encores of somewhere between five and all eight of the numbers, depending on your source.

The Nutcracker Suite has been covered countless times over the years, perhaps most notably on Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn’s 1960 jazz record of the same name. They jazzed up the track titles, too: “March” became “Peanut Brittle Brigade,” for example, and “Dance of the Reed Flutes” was replaced with “Toot Toot Tootie Toot.”

5. The original ballet production was polarizing.

The Silberhaus children in the first production of 'The Nutcracker'
The Silberhaus children in the first production of 'The Nutcracker.' / ‘The Life and Ballets of Lev Ivanov’ by Roland John Wiley, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

In mid-December 1892, The Nutcracker premiered at the Mariinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg, where the audience received it with mixed feelings. As one reviewer wrote, “it is a pity that so much fine music is expended on nonsense unworthy of attention, but the music in general is excellent.” Artist Alexandre Benois begged to differ: “Tchaikovsky has never written anything more banal than these numbers!” He also called the production design in the party scene “both disgusting and profoundly shocking … stupid, coarse, heavy, and dark,” and found the second act even worse. He did, however, appreciate the Sugar Plum Fairy’s pas de deux with her cavalier as well as a few of the divertissements. (The Nutcracker would eventually grow on Benois, who went on to design sets and costumes for it during the 20th century.)

What one critic praised, another pilloried. The Columbine doll’s dance during the party scene was “charming” to one, “completely insipid” to another. Antonietta Dell’Era, whose performance as the Sugar Plum Fairy allegedly earned her five curtain calls, was written off by one detractor as “podgy.”

Viewers did generally agree on a few points, though: There were way too many children in the show, for one thing, and the battle scene was utterly incoherent. Benois described it as “disorderly pushing about from corner to corner and running backwards and forwards—quite senseless and amateurish.” In fact, a number of the toy soldiers weren’t dancers at all, but students from a military academy. 

The “Waltz of the Snowflakes,” on the other hand, was a smashing success. It wasn’t Petipa’s doing, though—the choreographer had fallen ill during production, and his assistant, Lev Ivanov, had replaced him as the show’s choreographer.

6. The celesta is the instrumental MVP of the “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy.”

Petipa gave Tchaikovsky extremely detailed directions to follow when composing The Nutcracker, often specifying the length and tempo of each piece and even describing how the music should feel. For the Sugar Plum Fairy’s solo, Petipa wanted Tchaikovsky to evoke “drops of water shooting out of fountains.”

Tchaikovsky achieved that effect with the celesta, a piano-like percussion instrument with a delicate, ethereal sound. The celesta, having only just been patented in 1886 by Parisian craftsman Auguste Mustel, was still relatively unknown at the time; and Tchaikovsky, worried that another composer would gain acclaim for using it before he did, actually tried to keep it a secret from the public ahead of The Nutcracker’s debut.

Since then, the celesta has become a popular choice for compositions meant to convey something dreamlike or magical—e.g. John Williams’s “Hedwig’s Theme” from Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. Its reach isn’t confined to classical music: Everyone from jazz legend Fats Waller to The Rolling Stones has featured the celesta in their songs.

7. George Balanchine popularized The Nutcracker in the U.S.

The San Francisco Ballet staged a production of The Nutcracker in December 1944—the first time it had ever been performed in the U.S. But if any one person deserves the credit for really putting The Nutcracker on the U.S. map, it’s George Balanchine, co-founder and artistic director of the New York City Ballet.

Balanchine, a Russian expat who himself had danced roles in the Mariinsky Theatre’s Nutcracker, debuted his version of the ballet in 1954, and it quickly became a holiday family favorite. The choreography and staging was so influential across the country that it’s still performed by ballet companies across the country today (though not without a license).

8. The Nutcracker has been criticized for racist stereotypes and cultural appropriation.

The bulk of The Nutcracker’s second act comprises short, plot-less dances (divertissements), some of which are themed around food and drink from different cultures: e.g. Spanish chocolate, Chinese tea, and Arabian coffee. Historically, the characters in these dances have been culturally appropriative at best and outright racist at worst, and many ballet companies have worked to remove offensive elements from their productions.

The Chinese tea dance in particular has seen a number of creative reimaginings in recent years. The Pacific Northwest Ballet’s leading character is now the Green Tea Cricket, honoring the cricket’s place in Chinese culture as a symbol of good luck. In the Boston Ballet’s Nutcracker, meanwhile, the piece is now a pas de deux inspired by Chinese ribbon dancing.