The nutcracker

The Nutcracker wasn’t always considered quite such a box of delights

E.T.A. Hoffmann’s tale of a young man turned into a novelty kitchen gadget by an evil rodent isn’t obvious dance material, and yet here we are, up to our plastic tiaras in sugar plums. Four Nutcrackers in London alone and an average of 200 productions, amateur and professional, across the Atlantic. How? Why? Sharp pens greeted the 1892 St Petersburg première — ‘it’s a pity that so much fine music is expended on nonsense’ — and within two decades it was little more than a box of delights to be raided by directors and choreographers, blithely borrowing anything they fancied from Lev Ivanov’s choreography or Tchaikovsky’s ravishing, bittersweet score, regardless

The genius of Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker score

By all accounts, Tchaikovsky struggled to compose The Nutcracker. It wasn’t his idea of an effective ballet scenario, and he was unimpressed with the choreographer Marius Petipa’s prettified storyline. Mid-composition, he learned of the death of his younger sister Alexandra. ‘Even more than yesterday, I feel absolutely incapable of depicting the Kingdom of Sweets in music,’ he wrote. But inspiration can be counterintuitive. On a good day, Tchaikovsky could write as fluently as any Victorian serial novelist, churning out forgettable piano pieces (as he put it) ‘like batches of pancakes’. Projects like The Nutcracker put him through purgatory but the result, with hindsight, was nothing less than the sound of