Near the end of 1890, and fresh off the box office success of his ballet The Sleeping Beauty, Pyotr Tchaikovsky (we’ll call him Peter) was saddled with a commission that would nearly kill him. The Director of the Russian Imperial Theatres asked that Tchaikovsky re-team with his Sleeping Beauty partner; choreographer, Principal Ballet Master, arguable Father of Russian Classical dance, and maddening fussbudget Marius Petipa. The commission was issued under the tacit imprimatur of the Tsar. They got to work.
As had been the case with The Sleeping Beauty project, Tchaikovsky left the selection of source material to Petipa and was both surprised and pleased when the choreographer told him the “festive” new ballet would be based the on the E.T.A. Hoffman story The Nutcracker and the Mouse King. Hoffman, the Stephen King of his day, had written a typically macabre story dealing with the strange fate of a nice guy named Hans Peter, the nephew of the Mr. Drosselmeyer whose appearance opens the ballet.
Through a series of bizarre reversals, an evil spell traps Hans Peter in a huge-headed, grimacing nutcracker. (It’s worth noting that the staring, blockheaded Nutcracker that has come to be cozily associated with knit socks, roasting chestnuts and garland began initially as a hideous figure of dread and mystery in the original Hoffman story. Go figure).
Tchaikovsky was a huge fan of Hoffman’s writing and his interest was piqued at the idea of adapting such oddness to a ballet – until he read Petipa’s treatment, at which point the composer’s shoulders slumped. Much of the strangeness and charm had been drained from Hoffman’s fever dream by popular French author Alexandre Dumas’ mellower translation. Dumas was by then widely read, his Three Musketeers and Count of Monte Cristo page-turners having established him as a hot pop-literary property. It only made sense to marry Dumas’ beach reading sensibilities (so to speak) to Hoffman’s bizarre but thrilling imagination. It was from Dumas’ softened version of the story that Petipa had created his narrative.
Dumas’ version reduced the Mouse King’s heads from seven to a more publicly palatable one, for instance. Added to that disappointment was the tightly-wound choreographer’s exacting list of dance intervals to which Peter’s’s score would need to cleave like a glove. The composer saw little room for musical invention and began to wrestle with the material, attempting to shoehorn in any creativity the choreographer’s strictures would allow. Tchaikovsky complained so loudly about the Nutcracker assignment at one point, the Imperial Theater’s director helplessly apologized to him for having commissioned the thing.
Progress on The Nutcracker absolutely crawled, complicated by the composer’s ever-present lifelong neuroses, and then compounded by Peter’s sudden breaking off of a 15 year letter-writing relationship with a woman with whom he had never even stood in the same room. Tchaikovsky’s long-planned trip to the U.S. to conduct at the Grand Opening of Carnegie Hall (yes, THAT Carnegie Hall) – fell right in the middle of the Nutcracker writing, and threatened to further bog the project down. He boarded a train for the coast, and passage to America. A dark catalyst was about to re-energize his writing efforts, and finally color The Nutcracker with all the hues of the ascendant human spirit.
In April of 1891, while traveling through Paris on the way to his American gig, Tchaikovsky received the news that his beloved little sister, Aleksandra, had died. He slid immediately into a deep depression, from whose depths he asked for a deadline extension on the Nutcracker project, which was granted. He returned from the States and continued his now-depressed attempts at fulfilling the Nutcracker commission, but if it had seemed hopeless before, now it was becoming truly impossible to proceed, absolutely haunted as he was by the terrible death of his Aleksandra.
But then something turned.
As he dwelt obsessively on Aleksandra and their youthful Christmases together, Tchaikovsky began to identify the Nutcracker’s Clara with his departed sister. His paralyzing grief began to find coherence in the Nutcracker project, and he turned to the assignment with a new, almost crazed enthusiasm—spinning from the pain of a bereaved brother a lush orchestral score with all the melodic longing, melancholy and bittersweetness he was otherwise unable to express. Tchaikovsky poured all his sadness, all his shining anger, all his aching sense of life’s interrupted glory into the music, into the melodies. He filled Pepita’s exactingly timed dances with such melodies as would ring down through the ages. Tchaikovsky completed The Nutcracker in a fever of productivity. Two years later the star-crossed composer was gone.