Just a month before the Nutcracker Suite was premiéred in St. Petersburg, Tchaikovsky hurriedly set about orchestrating and completing ideas from his roughly sketched-out Nutcracker ballet, and compiling them into a short symphonic work, ready for its premiere in March 1892. By this point, he had not even named the work, and in surviving sketches it is referred to as the ‘Fir Tree’ and ‘Christmas Tree’ ballet suites.
Despite the rush to find something suitable for the concert he was preparing, what became known as the ‘Nutcracker Suite‘ was an instant success. In the same year, it was also performed in Moscow and Chicago, and in the following year, Tchaikovsky conducted performances in Brussels and Odessa, in the Ukraine.
The suite has three broad movements, beginning with the Miniature Overture. This cute sonatina opening also opens the ballet, which was premiéred in December 1892, and sets the toy-like, playful tone of the work. Interestingly, this overture does not include any lower strings at all – with only violas and violins performing from the string section, with little bass at all in the orchestra.
The Dances follow, with six short dances, from act two, grouped into one larger movement. The famous March opens the movement, before introducing the iconic Dance of the sugar-plum fairy, which used the newly-invented Celeste, almost a cross between a glockenspiel and a piano. Tchaikovsky saw a Celeste for the first time the year before, and wrote to his publisher asking for one – but to keep it a secret… he wanted to be the first to use it. Next, the Russian Dance is followed by the gentle Arabian Dance and the rhythmic Chinese Dance, famous for its difficult, impressive choreography. The Dance of the Mirlitons closes the movement, which is the longest dance by far, using a gentle flute trio for its main motif.
Tchaikovsky closes the suite with the Waltz of the Flowers, a prime example of romantic music. The gentle arpeggio-based melody is introduced by the woodwind section, before a graceful harp cadenza links the Waltz into the music. This is the longest movement by far, with 353 bars, taking around 12 minutes, before bringing the hurriedly-prepared suite to a dignified close.
In case you are interested, the recording used in my video is by the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Emmanuel Barbec.
Hope you have found this page interesting! Thank you to https://tchaikovsky-research.net for information on the history of this piece.
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