This two-act ballet is based on Alexandre Dumas père’s version of a tale by the 18th composer E.T.A. Hoffman, ‘The Nutcracker and the Mouse King’. As a ballet with choreography by M. Petipa it received its first performance at St.Petersburg in 1892, being the third of Tchaikovsky’s great ballet scores.
It is Christmas and all the children have received their presents, but Fritz, trying to crack a hard nut in the doll’s jaws, breaks it much to his sister’s displeasure.
The family drawing room is invaded by an army of mice and with a touch of magic the broken doll changes into a handsome soldier prince and leads the fight against the invading mice wounding the Mouse King, who immediately takes flight with his mouse troops following. With calm restored, Clara and her Prince fly off through an enchanted kingdom of pinewood and snow to the Kingdom of Sweets ruled over by the Sugar Plum Fairy, where they are entertained by exotic dancing characters.
The scene is set and the ensuing entertainment is heralded by: –
A delightfully lightly scored, concise piece laid out in ternary form, where we hear a first theme then a contrasting second, and the piece is completed by a repeat of the first.
This piece is also in ternary form and opens in the style of a fanfare from clarinets, horns and trumpets, which is replied to by a tripping, skipping rising motif from the strings. The middle section is of a differing colourisation as woodwind and strings “discuss” their individual motifs, and there then follows a repeat of the opening.
Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy
Again a delicately scored piece in which is heard the Celesta, an instrument where metal bars are played via a keyboard in the manner of a piano.
Trepak, Russian Dance
An energetic dance of flung legs which builds into an accelerating climax of whirling bodies and stamping feet.
An exotic sinuous theme is given to the clarinets low in their register, over muted lower strings who play a repetitive almost hypnotic accompaniment.
Dance of the Flutes
This piece is danced to an infectious theme given to the flutes, and one may find it entitled Dance of the Reed Pipes or Danse des Mirlitons.
Waltz of the Flowers
In Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake and The Sleeping Beauty, waltz themes play a prominent part and in this ballet the formula pertains.
Harp flourishes introduce the waltz whose theme is first given to the horns, and then clarinets, and which will be heard twice more, each time more richly orchestrated with two intervening contrasting sections.