8 things you may not know about Tchaikovsky's The Nutcracker

The music is so iconic and an important part of the holiday season. But how much do you know about it?
Soo Ah Kang, Tanya Howard and Meghan Pugh in the National Ballet of Canada's production of The Nutcracker. (Karolina Kuras/The National Ballet of Canada)

It's Nutcracker season and venues across the country are filling up with the sounds of sugar plum fairies and waltzing flowers.

There are performances by orchestras and ballet companies coming up in WinnipegKitchener-WaterlooTorontoMontreal and Halifax, among others. Hundreds of families across the country will experience this iconic holiday performance this year, including many for the very first time. But how did the work come to be so famous?

Here are 8 things you may not know about Tchaikovsky's music from The Nutcracker:

1. The celeste was invented just in time

While visiting Paris, Tchaikovsky heard Victor Mustel's new invention: the celeste. It came just as Tchaikovsky was working on the ballet and struggling to capture the Sugar Plum Fairy in music. He secretly ordered a celeste for the premiere so that fellow composers Rimsky-Korsakov and Glazunov wouldn't use the instrument before he did.

2. The original Nutcracker Suite manuscript was lost for over 50 years

Everyone thought the original was gone forever until a conductor came across it in a pile of unrelated papers in 1946. It's now in a museum near Moscow.

3. The working title for the ballet was The Christmas Tree

We know from Tchaikovsky's original sketches that the ballet was originally called The Christmas Tree or The Fir Tree before the final name of The Nutcracker was chosen.

4. The Nutcracker Suite was completed and premiered before the ballet

Often a composer turns a hit ballet or opera into a suite to capitalise on its success, but when Tchaikovsky was scheduled to premiere another new work of his that he wasn't happy with, he opted for highlights from The Nutcracker instead. The complete ballet premiered several months later.

5. Tchaikovsky wasn't a fan of the piece

He said so in no uncertain terms: "The ballet is infinitely worse than Sleeping Beauty, of this I'm sure." This was after he turned down the original commission and needed to be persuaded.

6. Neither were audiences at the premiere in St. Petersburg

Here's what Tchaikovsky had to say about the first performance: "Everything went off perfectly, but nevertheless, it seemed to me that the public did not like it. They were bored." Critics were equally unkind, slamming the work for its lack of plot and reliance on spectacle.

7. Duke Ellington recorded a big band version

Among the most famous re-arrangements of the work is a 1960 big band recording by Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn. In this version, "Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy" becomes "Sugar Rum Cherry" and "Waltz of the Flowers" became "Danse of the Floreadores."

8. Pop culture can't get enough of it

Few pieces of classical music have appeared so often in pop culture. You may have seen (or heard) it pop up in Disney's FantasiaThe Simpsons, or in this year's movie adaptation, The Nutcracker and the Four Realms. See more unusual uses here.

Watch Yannick Nézet-Séguin and the Rotterdam Philharmonic in a complete orchestral performance of Tchaikovsky's The Nutcracker ballet:


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