Peter Ilyitch Tschaikovsky is one of the most beloved composers of all time, including by George Balanchine, who considered the composer's final ballet, The Nutcracker, to be a masterpiece. Tschaikovsky began work on The Nutcracker in February 1891 and kept at it amidst extensive travels, not least of which was a famous 25-day trip to New York during which he took part in the grand opening celebrations of Carnegie Hall. On his way back home, Tschaikovsky passed through Paris, where he was enchanted by his first encounter with a new instrument called the Celesta. From the moment he heard the beautiful bell tones, he knew he had found the sound of his Sugarplum and her Land of Sweets!
The Celesta’s very first musical entrance in the score corresponds with the Sugarplum Fairy’s first entrance onstage in Act II. In our production, the music continues with the Dance of the Sugarplum Fairy, which is entirely a Celesta solo with string accompaniment. So, what is a Celesta? It is basically a bell-piano and looks like a small upright piano. It was invented in 1886 in Paris by Auguste Mustel, whose family specialized in keyboard instruments.
Following the enchanting Dance of the Sugarplum Fairy, the seven pieces that make up the grand divertissement part of the Second Act are wonderful examples of Tschaikovsky’s flair for color and instrumentation. Chocolate is a dance with rhythmic drive, lush harmonies, and castanets. Coffee includes a slow, undulating, recurring rhythm in the violas and cellos accompanied by the gentle sound of a tambourine. Tea features bouncing bassoons and a virtuosic solo flute, while Candy Canes is inspired by a boisterous Russian and Ukrainian folk dance called a Trepak, and Marzipan presents a charming trio of flutes. Mother Ginger is an orchestral tour-de-force that perfectly captures the larger-than-life character of the Mother herself.
Every Tschaikovsky ballet has several hit waltzes, and Nutcracker offers up three, with my favorite and greatest of them all being the the final piece of this section in the ballet: the beloved Waltz of the Flowers. It may be my favorite waltz of all time, and I say that meaning no disrespect to Johann Strauss and family! It’s the perfect length, has gorgeous melodies, and has a heart-breaking middle section that only Tschaikovsky could pull off in what is otherwise a very light-hearted setting.
The Second Act ends with the pas de deux danced by the Sugarplum Fairy and Her Cavalier, which has some of the most passionate and romantic music that Tschaikovsky ever wrote. It’s almost as if we can hear the composer thinking, "Enough kid-stuff. Here are the adults!" The irony is that the beautiful melody of this movement in the score is nothing more than a G major scale. Only a genius like Tschaikovsky could turn something as prosaic as a scale into something so beautiful. In fact, he does it twice, even in E minor. Legend has it that a friend wagered with Tschaikovsky that he couldn’t write a melody using just a scale. Tschaikovsky allegedly asked whether it mattered if the scale went up or down and was told it did not. Tschaikovsky was not only up to the challenge but created a melody fit to crown an unforgettable masterpiece that charms audiences of all ages, year after year. "The Nutcracker at our theater is for children young and old," wrote Balanchine. "That is, for children and for adults who are children at heart. Because, if an adult is a good person, in his heart he is a still a child."
—Andrew Litton, Music Director of the New York City Ballet