The Music Plays On —Tchaikovsky The Nutcracker

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Celina Cummings in San Francisco Ballet’s 1944 production of The Nutcracker

As I mentioned yesterday, there are two musical mainstays of the Christmas season that weren’t necessarily composed and produced for the sole intention of being performed during the holiday season. One is Handel’s Messiah, and the other is Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker.

The Nutcracker was premiered in St. Petersburg on December 18, 1892 at the Imperial Mariinsky Theatre as a double bill with the premiere of Tchaikovsky’s final opera, Iolanta. The Nutcracker was not received well at all, with the majority of the criticism aimed at Marius Petipa’s and Lev Ivanov’s choreography and treatment of the libretto, which was based on E. T. A. Hoffmann’s The Nutcracker and the Mouseking and Alexandre Dumas’ adaptation, The Story of the Nutcracker. While there was also criticism of some parts of Tchaikovsky’s music, his contribution was left mostly unscathed by the critics.

It was not until a 1934 production in England that a complete performance took place of The Nutcracker outside of Russia. However, it was the enormously successful San Francisco Ballet production that opened on December 24, 1944 and choreographed by its artistic director, William Christensen, that began to establish this work as a Christmastime mainstay and tradition for practically every ballet company in the world.

There have been countless productions since the premiere, of course, but let me share with you some of my favorite interpretations of the music and the ballet. First, one cannot go through life without hearing Duke Ellington’s amazing version of The Nutcracker Suite.

Here is a beautiful performance from 2011 of the Bolshoi Ballet.

And my favorite recording, sadly somewhat difficult to find, is with Mariss Jansons conducting the London Philharmonic Orchestra.

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Music Director of the California Symphony and Las Vegas Philharmonic

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