Although the original production was not a success, the twenty-minute suite that Tchaikovsky extracted from the ballet was. However, the complete Nutcrackerhas enjoyed enormous popularity since the late 1960s and is now performed by countless ballet companies, primarily during the Christmas season, especially in the U.S. Major American ballet companies generate around 40 percent of their annual ticket revenues from performances of The Nutcracker.
Tchaikovsky's score has become one of his most famous compositions, in particular the pieces featured in the suite. Among other things, the score is noted for its use of the celesta, an instrument that the composer had already employed in his much lesser known symphonic ballad The Voyevoda.
After the success of The Sleeping Beauty in 1890, Ivan Vsevolozhsky, the director of the Imperial Theatres, commissioned Tchaikovsky to compose a double-bill program featuring both an opera and a ballet. The opera would be Iolanta. For the ballet, Tchaikovsky would again join forces with Marius Petipa, with whom he had collaborated on The Sleeping Beauty. The material Petipa chose was an adaptation of E.T.A. Hoffmann's story The Nutcracker and the Mouse King by Alexandre Dumas père called The Tale of the Nutcracker. The plot of Hoffmann's story (and Dumas' adaptation) was greatly simplified for the two-act ballet. Hoffmann's tale contains a long flashback story within its main plot entitled The Tale of the Hard Nut, which explains how the Prince was turned into the Nutcracker. This had to be excised for the ballet.
Petipa gave Tchaikovsky extremely detailed instructions for the composition of each number, down to the tempo and number of bars. The completion of the work was interrupted for a short time when Tchaikovsky visited the United States for twenty-five days to conduct concerts for the opening of Carnegie Hall. Tchaikovsky composed parts of The Nutcracker in Rouen, France.
The Nutcracker is one of the composer's most popular compositions. The music belongs to the Romantic Period and contains some of his most memorable melodies, several of which are frequently used in television and film. (They are often heard in TV commercials shown during the Christmas season.) The Trepak, or Russian dance, is one of the most recognizable pieces in the ballet, along with the famous Waltz of the Flowers and March, as well as the ubiquitous Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy. The ballet contains surprisingly advanced harmonies and a wealth of melodic invention that is (to many) unsurpassed in ballet music. Nevertheless, the composer's reverence for Rococo and late 18th century music can be detected in passages such as the Overture, the "Entrée des parents", and "Tempo di Grossvater" in Act I.
Tchaikovsky is said to have argued with a friend who wagered that the composer could not write a melody based on the notes of the scale in an octave in sequence. Tchaikovsky asked if it mattered whether the notes were in ascending or descending order, and was assured it did not. This resulted in the Adagio from the Grand pas de deux, which, in the ballet, nearly always immediately follows the Waltz of the Flowers. A story is also told that Tchaikovsky's sister had died shortly before he began composition of the ballet, and that his sister's death influenced him to compose a melancholy, descending scale melody for the adagio of the Grand Pas de Deux.
One novelty in Tchaikovsky's original score was the use of the celesta, a new instrument Tchaikovsky had discovered in Paris. He wanted it genuinely for the character of the Sugar Plum Fairy to characterize her because of its "heavenly sweet sound". It appears not only in her "Dance", but also in other passages in Act II. (However, he first wrote for the celesta in his symphonic ballad The Voyevoda the previous year.) Tchaikovsky also uses toy instruments during the Christmas party scene. Tchaikovsky was proud of the celesta's effect, and wanted its music performed quickly for the public, before he could be "scooped."
Although the original ballet is only about 85 minutes long if performed without applause or an intermission, and therefore much shorter than either Swan Lake or The Sleeping Beauty, some modern staged performances have omitted or re-ordered some of the music, or inserted selections from elsewhere, thus adding to the confusion over the suites. In fact, most of the very famous versions of the ballet have had the order of the dances slightly re-arranged, if they have not actually altered the music. For instance, the 1954 George Balanchine New York City Ballet version adds to Tchaikovsky's score an entr'acte that the composer wrote for Act II of The Sleeping Beauty, but which is now seldom played in productions of that ballet. It is used as a transition between the departure of the guests and the battle with the mice. Nearly all of the CD and LP recordings of the complete ballet present Tchaikovsky's score exactly as he originally conceived it.
Tchaikovsky was less satisfied with The Nutcracker than with The Sleeping Beauty. (In the film Fantasia, commentator Deems Taylor observes that he "really detested" the score.) Tchaikovsky accepted the commission from Vsevolozhsky but did not particularly want to write the ballet (though he did write to a friend while composing it: "I am daily becoming more and more attuned to my task").