Following the success of The Sleeping Beauty, Ivan Alexandrovitch Vsevolojsky, the director of the Imperial Theaters, proposed a second partnership between choreographer Marius Petipa and composer Peter Ilyitch Tchaikovsky. It was Vsevolojsky, who had been in the diplomatic corps in Paris, who convinced the great Tchaikovsky to write for the ballet again. Vsevolojsky was also a minor librettist and a designer himself. Up until his time as director, many different artists would independently design the decor for a single production with no heed to what the others were doing, nor to the ballet. Music was ordered by the yard from obliging but not distinguished composers. Vsevolojsky is notable as securing the collaboration of all the artists involved in producing a ballet.
Vsevolojsky proposed The Nutcracker of Nuremberg based on the book L’Histoire d’un Casse Noisette (The Story of a Hazelnut-cracker) by Dumas père, itself based on E.T.A. Hoffmann's Nussknacker und Mausekönig (The Nutcracker and the King of the Mice). Ernst Theodor Amadeus Hoffmann (1776-1822) was born in Königsberg, East Prussia to a family with strong ties to the legal profession. Originally his middle name was Wilhelm, but he changed it to Amadeus in honor of Mozart. He went on to study law at the University of Königsberg. Despite his course of studies, Hoffmann was mostly interested in the arts, music, painting and literature. He became a civil servant and was very successful, but his personal life took control and he was forced to move from posting to posting on account of one local scandal or another. He was transferred from Königsberg to Glogau, to Posen to even lesser Plock and eventually to Warsaw with the influence of a friend. All the while he composed music and painted.In Warsaw, Hoffmann founded an orchestra and composed his first important piece, the incidental music to Kreuz an der Ostsee. With the arrival of Napoleon's rule, Hoffmann had to try and make a living in Warsaw as a professional musician. Refusing to take an oath of allegiance to France, he was deported to Berlin where he almost starved to death. He worked various odd jobs until, in 1808, he was offered the post of musical director in Bamberg, Southern Germany, a cultural shrine at the time. In Bamberg he was very active in the theater and also wrote his best music, the opera Undine. He also began to write literature.Leaving Bamberg in 1813 on account of the lost love of a 16 year old girl, Hoffmann’s career moved between Dresden and Leipzig, depending on the location of the opposing armies of The Napoleonic Wars. He drank heavily and it is said that he sold the rights to his first book, Fantasiestücke in Callots Manier for a cellar of wine.The final period of Hoffmann’s life began with his being recalled to Berlin to official duties, again with the help of Hippel. There he became chairman of the Kammergericht (Prussian Supreme Court) and continued to produce his fiction and criticism. Forever a part of his life, heavy drinking and overworking made Hoffmann’s living hard. He contracted digestive difficulties, degeneration of the liver and neural ailments, the treatment for which was applying red hot pokers to the base of his spine. Eventually on June 25, 1822 he died having just finished dictating the story Recovery. As a critic, Hoffmann was highly respected. He wrote under the name of Kreisler, he was one of the first to recognize the talent of J.S. Bach and he championed Beethoven.Hoffmann’s influence extended beyond literature into opera and dance where his works have inspired, among others, Coppélia, and Offenbach’s Tales of Hoffmann in addition to The Nutcracker.
Hoffmann's story was originally published in 1816 as part of a collection of children's fairy tales (titled Kindermarchen) with a decidedly dark side. Where the first act story of the ballet leaves off, Hoffmann continues with the story of many digressions and multiple transformations. Princess Pirlipat is transformed to a hideous dwarf that can only be restored by someone cracking the incredibly hard Krakatuk nut. None other than Drosselmeyer’s nephew can perform this trick. When it looks like a happy ending Drosselmeyer once again upsets Dame Mouserink and another evil spell is cast. It can only be broken by killing the seven headed Mouse King. The Nutcracker eventually is triumphant over the Mouse King and sails off with Marie through various enchanted places to arrive eventually at the Marzipan Castle. Some years later Marie encounters Drosselmeyer’s nephew in real life thus placing a shadow on the line between myth and reality. Hoffmann bases the Stahlbaums on the family of a Berlin publisher, Julius Hitwig and the character of Drosselmeyer on himself. The Stahlbaum's children are Fritz, Marie and older sister Louise. Clara is one of Marie's dolls who is asked to give up her bed for the injured nutcracker. The Dumas version is much sweeter than the original Hoffmann.
Neither Petipa nor Tchaikovsky liked the story and refused the commission. Petipa felt that the story left little reason for a glittering spectacle, or classical ballet dancing. Marie was no role for a ballerina and who would dance the grand pas de deux? His first attempt at a scenario finished at what we know as the end of the first act, in the kingdom of the snow. Vsevolojsky persisted and eventually convinced Petipa to take charge of the production and to write a new scenario. Petipa’s creation of the Sugarplum Fairy to rule the Kingdom of Sweets (an excuse for a fashionable set of divertissements) and the relegation of Drosselmeyer and Marie to minor roles, though satisfying to Petipa, displeased Tchaikovsky who felt these changes watered down the strength of the story. In 1891, by commissioning a one act opera as well, Vsevolojsky had convinced Tchaikovsky to participate. Work began on the score at the same time as the opera Iolanthe. Both would premiere at the Maryinsky Theater on December 17, 1892.Despite his misgivings about the plot and the feeling that he was not writing the music from his heart, Tchaikovsky completed the first draft rapidly by July 7, 1891. The orchestration did not begin until January 1892 and took three months to complete. "And now it is finished, Casse-Noisette is all ugliness," he wrote. However as time progressed the music endeared itself to Tchaikovsky. "Strange that when I was composing the ballet I kept thinking that it wasn't very goof but that I would show them [the Imperial Theaters] what I can do when I began the opera. And now it seems that the ballet is good and the opera not so good."
Petipa began work on the choreography in August 1892; however, illness removed him from its completion and his assistant of seven years, Lev Ivanov, was brought in. Born in Moscow in 1834, Ivanov was a pupil of Marius Petipa’s father Jean Petipa. Ivanov was a natural musician; he could play, by ear, the entire score of a ballet on the piano. This talent was not universally respected. The director of the Theater School where Ivanov received his dance training threatened to "let him rot for his uncontrollable inclination toward music." By his own admission Ivanov was never one to make a decision himself. Having been a premier danseur, then ballet master and eventually Petipa's assistant he became a choreographer by command of his superiors.Though lacking in self confidence, Ivanov did produce some wonderfully poignant choreography. His most famous contributions to ballet are the 'white' acts of Swan Lake; however he also choreographed versions of La Fille mal Gardée (his first ballet), The Magic Flute, The Awakening of Flora and Coppélia. Choreographically Ivanov's taste lay closer to the Romantic era that he grew up in than the new Classical era of Petipa. He could not impose his own ideas on The Nutcracker as he had to work within the strict Petipa guidelines. His strongest work in The Nutcracker seems to have been in another 'white' act, the Snow Scene.
"Momentarily freed from the constraints of the libretto, for The Dance of the Snowflakes Ivanov focused his attention on the physical look and emotional feel of a snowstorm, and came up with a masterpiece of simplicity that embodied the music perfectly and drew unanimous praise" wrote dance critic Barbara Newman.
The premiere performance of The Nutcracker shared the performance with the one act opera Iolanthe December 17, 1892. Ricardo Drigo was the conductor, the Italian ballerina Antonietta dell'Era was the Sugar Plum Fairy and Pavel Gerdt her Prince Koklush. It was the fashion that the Italian guest artist should get the opening performance. (Miss dell’Era had started out as a cafe-concert performer). Although Czar Alexander III was delighted with the ballet, critics were far less kind and The Nutcracker was not deemed a success at its first performances. Tchaikovsky himself wrote "The opera [Iolanthe] was evidently very well liked, the ballet not...The papers, as always, reviled me cruelly." However, The Nutcracker has been performed sporadically, in various guises, by the Russian companies ever since. Its unquestioned popularity around the world, particularly in the United States, is surely vindication for Tchaikovsky’s music.