How the Nutcracker Became a Christmas Classic

With the holidays fast approaching, we can already hear the jingling bells of Christmas music. We wouldn't blame you for playing Mariah Carey's "All I Want for Christmas is You" on repeat, but you can't forget about one of our favorite, original Christmas classics: The Nutcracker.

by Gytis Garvis

Even if you're not a classical music aficionado, you've absolutely heard music from the 1892 ballet. For years, the iconic pieces have regularly been played, performed, and celebrated during Christmas, making their mark as some of the season's most definitive music.

So what makes The Nutcracker so special?

Believe it or not, fate almost had different plans for the ballet. But like a Christmas miracle, our favorite soundtrack to the holidays made its way into our hearts, homes, and ears.

Here are four of the reasons The Nutcracker is a Christmas classic.

1. The Christmas Eve setting

To start, The Nutcracker is fittingly set on Christmas Eve. The ballet takes its story from Alexandre Dumas' adaptation of "The Nutcracker and the Mouse King," originally written in 1816 by Prussian author E. T. A. Hoffmann.

In the story, a little girl's favorite Christmas toy, a nutcracker, comes alive. After defeating the evil Mouse King, the nutcracker takes the girl to live in a magical world of dolls. With such a fantastic tale, it's no wonder the ballet manages to stir up such great Christmas spirit each year.

2. The New York City Ballet

As mentioned before, The Nutcracker wasn't always the Christmas classic or widely loved ballet as we know it today. When it debuted in 1892, critics were left divided on the production, with some even calling the ballet amateurish. So what changed?

The ballet had routinely been performed in Russia in the early 1900s, but was not a regular fixture of the global Christmas season. Slowly, other countries started staging the ballet during the 1930s and 1940s. Starting in 1944, the San Francisco Ballet started performing the ballet regularly during the Christmas season.

In 1954, the New York City Ballet began performing a reworked production of the ballet with changes made by Georgian-American choreographer George Balanchine. According to historians, this New York City Ballet production became the catalyst that solidified The Nutcracker as a staple for ballet companies. Critics adored Maria Tallchief's performance as the Sugar Plum Fairy, which some critics say prompted the annual performance of the ballet during the Christmas season.

3. Use in Popular Media

Since that 1954 production by the New York City Ballet, the ballet has been reproduced around the world by different ballet companies. Notably, other non-ballet companies caught on and started utilizing the music and themes from the Nutcracker.

Today, you'll regularly hear the music used in television commercials during the Christmas season. Ahead of the curve, as always, Disney used Tchaikovsky's 20-minute The Nutcracker Suite in its monumental 1940 animation film Fantasia.

4. Tchaikovsky's music

Of course, the ballet's music is what makes The Nutcracker really special. While the ballet itself was not an immediate hit, Tchaikovsky's score won audiences over from the start.

The most popular music from the show, Tchaikovsky's eight pieces from The Nutcracker Suite were regularly performed by orchestras from the time the ballet debuted. During the first performance of the suite in St. Petersburg, Russia, audiences requested encores for almost every piece of music.

Since then, the Nutcracker's music has become beloved by people all over the world, for many, signifying the start of their favorite holiday season.

Learn to play the music from The Nutcracker

You can add to the joy and holiday tradition by playing the music, yourself! All you need is flowkey and access to a piano. With flowkey, you'll find step-by-step lessons to learn some of The Nutcracker's most beautiful pieces. Download the app and start your piano journey today.

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