BALLET / Sweet Torture: Christmas Presence: Robert Maycock explores a seasonal love affair with The Nutcracker

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Dread-inspiring, feverish nightmares, so abominable that I don't think I have the strength to put it into words. I was simply tortured by the knowledge that I was utterly incapable of making a good job of what I had taken on myself. And this from the man who wrote the music. Tchaikovsky's agonies over The Nutcracker are not all that surprising when you consider that his finished score includes such unrealisable visions as a Flower Waltz to be danced by the Sugar Plum Fairy's attendants in the Kingdom of Sweets. Anybody might fear the worst. We are in the kingdom because we have watched Clara, the daughter of a civic worthy, travelling there on Christmas morning in the company of a prince. She liberated this prince, since you ask, from a pair of nutcrackers.

Yet everybody, one way or another, falls for The Nutcracker. Even if, as children, we hated being hauled off to the ballet, the story's unlikely spell still managed to enchant us when we arrived. Even Tchaikovsky, for all his habitual doubt, quickly came to change his mind. He preferred it to the opera Iolanta, with which The Nutcraker formed a double-bill, even though he originally considered Iolanta to be the inspired half.

The story comes from E T A Hoffmann, of 'Tales' fame. It was turned into dance for the Maryinsky Theatre in St Petersburg, then the world's capital of ballet, by Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov. The first and only run of performances took place at Christmas in 1892; The Nutcracker never reappeared on stage in Russia until 1919, and its standing as a seasonal icon in Europe and America is a phenomenon of the later 20th century. That says more about the creative fertility of Russian ballet than about any initial failings, though the reports were mixed. At the premiere the children's scenes didn't come off, the battle between the mice and the toys went drastically wrong and the Sugar Plum Fairy was overweight.

Then there was the odd dramatic balance. Act 1 tells of the children's Christmas party and the gifts that come to life after hours, including a nutcracker in the shape of a doll. It turns into the prince after Clara defeats a ferocious mouse in violent combat. Act 2 is about what happens when they arrive in 'Konfiturenburg', which, in terms of plot, is precisely nothing because it consists of a long and lavish entertainment. But it contains the most famous music and a string of character dances culminating in that splendid, practically symphonic Flower Waltz.

Most of the suite is drawn from these dances. Their fame predated the ballet itself in positively Lloyd Webber-ish circumstances, though Tchaikovsky's motive was more desperation than publicity. The suite was put together for a concert in the spring because Tchaikovsky needed a new work in a hurry after withdrawing The Voyevoda, a symphonic poem he was unhappy with. All but one of the pieces were encored. Then he continued orchestrating the rest of the ballet.

It had been a struggle, and Tchaikovsky's early gloom may have been a reaction from overworking. It was near the end of his life, when photographs show a man looking much older than his 50 years. While sketching the score, he wrote to his nephew, Bob, with a touch of self- mockery, about failing eyesight and falling teeth: 'The old man is obviously in decline.' When he had finished the sketches, he collapsed into 'complete idleness', visiting the zoo every day.

He had had to be persuaded to take on the commission in the first place. He struggled towards his deadline during a working trip to France and had to ask for the performance to be postponed to the next season. While he was there, news arrived of his sister's death. And yet, half- aware of it though he was, the spark had ignited. One creative by-product was his discovery of 'a new orchestral instrument . . . something half-way between a small piano and a glockenspiel, with a marvellous, heavenly sound'. It was the celesta. He had one transported to Russia straight away, and it immediately appeared in The Voyevoda's score.

Think of The Nutcracker's music, and the celesta is at the heart of it. With the opening of the Sugar Plum Fairy's dance, Tchaikovsky conjured up one of the most unforgettable sound-images in the whole of Romantic music. Love it or hate it, everybody knows it. And those few bars are the clue to what gave The Nutcracker its unlikely, haunting power. The composer of Eugene Onegin and The Queen of Spades, not to mention the Pathetique symphony - which he started to write a couple of months after The Nutcracker's premiere - could hardly have cared less about confectionery. But his ear for colour and for instrumental combinations, his subtle feeling for rhythm, the sense of what gives a tune character, all sprang into action.

It's the same throughout these dances: no story, hardly any substance, the flimsiest of ideas, and some of the most perfectly formed miniatures Tchaikovsky wrote. The composer's biographer, David Brown, struck by the lavishing of mastery on a nonsense subject, and remembering the dramas of Sleeping Beauty and Swan Lake, calls The Nutcracker 'the saddest case among all his mature works'. He is thinking of what might have been, if the subject had been 'worthy'.

But millions of watchers and listeners would protest. When Tchaikovsky was in eclipse among the arbiters of taste, they knew that the gingerbread soldiers and the fountains of currant syrup were beside the point. Now that a love of Tchaikovsky's more autobiographical music is a fashion accessory, they see no reason to change. They might even point out that the sequence of musical numbers builds up rather well once it gets on to the stage, and that the absence of narrative is a marvellous cue for focusing on the joys and skills of dance and music for their own sake. All this, and magic too; no wonder we keep queueing for more.

'The Nutcracker' at large: Moscow City Ballet at the Chichester Festival Theatre (0243 784437) to Thu; Royal Ballet at the Royal Opera House (071-240 1066) to 10 Jan; English National Ballet at the South Bank (071-928 8800) to 22 Jan

(Photograph omitted)