One of today’s most treasured holiday traditions is The Nutcracker ballet. Whether you see it performed each year or you simply enjoy listening to the ballet’s classic themes, Tchaikovsky’s music perennially creates the backdrop for the holiday season. However, this was not always the case.
While the ballet first premiered in December of 1892, it received little fanfare and even Tchaikovsky himself declared it some of his worst music. Far from a holiday tradition, The Nutcracker ballet was not even performed outside of Russia until 1934, when it premiered in Britain. The ballet was only first staged in the U.S. in 1944 with a Christmas Eve performance given by the San Francisco Ballet. While that west coast debut was largely successful – and the Christmas Eve performance has since remained a tradition in San Francisco – The Nutcracker only began to crack the nut of widespread popularity following George Balanchine’s 1954 production with the New York City Ballet. Later televised in 1957 and again in ’58, The Nutcracker finally began to gain traction as a holiday favorite.
All of this to say that, when Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn endeavored to adapt Tchaikovsky’s score for the Ellington band in 1959, it was a pretty novel concept as Tchaikovsky’s work was still far from ubiquitous. The effort was likely the brainchild of Billy Strayhorn, who himself was an ardent admirer of the great classicists like Stravinsky, Tchaikovsky, and Prokofiev. Unlike many other dance suites that Ellington and Strayhorn co-wrote together, their adaptation of The Nutcracker Suite was the result of many months of meticulous planning, sketching, and composing. As with many of their works, it’s difficult to distinguish where one writer’s pen ends and the other’s begins. But in the end, they produced a marvel that transcends simply “jazzing up” Tchaikovsky’s famous themes. Instead, they transform it into a virtually new work that both honors the sound and spirit of Tchaikovsky’s score and highlights the incredible musicianship of both the composers and the Duke Ellington Orchestra.
This time of year, we lean on Ellington and Strayhorn’s Nutcracker Suite to set the mood for the holidays. You can hear a complete walk through of this incredible work on Off the Record at 5:00 PM on Christmas Day (the perfect thing to celebrate the occasion!), and you can hear many jazz interpretations of Tchaikovsky’s score throughout this holiday season on Jazz 93.5.