The Nutcracker Ballet: Composer, Music & Story

Instructor: Stephanie Przybylek

Stephanie has taught studio art and art history classes to audiences of all ages. She holds a master's degree in Art History.

Does certain music makes you think of Christmas? How about The Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy? In this lesson, explore the music and story of the beloved Christmas ballet, the Nutcracker.


The Nutcracker Ballet is a famous and colorful Christmas ballet based on 'The Nutcracker and the Mouse King,' a story in a book of fairy tales written by German author E. T. A. Hoffman in 1816. Now, the original story is rather dark (involving bloody cuts, malevolent characters and angry adults), so in the mid-19th century, French author Alexander Dumas adapted it for a younger audience, making it less scary. It's this version that was turned into a ballet. Before we learn about the composer and the music, let's learn about what happens. Here's the story in a nutshell (all puns intended!).

Story: Act 1

The wealthy Stahlbaum family, including daughter Clara and son Fritz, is having a Christmas party in their beautifully decorated mansion. During the celebration, Godfather Drosselmeyer arrives. He's a skilled clock and toymaker and he comes with gifts for the children. Clara gets a beautiful nutcracker in the shape of a soldier, which makes her brother jealous -- he thinks it nicer than his gift! He grabs it away and it breaks, but Drosselmeyer mysteriously fixes it with a handkerchief. The party then winds down and everyone goes to bed except Clara, who falls asleep under the Christmas tree with the nutcracker safe in her arms.

Russian stamps with images of the Nutcracker. Look at the color and festive quality here, especially two images from Act 1
Russian Nutcracker stamps

The clock strikes midnight. Clara wakes, but something's different! The room grows in size and suddenly a mouse army, led by a crowned mouse king, circles the room. The toys come to life. Led by the nutcracker, they battle the mice. The mouse king and the nutcracker face each other, but the mouse king is stronger. Just as it looks like the nutcracker is going to lose, Clara saves him with a well-timed throw of her slipper, which hits the mouse king and knocks him out. The mouse army carries him away. Clara meanwhile, exhausted, falls onto the nutcracker's bed, which turns into a beautiful floating sleigh. The nutcracker, now transformed into a handsome prince, jumps aboard and they ride into a magical winter forest filled with snowflakes.

Waltz of the Snow Flakes, NYC Ballet performance, 1954
Waltz of the Snowflakes

Story: Act 2

The sleigh arrives in the Land of Sweets, where everything is made of candy, sparkling sugar, frosting, and cookies! Clara and the nutcracker are greeted by the Sugar Plum Fairy, who throws a party in their honor with music and, of course, dancing. A series of fascinating performers follow -- Arabian women with veils, Russian dancers doing a native dance, Chinese and Spanish dancers. As the grand finale, a regal cavalier dances with the Sugar Plum Fairy. Everyone then bids the nutcracker and Clara goodnight, and the wonderful scene disappears. Clara wakes the next morning still under the tree with her nutcracker.

Cavalier and Sugar Plum Fairy, from original production of the Nutcracker, 1892
Cavalier and Sugar Plum Fairy

Composer and Music

So, how did this ballet come about? In 1891, the director of a theater in Moscow commissioned Russian composer Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893) to write music for a Christmas ballet. As a result, Tchaikovsky, who had already written music for other ballets including Swan Lake, composed a series of movements musically illustrating different parts of the story. Remember those fanciful Russian, Chinese and Arabian characters in the Land of Sweets? Well, each has their own dance music.

To unlock this lesson you must be a Member.
Create your account

Register to view this lesson

Are you a student or a teacher?

Unlock Your Education

See for yourself why 30 million people use

Become a member and start learning now.
Become a Member  Back
What teachers are saying about
Try it risk-free for 30 days

Earning College Credit

Did you know… We have over 200 college courses that prepare you to earn credit by exam that is accepted by over 1,500 colleges and universities. You can test out of the first two years of college and save thousands off your degree. Anyone can earn credit-by-exam regardless of age or education level.

To learn more, visit our Earning Credit Page

Transferring credit to the school of your choice

Not sure what college you want to attend yet? has thousands of articles about every imaginable degree, area of study and career path that can help you find the school that's right for you.

Create an account to start this course today
Try it risk-free for 30 days!
Create an account