Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker: Serendipity in the Creative Process

This op-ed was written in association with The Op-Ed Project.

Imagine the sting of disappointment Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky felt from the mixed reviews when The Nutcracker ballet premiered on December 18, 1882 at the Imperial Mariinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg. "Insipid," "ponderous," and "amateurish" were several words critics used to describe the production. Despite its initial detractors, the ballet would go on to become a beloved Christmas tradition, and The Nutcracker Suite, Op. 71a endures as one of the composer's great works. On the 120th anniversary of its debut performance, a look the backstory of The Nutcracker reveals the joy, pain, and serendipity inherent in the creative process.

Given America's creativity crisis, we may need a better appreciation of the process if we are to keep it alive in our children. In an IBM poll, 1,500 CEOs identified creativity as the best predictor of future success. It appears that American ingenuity, a vital part of our pioneering past, is also an ingredient for a competitive future. As a writer, I've explored the relevance of applying creativity for sustainability in order to meet global challenges in a world of increasing population and finite resources. However, it is my role as a mother that drives me to unravel this nebulous subject. Researchers reveal that although we still use about 80% of our creative potential at age 5, our creative output declines to about two percent of our potential by age 12 and generally stays there for life. Whether my five and seven-year olds, and yours, develop this core competency is a race against time.

Examining the characteristics and circumstances that propel great artists reminds us why and how some retain the creative impulse into adulthood and throughout their lifetimes. Whether achieving success or persisting through failures, such individuals instinctively value the artistic pursuit. Creativity, defined as using our imagination to generate original ideas, often puts one in a state of "flow," or what we sometime call the "zone." Flow occurs when a person becomes so absorbed in an activity that nothing else seems to matter. Positive psychology expert Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls it an "optimal state of intrinsic motivation."

Tchaikovsky paints a portrait of flow in a letter to his patroness Nadezhda von Meck on 17 February/1 March 1878 before completing his Fourth Symphony:

Usually the "seed" of a future work suddenly appears, and quite unexpectedly. If the soil is fertile, i.e. if there is the disposition for work, this seed germinates with unbelievable strength and rapidity, peeps out above ground, pushes up a stem, then leaves and branches, and, finally, flowers. There is no other way I can define the creative process than by means of this analogy. The difficult part consists in ensuring that the germ does appear and find favourable conditions. All the rest happens of its own accord. There would be no point in my trying to express to you in words all the immeasurable bliss of the feeling that seizes me when the principal idea has manifested itself and begins to burgeon into definite shapes. Everything is forgotten, you become almost demented, everything within you trembles and pulsates, you can scarcely draft the sketches in time as one idea chases another.

By Tchaikovsky's own account, The Nutcracker did not originate from an optimal state. The commission came from the director of the Imperial Theater following the success of the virtuoso's 1890 ballet Swan Lake and 1891 opera Queen of Spades. The idea was to create a ballet based on E.T. A. Hoffmann's story The Nutcracker and the Mouse King, which Tchaikovsky did not particularly like. (Similarly, Michelangelo, a more avid sculptor than painter, did not especially want to paint the Sistine Chapel but it was an offer he could not refuse).

That the greats can summon their creativity on command, sometimes without be advantage of flow, shows that creativity stems from dedicated practice as much as divine inspiration. In an 1882 interview, Tchaikovsky explained:

My system of work is very much like a craftsman's, i.e. absolutely regular, always during the same hours, without allowing myself any indulgence whatsoever. Musical ideas spring up in me as soon as I have abstracted myself from considerations and cares that are extraneous to my work and set about the task I am working on. The majority of my ideas, by the way, come to me during my daily walks, and, in view of my exceptionally poor musical memory, I take a notebook with me.

Both musical genius and consummate professional, Tchaikovsky approached the project methodically yet serendipitously. While ruminating on The Nutcracker on a trip to Paris Tchaikovsky encountered the newly-invented celesta and was immediately captivated by its ``divinely beautiful tone.'' He arranged to have one sent to Russia secretly because he was ``afraid Rimsky-Korsakov and Glazunov may get hold of it and use the unusual effect before me.'' (His use of the celesta in the Dance of the Sugar-Plum Fairy first popularized the instrument.) However, when his sister Sasha died in January 1882, Tchaikovsky embraced The Nutcracker as a repository for his grief. He plunged into the creative process. The result was a masterpiece.

While The Nutcracker Suite, which includes eight popular compositions from Tchaikovsky's score, enjoyed immediate success, the ballet had to grow on people. Over the years, it underwent a series of choreography changes, a reminder that the process of commercializing creative products is often a collaborative effort that evolves organically. By the 1960s, The Nutcracker has become one of the most popular ballets in the world.

With artistic, scientific and other types of creative feats, success does not follow a straight line. Wrong turns and malfunctions can work out even better than originally planned. Where would Jaws be had Bruce, the mechanical shark, actually worked as expected? The famous score written to create suspense was used so ingeniously that it created a more chilling effect that the shark alone ever could. Jaws became an instant phenomenon and the first movie to gross $100 million - although only time will tell if Jaws will scare audiences as long as Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker has delighted them.

Any time we embark on the creative process, there may be joy and there may be pain, but there is always a journey. Our task today is to teach our kids to recognize that success is not a guarantee, but a byproduct of the journey itself. Unless we can prepare children to cultivate divergent thinking and celebrate the inevitable failures along the path to innovation, America will not reap the rewards of their ultimate success.