Fairy-tales, or folktales with supernatural elements (they don't necessarily feature fairies!), became popular in the West after Charles Perrault published his stylized collection Tales from Mother Goose in 1697. By transforming older stories, some taken from oral traditions, into elaborate narratives reflecting the fashions and etiquette of 17th-century France, he unwittingly fixed them in a form that remains standard even today.
On the Russian musical stage, the trend for such magical tales was started by Glinka's opera Ruslan and Ludmila (1842). Its vivid characterization of the supernatural with chromaticism and whole-tone scales, and subtle orchestral effects (using a harp and piano to imitate the sound of the gusli - a kind of Russian psaltery), influenced younger composers from Mussorgsky, Tchaikovsky and Rimsky-Korsakov through to Stravinksy.
Although Tchaikovsky was captivated by the Russian Snow Maiden story and described his 1873 incidental music for it as 'one of my favourite offspring', he almost abandoned using fairy- tales when his first full-length ballet, Swan Lake, flopped in 1877. Fortunately, after gearing up the with Ukrainian yarn The Slippers (1885) and then The Enchantress (1887), he turned Perrault's classic Sleeping Beauty (1890) into a triumph, not least by losing the bloodthirsty second half and giving it a happy ending. After The Queen of Spades (1890), his final stage offering was a double-bill (1892) pairing the somewhat staid opera Iolanta with the spellbinding ballet The Nutcracker. Based on ETA Hoffmann's tale The Nutcracker and the Mouse King it has everything an audience could want: enchanting music for the celesta (only just invented at the time), a Christmas tree that grows to fill a room on the stroke of midnight, toys that come to life, dancing snowflakes, and a genuine, delightful Sugar Plum Fairy.
© Madeleine Ladell/BBC
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