The Nutcracker was the last of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s three ballets. It had its premiere in St. Petersburg in December of 1892, where it was the second work on a double bill that opened with Tchaikovsky’s opera Iolanta, also a premiere. Ten months later, St. Petersburg heard the first performance of Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 6, Pathétique. Nine days after that, on November 6, 1893, the composer—in his prime, enjoying world fame, and full of the future—died at the age of fifty-three. He had contracted cholera, which took him in four days.

At the time of their premieres, all three of these works were damned with faint praise. Iolanta, though charming, was considered weak in melody—“far from [Tchaikovsky’s] usual high level,” one newspaper reported. The Nutcracker was thought to be lacking in invention—“no creativity whatsoever”—though the...