Most freelancers take on a job that they’re not that excited about … I know I have. The brief doesn’t excite them, they can’t get creatively enthusiastic about it or sometimes the people involved are a pain to deal with. Whatever it is, they wish they never said ‘yes’ to it in the first place. The great Russian composer Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky felt that way about The Nutcracker. The Russian Imperial Theatre was coming fresh off the success of Tchaikovsky’s previous ballet, The Sleeping Beauty, and so commissioned him to compose the music for a ballet based on the fairy tale The Nutcracker and the Mouse King.

Tchaikovsky was not thrilled about the job. Not only was he busy with other work and had an upcoming tour of America to worry about, but he also didn’t like the story at all. But one does not turn down an Imperial commission backed by the Tsar, so being a “self-respecting artist” Tchaikovsky gritted his teeth and got to work: “I am working with all my might and I am growing more reconciled to the subject.”

The ballet was a struggle from start to finish. As he wrote in a letter, “Today, even more than yesterday, I feel the absolute impossibility of depicting in music the ‘Sugar-Plum Fairy.’” When he finally did finish it, Tchaikovsky wrote “This ballet is far weaker than The Sleeping Beauty – no doubt about it.” Of course, today The Nutcracker is the most successful ballet of all time, generates the bulk of profits for ballet companies around the world and is the gateway to classical music for children of all ages.

Tchaikovsky was near the end of his career by the time he composed The Nutcracker and had conditioned himself to work day in and day out, knowing that inspiration doesn’t fall like mana from heaven everyday. And that’s what separates the pros from the hobbyists, the ability to create when you don’t feel like creating. The ability to “master their disinclination.”

Tchaikovsky had been subject to bouts of depression throughout his life and had dealt with many hardships – the early separation and loss of his mother, his intense shyness, the continued savaging of his work by critics, the huge burden of being a closet homosexual (during a time when it was seen as a disease) and as a result, a disastrous marriage to one of his music students. Through it all, Tchaikovsky found solace in his work:

“I am made up of contradictions, and I have reached a very mature age without resting upon anything positive, without having calmed my restless spirit either by religion or philosophy. Undoubtedly I should have gone mad but for music. Music is indeed the most beautiful of all Heaven’s gifts to humanity wandering in the darkness. Alone it calms, enlightens, and stills our souls. It is not the straw to which the drowning man clings; but a true friend, refuge, and comforter, for whose sake life is worth living.”

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The quote used in the comic is taken from a letter Tchaikovsky wrote to his long time patron in 1878 describing his creative process. Hat tip to the wonderful Brain Pickings for first posting it.

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