A Spoonful of Sugar: Tchaikovsky's use of the celesta in The Nutcracker
How Tchaikovsky used an entirely new instrument to score the Sugar Plum Fairy's famous solo.
12 November 2013 at 10.51am | 3 Comments
Composers often face significant challenges when composing for the ballet: what instruments might denote a flock of swans? How do you evoke a forest at midnight? Choreographer Marius Petipa set the bar particularly high when he created the scenario for The Nutcracker. Petipa wanted Tchaikovsky to write music for a Sugar Plum Fairy, but how might she sound? And what exactly is a sugar plum?
A sugar plum is not, as you might think, the kind of candied fruit that you can buy on the ground floor of Fortnum and Mason - In fact a sugar plum is nothing to do with fruit at all and is a hard sweet made up of several layers of sugar, not dissimilar to a sugared almond or the shell on Smarties. The process used to make that coating is called dragée in French, which is how Petipa refers to the Fairy who commands the Kingdom of Sweets and like her namesake, she glitters with sugar.
The second act of The Nutcracker is full of such delicacies, specified by various flavoured national dances. There at least Tchaikovsky had musical tropes he could turn to, but there was little musical guidance when it came to La Fée dragée. Tchaikovsky’s solution was simple but radical: he would use an entirely new instrument, the céleste (or celesta).
Auguste Mustel invented this keyboard instrument in 1886, six years before The Nutcracker had its premiere. Mustel had built harmoniums for a number of years, but his father had meanwhile pioneered the dulcitone, in which hammers strike a series of tuning forks. The glockenspiel-like metal plates that his son Auguste used in the new version of the instrument allowed its delicate sound to carry within an orchestral context (aided by a system of wooden resonators). Its high, bell-like sonority was doubtless what led Mustel to dub his new invention the céleste (heavenly).
Having heard the instrument in Paris in summer 1891, Tchaikovsky asked his publisher Pyotr Jurgenson to acquire one for The Nutcracker. Keen not to let this innovative detail of orchestra out of the bag, he asked Jurgenson to keep it a secret; otherwise colourful colleagues such as Rimsky-Korsakov and Glazunov might use the instrument first.
Sadly Parisian composer Ernest Chausson had already pipped Tchaikovsky to the post by using the celesta in his 1888 incidental music to The Tempest. But what Tchaikovsky has over Chausson (and many composers since) is the clear link he created between the sound and a specific character. When the Sugar Plum Fairy first appears in Act 2, among the transparent columns and fountains of Petipa’s synopsis, the celesta plays in combination with two harps, high woodwind and shimmering string harmonics. The effect is magical.
Later on in the act, as part of the Grand pas de deux, the Sugar Plum Fairy has an equally beguiling solo variation. Here Petipa wanted the music to sound like droplets of water falling from a fountain. Tchaikovsky’s combination of pizzicato strings, celesta and a descending bass clarinet offers the perfect musical representation, to which Lev Ivanov (who continued the choreography of The Nutcracker due to Petipa’s illness) added difficult but delicate steps.
But as well as the glittering sound of the celesta, its heavenly name may have also caught the composer’s attention; Tchaikovsky had certainly been thinking of the afterlife during the completion of The Nutcracker. The death of his sister Sasha in the spring of 1891 had affected him deeply, but it also provided the inspiration for a project he had previously struggled to complete. Clara and her candied counterpart, the otherworldly Sugar Plum Fairy, were to be Tchaikovsky’s tribute to his late sister. He now had the perfect instrument to describe her.
The Nutcracker runs from 4 December 2013-16 January 2014. Tickets are still available.
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