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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.

By Gavin Plumley (Classical music blogger)

12 November 2013 at 10.51am | 5 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 3 December 2018—15 January 2019.
Find out more about the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House and how you can support them.

By Gavin Plumley (Classical music blogger)

12 November 2013 at 10.51am

This article has been categorised Ballet, Music and tagged by Peter Wright, Christmas, Kingdom of Sweets, Lev Ivanov, Marius Petipa, Production, Sugar Plum Fairy, Tchaikovsky, The Nutcracker

This article has 5 comments

  1. Pel Mountain responded on 18 November 2013 at 11:16am Reply

    It would seem that the film clip of the Sugar Plum Fairy variation is performed by Yuhoe Choe and not Alina Cojucaru !

    • Chris Shipman (Head of Brand Engagement and Social Media) responded on 18 November 2013 at 11:29am

      Hi Pel,

      Alina danced the role of Clara in the production. Unfortunately we're not able to amend the video title as it's not hosted on our YouTube channel.


      ROH Content Producer

    • Balletmistress responded on 18 November 2013 at 9:10pm

      I think that's Miyako Yoshida dancing the Sugar Plum Fairy actually...

  2. Ioly de karly responded on 13 June 2014 at 10:18pm Reply

    Yes,is Miyako Yoshida

  3. Dennis responded on 29 December 2018 at 3:02pm Reply

    Where is the original celesta roh used is it in a museum

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