Victoria Dance Series  


NUTCRACKER: How to Listen to the Ballet

By Julie Fossitt and Erica Mattson

Many children have had their first introduction to classical music and dance through the beautiful tunes of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker, in both performances of the ballet, and Tchaikovsky’s own arrangement of the Nutcracker Suite, a twelve movement work that highlights the most memorable tunes.

The Nutcracker is Tchaikovsky’s last ballet, completed just one year before his death in 1892. Although this music was initially not well-received, and Tchaikovsky himself felt it was “infinitely poorer than The Sleeping Beauty”, there is a childlike magic in his melodies that has made this piece a holiday classic.

Celests / Celesta



As a composer, Tchaikovsky was not only skilled technically, but had a gift for injecting great emotion into his works. The Nutcracker draws upon a variety of French and Russian folk tunes, and uses unique instrumental choices to reinforce the light and playful notion of the music. For example, early in the party scene a children’s dance that is based on a French nursery song is featured, and the scene ends with a traditional tune that, due to its irregular meters, was used to persuade people to go home. Tchaikovsky adds to the playfulness with unique instrumental effects, including flutter tonguing in the flutes to suggest the swelling of a river, and using high-pitched instruments to mimic the chatter of children.

Tchaikovsky incorporates many children's instruments into the score including a rattle, cuckoo, quail, toy trumpet and miniature drum. His greatest feat was his triumphant quest to be the first of his fellow composers to use the magical celeste in a score. Featured in the ethereal Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy, the celeste is a bell-like sounding instrument that is a variation on the glockenspiel. Having discovered many of the other toy instruments during his visits to Paris, Tchaikovsky was thrilled to discover Victor Mustel's invention. He guarded his finding, with the hope that he could beat out his composition rivals, Glazunov and Rimsky-Korsakov, for its initial presentation to the Russian public. "I expect that this new instrument will produce a colossal sensation," he mused. Indeed, the opening measures of Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy evoke “the sound of falling drops of water, as from a fountain”, as per the original ballet choreographer Marius Petipa’s artistic direction.

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