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Tchaikovsky’s ‘Nutcracker Suite’: Masterpiece Guide To The Ballet Music

Read our guide to the ‘Nutcracker Suite’ masterpiece: a selection of musical highlights from Tchaikovsky’s popular ballet ‘The Nutcracker’.

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Tchaikovsky Nutcracker LA Phil Gustavo Dudamel cover

From the candy-sweet ‘Sugar Plum Fairy’ to the glittering ‘Dance of the Reed Flutes’, Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite is the musical epitome of sugar, snow and sparkle. Our guide to Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite masterpiece delves into the work’s history and reveals why Christmas just wouldn’t be the same without it.

Listen to our recommended recording of Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker by Los Angeles Philharmonic & Gustavo Dudamel on Apple Music and Spotify and read our masterpiece guide.

Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite: Masterpiece Guide To The Ballet Music

Why the name?

The Nutcracker Suite is a sparkly little box of jewels made up of highlights from Tchaikovsky’s 1892 ballet The Nutcracker, which has become a Christmas staple around the world: conductor Simon Rattle calls it “one of the great miracles in music”. The ballet’s title comes from a story written in 1814, by the German fantasy writer ETA Hoffmann, in which a child’s Christmas presents come to life and whisk her off to the Land of Sweets. Actually, Tchaikovsky compiled the suite some months before the premiere of the complete ballet.

After the pair had worked together on The Sleeping Beauty, the choreographer Marius Petipa asked Tchaikovsky to write the music for a new scenario he had chosen and written out, based on a version by Alexandre Dumas of Hoffmann’s story. Petipa instructed Tchaikovsky down to the last detail, including the tempo and the number of bars in each section.

Need to know

What has always struck people about Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite masterpiece is the astonishing sounds the composer gets from the orchestra – he brings the toys and sweets to life in music that somehow sounds like glittering cut-glass, crystallised ginger and spun sugar. One innovation was Tchaikovsky’s use of the celesta, the instrument you hear in the ‘Dance of the Sugar-Plum Fairy’ (Petipa said he wanted this dance to sound “like drops of water shooting from a fountain”). The celesta is a keyboard instrument whose hammers hit metal plates, sounding similar to but softer than a glockenspiel; Tchaikovsky had heard one in Paris in 1891 and asked his publisher to buy one, hoping to keep it a secret so that no other Russian would compose music for the instrument before him.

Most of the dances have a couple of ‘verses’ which use the same tune, just orchestrated differently. Notice how Tchaikovsky keeps the sound as crystalline and transparent when he uses the whole orchestra as when there are just a couple of flutes playing.

Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite masterpiece begins with an ‘Overture’ and ‘March’ before moving into dances from Act 2 of the ballet, which is set in the Land of Sweets. After the ‘Sugar Plum Fairy’s’ dance we have ‘Russian’, ‘Arabian’, ‘Chinese’ and ‘Reed Flute’ dances – though the ‘Arabian’ one (which Rattle calls “absolutely heartbreaking – how the strings and oboe and cor anglais sing out over it”) is actually based on a Georgian cradle song.

What’s a sugar plum?

Good question. It’s a little round or plum-shaped sweet with a hard sugar shell around a fruit, nut, seed, spice or chocolate. They were popular from the 16th to 19th centuries, when the technical term was “dragée” or “comfit” (indeed, the French name for our fairy is “La Fée Dragée”. M&Ms are a clear descendant.

Where have I heard it before?

Anyone over a certain age will be unable to hear the ‘Dance of the Reed Flutes’ without thinking of Cadbury’s Fruit and Nut chocolate bars (the dance was featured in a couple of TV ads in the 1970s starring Frank Muir). The ‘Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy’ has also been used in Christmas TV ads for everything from Baileys to Barclaycard. And then there’s the lift music, ringtones and maddening ‘on-hold’ money spinners; Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite masterpiece is nothing if not ubiquitous. But as Rattle says, “Bring it on. It survives absolutely anything.”

Recommended Recording

Tchaikovsky: The Nutcracker by Los Angeles Philharmonic & Gustavo Dudamel

“Tying in with Disney’s film The Nutcracker and the Four Realms, for which he conducted the original soundtrack, Gustavo Dudamel and the Los Angeles Philharmonic present Tchaikovsky’s original ballet The Nutcracker. The Christmas classic has had a fresh lick of paint in this exciting yet intrinsically romantic recording from the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles.” – Album of the Week, Classic FM

Tchaikovsky: The Nutcracker by Los Angeles Philharmonic & Gustavo Dudamel can be bought here.

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Listen to the best Tchaikovsky works on Apple Music and Spotify.

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