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 Christmas classic delves into the work’s history and reveals why Christmas just wouldn’t be the same without it.
The Nutcracker Suite: A Guide To Tchaikovsky’s Christmas Classic
Why the name?
The Nutcracker Suite is a sparkly little box of jewels made up of highlights from Tchaikovsky’s fairy tale 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,The Nutcracker And The Mouse King, written in 1814 by the German fantasy writer ETA Hoffmann.
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.
The Nutcracker, a fairy tale ballet in two acts, is centered around a young girl’s Christmas Eve celebration and romantic awakening. She creeps downstairs to play with her favourite present, a nutcracker, which comes to life as a handsome prince who whisks her off to the Land of Sweets. The ballet was first performed on 18 December 1892 at the Mariinsky Theatre in St Petersburg, Russia.
Tchaikovsky made a selection of eight musical highlights from The Nutcracker before the ballet’s premiere, forming The Nutcracker Suite, which was performed for the first time on 7 March 1892 in St Petersburg. The Nutcracker Suite became instantly popular and was featured in Disney’s Fantasia.
Need to know
What has always struck people about Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite 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 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. The Nutcracker Suite concludes with the famous ‘Waltz Of The Flowers’ evoking elegance and grandeur.
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 Pipes’ 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 is nothing if not ubiquitous. But as Rattle says, “Bring it on. It survives absolutely anything.”
Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker performed 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. With music appealing to both children and adults, this is the perfect album to have on in preparation for Christmas celebrations.” – Album of the Week, Classic FM
Our recommended recording of Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker performed by Los Angeles Philharmonic & Gustavo Dudamel can be bought here.