Usually, the music to the Dance of the Sugarplum Fairy is heard – and a lot during the holiday season – but the actual dance is not so often seen. It’s quite beautiful, so let’s watch it!
Now, for the little story part.
The charming, bell-like sound prominently featured in this piece of the ballet is from the celesta. It was a weapon in the Russian composer arms race in the late 19th century! Tschaikowski was determined to be the first to deploy it.
Let me back up the story a moment.
Tschaikowski’s ballet Sleeping Beauty had been a huge success, and the Imperial Director of Theatres commissioned an opera and a ballet double bill from Pyotr Illyich. He also saddled Tschaiskowski with Marius Pepita, who chose for the ballet subject matter an adaptation of E.T.A. Hoffmann’s story The Nutcracker and the Mouse King. Pepita also:
..gave Tchaikovsky extremely detailed instructions for the composition of each number, down to the tempo and number of bars. The composer did not appreciate having to work under such constraints and found himself reluctant to work on the ballet. The completion of the work was interrupted for a short time when Tchaikovsky visited the United States for twenty five days to conduct concerts for the opening of Carnegie Hall
[Emphasis added] Instructions were EXTREMELY detailed. Tschaikowski was a bit worried about how to render the Sugarplum Fairy:
In 1891, when he passed through Paris on his way to New York to take part in the opening concerts at Carnegie Hall, he heard Victor Mustel’s newly developed instrument the celesta, which intrigued him particularly in respect to the ballet commission he had just accepted from the Maryinsky. As he revealed some time later, he had been troubled by “the absolute impossibility of depicting the Sugarplum Fairy in music,” but Mustel had provided a heaven-sent solution. As soon as Tchaikovsky returned home from America (where he conducted in Baltimore and Philadelphia as well as New York, and visited Washington and Niagara Falls) he had his publisher, Pyotr Jurgenson, order a celesta for use in The Nutcracker, swearing him to secrecy “lest Rimsky-Korsakov and Glazunov get wind of it and manage to make use of its unusual effect before I do.”
Arms race! See?
Anyhow, the result was charming – and beloved to this day by many. But I’m just saying, if this here Glass Armonica would have been available, I’m guessing Pyotr Illyich just might have used it..