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Dance of the Sugar-Plum Fairy

One of the most magical passages in Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker is the Dance of the Sugar-Plum Fairy. The featured instrument, the celeste, was a relatively new invention, having only been developed by a Parisian harmonium builder, Auguste Mustel, in 1886. The French word “céleste” translates to “heavenly”.

Tchaikovsky first discovered the celeste while visiting Paris in 1891. While he was not the first composer to use the instrument (Ernest Chausson made use of it in incidental music to La tempête [The Tempest]), he was somewhat protective of being the first to introduce it to Russia. He wrote to his publisher:

I have discovered a new instrument in Paris, something between a piano and a glockenspiel, with a divinely beautiful tone. I want to introduce this into the ballet and the symphonic poem. The instrument is called the ‘Celesta Mustel,’ and costs 1,200 francs. You can only buy it from the inventor, Mustel, in Paris. I want to ask you to order one of these instruments. You will not lose by it, because you can hire it out to the concerts at which The Voyevode will be played, and afterwards sell it to the Opera when my ballet is put on…. Have it sent direct to Petersburg; but no one there must know about it. I am afraid Rimsky-Korsakov and Glazounov might hear of it and make use of the new effect before I could. I expect the instrument will make a tremendous sensation. (1)

Tchaikovsky’s first use of it was in his symphonic ballad The Voyevoda (completed 1891) followed shortly after by The Nutcracker (1892).

(1) Tchaikovsky, in a letter to P. Jurgenson, Maidanovo, June 3rd (15th), 1891.
Modeste Tchaikovsky (1906) The Life & Letters of Peter Ilich Tchaikovsky. Translated by Rosa Newmarch. London: John Lane The Bodley Head. Project Guttenberg (EBook #45259): https://www.gutenberg.org/files/45259/45259-h/45259-h.htm, accessed 19 December 2020.

By Greg

Australian composer and pianist