articles / ccup

The Secret Story Behind Tchaikovsky’s Mysterious Celesta in “The Nutcracker”


We’re celebrating the Classical California Ultimate Playlist with a series of fun and informative blogs about the music you love.

Hit play below to listen to our audio feature on the celesta.  
The Secret Story Behind Tchaikovsky’s Mysterious Celesta in “The Nutcracker”
  During the holiday season, it’s fairly common to hear Tchaikovsky’s Dance of the Sugar-Plum Fairy from The Nutcracker. The instrument that plays the iconic solo in that piece is called the celesta, a keyboard instrument where the hammers strike orchestral bells. Nowadays, the celesta is a standard instrument to find in the symphony hall as well as pop and film music. It’s the instrument behind Hedwig’s Theme from Harry Potter as well as the introduction to Won’t You Be My Neighbor from Mr. Rodgers’ Neighborhood. When Tchaikovsky wrote for the celesta, however, it wasn’t a common instrument at all. In fact, he was one of the very first people ever to use it.

The celesta was invented in 1886 by Auguste Mustel and Tchaikovsky came across the instrument five years later while in Paris. Tchaikovsky wrote in a letter to his publisher, “I have discovered a new instrument in Paris, something between a piano and a glockenspiel, with a divinely beautiful tone.” Tchaikovsky asked his publisher to acquire one for his new ballet, but to keep it a complete secret. He wrote, “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.”


The back of a celesta with its back cover removed | Photo by Schiedmayer Celesta GmbH, CC BY-SA 4.0

An inside view of a celesta | Photo by Schiedmayer Celesta GmbH, CC BY-SA 4.0

The plan worked, and a year later at the premiere of The Nutcracker in Saint Petersburg, the Sugar Plum-Fairy appeared on the stage and the magical sound of the celesta emerged from the pit. The audience was in total awe, no one had ever heard this mysterious sound before and no one knew how the sound was being made!

Now today we’re not in shock when we hear this instrument, but it’s forever linked to this famous ballet thanks to a well-kept secret.

Written by:
Thomas Kotcheff
Thomas Kotcheff
Published on 12.11.2022

MORE LIKE THIS

The Poetic Inspiration Behind Ralph Vaughan Williams’ “The Lark Ascending”

The Poetic Inspiration Behind Ralph Vaughan Williams’ “The Lark Ascending”

Explore the inspiration behind Ralph Vaughan Williams' The Lark Ascending, a violin piece based on an 1880s British poem. Discover why this music continues to captivate listeners.

ccup
09/13/2021
The Many Lives of the “The Flower Duet”

The Many Lives of the “The Flower Duet”

Explore the #75 entry on the Classical California Ultimate Playlist: the Flower Duet from Delibes' opera Lakme. Discover its use in TV, film, and creative remixes.

ccup
09/13/2021
The Story Behind Tchaikovsky’s “Nutcracker”

The Story Behind Tchaikovsky’s “Nutcracker”

Explore the origins of the classic Christmas ballet, The Nutcracker, from Tchaikovsky's inspiration to its journey to the US. Click to listen to a brief history.

pop culture
05/11/2018
The Inspiration for Vaughan Williams’s “Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis”

The Inspiration for Vaughan Williams’s “Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis”

Explore the origins of Ralph Vaughan Williams's Fantasia, inspired by Thomas Tallis's melody from the 1567 psalm settings for Archbishop Parker's Psalter.

ccup
09/15/2021
Opera’s Ultimate Five-Minute Interlude: The Meditation from “Thais”

Opera’s Ultimate Five-Minute Interlude: The Meditation from “Thais”

Explore the enduring appeal of Jules Massenet's "Meditation from Thaïs", a five-minute interlude that has become a beloved piece in the classical music repertoire.

ccup
09/13/2022
George Gershwin Changes American Music Forever with the One and Only “Rhapsody in Blue”

George Gershwin Changes American Music Forever with the One and Only “Rhapsody in Blue”

Explore the life and impact of George Gershwin, the composer who revolutionized American music by blending jazz and classical genres in his iconic work, Rhapsody in Blue.

ccup
09/13/2021