A Thing or Two About a Tune or Two: Nutcracker Nuts and Bolts

Company Members Alexander Peters and Alex Ratcliffe-Lee in George Balanchine's The Nutcracker™, choreography by George Balanchine © The George Balanchine Trust. | Photo: Alexander Iziliaev

Company Members Alexander Peters and Alex Ratcliffe-Lee in George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker™, choreography by George Balanchine © The George Balanchine Trust. | Photo: Alexander Iziliaev


The Nutcracker is ubiquitous at Christmastime. One cannot spend 30 minutes in a coffee shop or a shopping mall without hearing the whimsical and mysterious music of the celesta accompanying the dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy. It is one of the most instantly recognizable tunes in all of classical music.

When I was choosing a topic about which to write this week, The Nutcracker was suggested to me by other members of the Refinersfire team. “Great idea”, I declared. “I love The Nutcracker”. But when I sat down to pen this article, I realized one problem: beyond the general trivia that everyone knows, I realized that I actually know nothing about The Nutcracker. So I began my research and found out some pretty interesting things.

In light of the coming celebrations, I offer you a cocktail party countdown: facts about The Nutcracker to delight and thrill your friends and acquaintances. Consider this my coffee table compendium about the world’s most beloved ballet.

1. Sugar Plums: What are they?

Inevitably, every year as I am enchanted by the music of the celesta, I wonder “What is a sugar plum” and inevitably, I forget to look it up. This year I answer my question, kind of:

Here is the good news: Sugar plums are not plums at all. My fruitcake fear is kept at bay.

The bad news: Sugar plums are comfits. (Yeah, I didn’t know what those were either). A little more internet trolling allows me to discover that comfits are small foods such as nuts and seeds used as a base (?)

Here’s my takeaway: Sugar Plums – Not So Simple.

While describing a sugar plum may not be so simple, its history is rather interesting, and for a more thorough explanation, I suggest you check out this great article about the history of the candy and the etymology of “plums” in speech through the ages.

This brings me brings me to another interesting tidbit.

2. Magical Music – Thank You, Celesta

A Nutcracker without a celesta is like a Boléro without a snare drum.

The celesta is an instrument that Tchiakovsky discovered during a trip he took to Paris. It is a piano like instrument in which the hammers strike steel plates rather than strings. The celesta is used throughout the ballet in the “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy”, the Christmas party scene, a few times in Act II, and is synonymous with Christmastime and magical fairy music. It was a brand new instrument at the time, having just been invented by Auguste Mustel in 1886, and had rarely been used in public performance. Tchaikovksy’s ballet did for the celesta what Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” did for the clarinet.

Here is a great article about the celesta and the importance of linking a sound with a specific character. (If I had to choose a signature instrument or sound to signify my existence, I would choose the entrancing and supernatural music of the celesta — or dubstep. I’d say it’s a tie).

3. Is This Almost Over?

The Nutcracker premiered in St. Petersburg, Russia at the Marriinsky theater on December 18, 1892. It followed a performance of Tchaikovsky’s opera, Iolanta. Double headers are great for sporting events and comedy clubs, but that makes for one loooooong night of music. It may be why critics panned the ballet after having seen it – they were likely exhausted!

The first full length production of  The Nutcracker  in the United States was in 1944 with the San Francisco Opera Ballet.

4. Not G Rated

The two act ballet is an adaptation of the gruesome ETA Hoffman story The Nutcracker and the Mouse King. The story had to be cleaned up and simplified to make the ballet “family friendly”. Hoffmann’s given name was Ernst Theodor Wilhelm, but he changed the Wilhelm to Amadeus to show his admiration for Mozart. And Hoffmann’s stories didn’t just influence Tchaikovsky.  German-born French composer Jacques Offenbach was also inspired by Hoffman’s spooky stories to write the opera The Tales of Hoffmann.

5. Death by Shoe-ing

One of the fun things about revisiting a work of art as an adult is that you discover things that you didn’t before understand or notice as a child.

Did you know that the Mouse King is defeated by a shoe – nay, a slipper? I guess I never realized that until I started to work on this article. It seems like kind of a weak way to go, especially since Clara is wee sized and it’s not like she is stomping on him.

One of my favorite shows growing up was Quantum Leap and I can still recall a very poignant episode in which character is killed by taking a stiletto to the skull. It has always made me very thankful for my massive shoe collection. They are not just stylish, but also defensive!

I like the way Benjamin Millepied choreographed this update of the story. Both the Nutcracker and the Mouse King take a shoe to the face, but it is still attached to Clara’s foot. You go girl!

Giving Thanks and Spreading Cheer

Perhaps the most important thing to mention about The Nutcracker is that it is often a child’s first introduction to classical music and ballet. As a company dedicated to saving classical music we are grateful to all of the dancers, choreographers, orchestras, and theaters that bring this work to life every year and draw new fans to the genre.

I still fantasize about a career as a ballerina. Alas, at 31(derful) years old I am, as my sister tells me, in the winter season of my dance career – but this should not be the case for classical music and ballet!

Find a production in your home town and support great art near you!

More Resources

NPR on The Nutcracker 

The Celesta and a Spoonful of Sugar

Mmmmm… sugar plums

Little Known Facts about Ballet

Nutcracker Wikipedia




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