Sugar drops in music: the sugarplum fairy of The Nutcracker

Translation of the 2020’s post in Miscelana, in time for the 130th anniversary of The Nutcracker

Choreographer Marius Petipa is often credited as the pope of classical ballet, and for 34 years he created most of the works that are still danced the way he invented them. His partnership with Piotr Illytch Tchaikovsky yielded three of the most popular works of all time, The Sleeping Beauty, The Nutcracker, and Swan Lake. Two of them, Beauty and Nutcracker, were commissioned by the choreographer personally.

As an author, Petipa was controlling. He didn’t choreograph the music, but the other way around. In his order, he said exactly what he wanted, tempo, rhythm, and… sound. Only the melody was up to the musician. (It couldn’t have been easy!), so when he wrote to Tchaikovsky that for the Sugar Plum Fairy variation in Act 2 of The Nutcracker he wanted a sound like “drops of water falling from a fountain” the composer was left with a challenge at hand.

At the time, 1892, few instruments would have the sound that was in Tchaikovsky’s head, but luckily, on a trip to Paris the year before, he discovered a newly created instrument, the celesta.

The celesta has the appearance of a piano, and a delicate sound like it but the sound is like bells. The composer loved the sound that he thought was “divine”, and “wonderful” and that it looked like a miniature piano. He was already wanting to use it, and when he saw what Petipa wanted for the Fairy, he knew he had the perfect opportunity to exploit it. He secretly ordered an instrument because he wanted to be the first Russian composer to use it.

Some of the music from The Nutcracker was performed before the ballet was completed. On March 19, 1892, nine months before the premiere, Tchaikovsky played The Nutcracker Suite in a concert, with the music for the Sugar Fairy variation already included and with the celesta being immortalized as it. For the discerning ears, it is known that the celesta is used in several passages in the second act when Clara is in the Kingdom of Sweets.

There are few records of the original Fairy variation, in terms of choreography. This variation is attributed to Lev Ivanov (although the controversy over who actually signed the work may leave room for it to have been Petipa). There is something that even today happens, however. In the first performance, the part they call presto, in which the music speeds up, was cut. This version of the song was the version that Gelsey Kirkland danced to in ABT’s 1977 Nutcracker. It has now “returned” and is in the Bolshoi and Royal Ballet versions.

What experts have on the original choreography describes a series of short steps, on pointe and with petite batteries and attitudes. Delicate with music and circular shapes and, in the end, pirouettes and jambe rounds.

The first Sugar Fairy was Antonietta Dell’Era, who had a refined technique but was not considered “attractive”. One of the few attractions of the original version was that the role, which is for a prima ballerina, has very little to do in terms of plot and only dances at the end of the night. Therefore, in 1919, Alexander Gorsky changed it so that Clara – who has been dancing since the prologue – was no longer played by a child and became the main role of the ballet, from beginning to end. That’s still the case with the Bolshoi and the ABT, but not with the Royal Ballet or New York City Ballet.

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