The Nutcracker Part 2: Battlerats fantastica

I don’t even regret how loose that pun is


Act I, No 6.  Scene (Departure of Guests/Night)

Right so, as you recall from Part I, we are all very tired after that big party.

Clara’s lullaby for the nutcracker comes back in a new, more lush arrangement. Remember how the opening overture used the highest instruments and left out the bass, which entered with the parents? Same deal here as the adults all get tired and begin to leave the party. Clara’s lullaby is no longer in the high woodwinds, but in the full strings section with a nice boosting from the woodwinds and horns, plus a harp and a triangle because NIGHT MAGIC.

At 0:46 the melody is passed off to the English Horn (a cousin of the oboe) as the Stahlbaums start to send off final guests and send their children off to bed. Clara wants to take her nutcracker but is told no so she makes extra sure he’s comfy and then is sent away to bed. As this bedtime process is going on, we hear the melody get repeated in the clarinet, an even lower, mellower woodwind, and finally repeated down to the muted cellos and basses once Clara is good and “asleep”.The shimmering violins may suggest that all is not quite as peaceful as the melody suggests though….

jk…that comes later…

Jk, that comes later. It’s more like this right now!

At 2:21 the shimmering strings transition us into full night. A harp spills some musical moonlight onto the stage and sneaky lil Clara sneaks back onstage to check on her nutcracker. Honestly, given the psychopath of a brother she has, this is a pretty good idea.

Tchaikovsky writes all kinds “discoveries” into this movement by using a big harp glissando to lead into the melodies (i.e. 2:44, 2:50). It’s all harps, strings, and flutes so we know that Tchaikovsky is telling us we’re in our happy/safe orchestration place. Soon though, the reedier woodwinds start to take over and lead us right into a big terrifying brass/timpani jump scare (3:10). You know why? Because the effing clock has Drosselmeyer’s face in it. Honestly, the Stahlbaum family needs to rid themselves of this toxic friend.

Now we hear the mouse/rat music for the first time at 3:13.

SIDEBAR: Are they mice or rats? They’re mice in the score, but a lot of productions call them rats. I don’t care, giant battle-rodents are upsetting either way. I am gonna call them rats in this post as per the initial bad joke I made in the title of this post.

Anyway, the rat music appears here because creepy clock-face Drosselmeyer is CALLING THEM OUT. The clock strikes midnight, and this is usually a good opportunity for a company to have 12 rats pop out all over the stage. SF Symphony has a very nice clock sound! Almost every recording is different and hey, look at that! There’s a Spotify playlist with a ton of recordings at the end of this post if you really want to try it out.

A sinister little duet between the bass clarinet and the bassoon with worried peeps from the piccolos. The cellos pick up the melody next and because of where the melody is written in their range, it really does sound like little scratching mice feet all over the room. Clara reasonably responds like this

All the mice decide they’ve given her a good enough scare and take off at the big climax (4:29).

At this point, the Christmas tree suddenly starts growing and Clara turns to look at it.

Because the Christmas tree is a little unusual and worrying, but not terribly…dangerous per say, the melody goes back to our violins, and the harp comes back to be mysterious-but-like-in-a-nice-way. Remember we said Tchaikovsky loves sequences? Well here’s a big one as we just casually modulate higher and higher, just like the top of the growing Christmas tree! As the tree climbs to truly impressive heights, the trombones, crashing cymbals, and lower strings get much more involved to indicate the full grandeur. Usually, the Nutcracker Prince wakes up somewhere in here and reveals himself to be roughly the size and shape of a young male ballet dancer.


After the big essentially-on-stage set change, only the violins and high woodwinds trail off before a worrying shudder in the violins (and quite possibly the reentry of some mice) leads us to ….

Act I: No 7 The Battle

It’s a Rattle Battle!

A lone oboe sentry (toy soldier) cries “Who goes there?” and gets no response so he fires a shot. Now, I do think that this Berlin Phil recording is one of my favorite gunshots but I urge you to listen to this older Berlin recording, where I am 99% sure they used an actual cannon.

At 0:10, the dolls are startled and cry out in little woodwind turns, as the sentry wakes the rabbit drummers (necessary for battle of course). At 0:22 the stuffed rabbits sound the alarm but they must have cute tiny toy drums because Tchaikovsky gives their “drumming” rhythm to the oboes and clarinets instead of actual percussion.

A magnificent Tamtam signals the opening of Toys vs Rats thunderdome at 0:41. You’ll hear the reedy woodwinds have returned to the rat music, and the flutes, piccolo and brass are taking up their traditional military roles on the toy side of the battle. Strings create increasing dramatic tension and percussion gets all the fun sound effects.

At 1:25 after a big musical/battle climax, those rats get away with one of the gingerbread men/soldiers and EAT IT because they know what’s up.

The strings take over the melody as our musical allegiance switches fully over to the “good guys”. The Nutcracker Prince calls out more soldiers and cries “To arms!” which sounds better in the original French “Aux armes!”.

When the basses and cellos play an aggressive-but-messy entrance at 1:44, the Rat King enters. In ETA Hoffman’s original story he has 7 heads but technically that’s not a requirement. The rats cheer wildly, as you can hear in those little “hurray, hurray, hurray, hurray”s in the high woodwinds (e.g. 1:47).

At 2:00, another tamtam and a piccolo exclamation start the second battle; This time featuring a fight between the Nutcracker Prince and the Rat King. As the battle amps in intensity, it seems like the rats might really take this one. As the music and the battle build to a climax, Clara takes her shoe (2:55) and THROWS it at the Rat King. Because this is all magic, but also because toe shoes may or may not be lethal weapons, it kills the Rat King. Because this is still a show for families, the mouse king dies very slowly, comically and dramatically with many “last gasps” from the reedy woodwinds.

You know he’s good and dead because the brass and the strings take over and bring us back to orchestration safety zone. Anyway, TOYS WIN, RATS LOSE. SEE YA LOSERS WE’RE GOING TO TREATS’N’SWEETS KINGDOM.

LOOKING FOR THE REST OF THE POSTS? IntroductionPart I: The Party, Part III: Snowflakes & Stories (coming soon!), Part IV: SNAX (coming soon!), Part V: Fance Dance (coming soon!)

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