The Nutcracker, Part 3: Snowflakes & Stories

This is where the plot slows down considerably, so I swear I’m not just getting lazier.

Act I: No. 8, Scene (In the Pine Forest)

A forest of fir trees in the winter. Gnomes with torches stand by the Christmas tree to honor the prince and Clara.

I would like to go on record and say how disappointed I am that more companies don’t have gnomes in their productions.

Anyway so the Nutcracker Prince (henceforth just “the prince” because honestly, he’s just a boy now) pulls some Narnia magic and suddenly we’re in a forest. Everything is safe, everything is pretty and also this prince is cute and usually has some sort of rad carriage that comes and picks them up and takes them to his kingdom. His KINGDOM OF SWEETS.

Hey girl, come away to my sugar kingdom and let’s hang

The English horn and the French horns lead us off in this melody, and whenever French horns are involved, you can generally bet there’s a heroic dude around. Clara was the hero really…with the shoe-throwing…well maybe it’s for her. The melody repeats endlessly first in the strings then going to the brass, each time adding just a little more texture around it, including wild string scales of excitement, timpani, and trumpet fanfares (2:17) to welcome the prince home. It’s all very princely music and gives these two a chance to dance around some more before they take a big break in the second act.

Act I: No 9, Waltz of the Snowflakes

Starting with little individual flute snowflakes, which land with a cute little pizzicato strings blip, then a passing melody between violins and flutes…the snowflake waltz is popular for a reason. It’s so cute. And it is a very recognizable musical portrayal of snow, because who knows snow better than a Russian?

This can be a surprisingly tricky little waltz to count, and to complicate things, a small children’s chorus has been stashed away backstage or in the orchestra pit this whole time and suddenly come into play just for this number. Why? Because children’s voices are pure and magical and sound like Christmas? Because it’s a great job for teenage girls in choirs who need to make a quick buck at Christmas? One of those probably.

Other surprising instruments making an appearance here include a very prominent bass trombone for a “light” subject like snow (appearing even before we get to the whirlwind), DOUBLE HARPS and a triangle for extra SNOW magic. Winds increase and the trombones amp up to help indicate that there’s some serious weather and they propel us towards a full-on blizzard around 3:30.

It leads up to that double harp feature at 4:23 where a gust of wind blows all the snowflakes about the stage wildly. The high winds (weather ones…but also the musical ones) continue all the way up until 5:21 where the low strings leads the orchestra back to perform the children’s choir’s melody. High strings, harps, flutes, children’s voices and a Glockenspiel, is about as magical as your instrumentation can get. Except for the celesta…but Tchaik’s saving that…

Big timpani finish because that’s the end of Act I! We’re doing it!

Act II: No. 10 Scene (The Kingdom of Sweets)

This opening melody is very reminiscent of Clara’s lullaby and frankly, it’s just sort of fine and nice. Get back in your seats please, intermission is over, if you’re already in your seats, gaze upon our new Act 2 set with awe.


Those woodwind glissandos things are cool.

No I’m kidding it’s better than that. They are cool though.

But there is a big musical history moment in here. At 3:08 the celesta enters, and at the premiere it would have been the first time anyone in the audience had ever heard it.

Tchaikovsky didn’t invent the instrument, but he’d heard it in France where it was still pretty unusual. He smuggled one over to Russia and insisted everyone at the opera house keep it a secret so that Rimksy-Korsakov and others wouldn’t scoop him on its debut.

The celesta is a crazy cool instrument and sounds positively un-earthly. Certainly, for Russian audiences it would have been their first time hearing the celesta and it also marks the celesta’s big break into orchestral repertoire. Plot-wise, it signals the entrance of the Sugar-Plum Fairy and her attendants, securing that this instrument belongs to her, as we’ll see it return with her later.

Act II. no 11 Scene (Clara and the Prince)


What it says in the score is “A river of rose oil swells. Clara and the prince appear.” Which…is confusing and sounds hard to dance on but sure. I guess that’s what Tchaikovsky is trying to portray here at the beginning in these flute and harp/strings swells. Let’s imagine a GLITTER RIVER instead because oily rivers sound…sticky…

The clarinet chromatic doodles (0:26) always remind me of all of the courtiers taking their individual bows before the pair, and each one gets a little deeper and fancier. Finally, the trombones herald some organization and lead everyone in a group welcome.

Isn’t this how everyone comes home after a long day?

At 1:37 “twelve little pages arrive carrying torches” and they get to do a fancy little torch dance. When the celesta comes in (2:05), I think we can safely assume the Sugar-Plum Fairy has taken some control of the situation and is speaking to the prince about where the hell he has been in that little insistent, repeating, violin line at 2:28. The whole “I’m-a-nutcracker-sometimes” thing is never really explained but that’s fine.

At 2:35 the prince does a recap of the first act for his kingdom. You’ll hear the rat’s music come back 2:56 as he recounts the battle and how Clara saved his life. Tchaikovsky abruptly takes a big ole’ string scale (3:22) to whirl us back to the present, as a very relieved sweets kingdom goes NUTS for this new shoe-throwing hero.

The Sugar-Plum Fairy signals for a table to be brought out (4:01) , proving that she understands how a good party works. A glittering table FULL OF SNAX appears….to be continued…


LOOKING FOR MORE POSTS? Introduction, Part I: Party, Part II:Battlerats fantastica, Part IV: SNAX (coming soon!), Part V: Fance Dance (coming soon!)

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