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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 published 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 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.