The Nutcracker Suite Family Listening Guide

Principal Conductor Santtu Matias-Rouvali conducts the Philharmonia

Cymbal crashes, fairies and dancing flowers – Follow Clara on a musical adventure in Tchaikovsky’s timeless Nutcracker Suite.


Miniature Overture:

Clearly the strings and woodwinds are excited about Christmas: just listen to their fast quavers, scurrying up and down like the pitter-patter of excited feet. Listen out for the sparkling triangle, adding a touch of magic to this short introduction.


Atten—tion! With their opening fanfare, the horns signal that it is time for the children to dance – or at least, that’s what happens in the ballet’s original choreography by Marius Petipa.

From its stately opening to the flourishes that bubble up from the double basses to the very highest notes on the violin and flute, we can tell that Clara’s party is going to be a night to remember.

Listening challenge: Can you count the number of cymbal crashes? Answer below.*

The Sugar Plum Fairy:

Unusual instrument alert! What is that heavenly noise, that sounds like musical fairy-dust? It’s the celeste, or celesta, and its unique, twinkly sound is created by tiny hammers connected to the keys, which strike tuned metal plates.

When Tchaikovsky first heard it on a visit to Paris, he was immediately enchanted, and used it to create the perfect sugary soundtrack for Clara’s adventures in the Kingdom of Sweets.

Russian Dance

The Russian Dance (Trepak) is a traditional Russian-Ukrainian folk dance, requiring huge stamina from its performers, who crouch close to the floor, flinging their legs and arms in all directions while getting faster and faster. Listen out for the tambourine, keeping the pulse accelerating.

Arabian Dance, Chinese Dance and Reed Flutes

Phew! Thank goodness for the Arabian Dance, whose snake-like melodies, accompanied by soft, muted strings, give us a moment to recover.

The Chinese Dance combines a bouncing bassoon accompaniment with a whirling, twirling flute and piccolo melody, complemented by pizzicato (plucked) strings.

The woodwind theme continues with Reed Flutes, which in some productions offers Clara a chance to try playing the mirliton, an early French version of the flute.

Waltz of the Flowers

A waltz is a lilting dance with three beats in a bar – but before we get into full ‘oom-pah-pah’ territory, there is a dazzling harp solo that ensures all eyes are on the harpist’s busy fingers – at least until the enchanted flowers begin their display.

A gorgeous cello melody creates a hint of drama, but it isn’t long before the joyful mood returns, and the Waltz of the Flowers comes to a joyful, triumphant close. Merry Christmas!


Did you know?

Cannons, bells, and whistles: Tchaikovsky was no stranger to writing for unusual instruments.

The music of his 1812 Overture, composed to commemorate the Russian victory over France in the Napoleonic War, features Russian church bells and several booming cannons!

Other celestial pieces

What other pieces of classical music use the celesta? You can hear it in ‘Neptune’ from The Planets by Gustav Holst, and its delicate, magical sound flickers through ‘Hedwig’s Theme’ from John Williams’s Harry Potter soundtrack.

*There are 8 cymbal crashes!

The Philharmonia performs Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite on 5 December at 3pm at the Royal Festival Hall.

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