The Celesta: the sound of the Sugar Plum Fairy

Daniel Jaffé presents a brief guide to the Celesta - star of Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker ballet

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The Celesta: the sound of the Sugar Plum Fairy
A Celesta (Credit: Getty Images)
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The Celesta came to fame after it's appearance in Tchaikovsky’s ballet The Nutcracker.

When Tchaikovsky ‘discovered’ the celesta in 1891, it had been invented just five years earlier and unveiled at Paris’s 1889 Exposition Universelle.

 

Key Facts

• Invented in Paris, 1891 by Charles Victor Mustel

• Percussion instrument

• Strikes metal plates (like a glockenspiel)

 

Having patented several innovations of the harmonium, Mustel invented his first percussive keyboard instrument in 1866: this was the typophone, a piano-like construction whose hammers struck large tuning forks.

The French composer Ernest Chausson may have originally used the typophone rather than celesta for his 1888 incidental music to Shakespeare’s The Tempest. Originally scored for a small orchestra, it was possibly the typophone’s modest sound, unsuited for orchestras, that persuaded Chausson subsequently to rescore his music for an even smaller ensemble, complementing the instrument with a string trio, flute and harp.

Published in 1905 after Chausson’s death, the score specifies not a typophone but the brighter-sounding celesta: like the typophone, it uses a piano-like construction, though rather than hitting tuning forks it strikes little metal plates similar to a glockenspiel’s.

By then, the celesta had made its triumphant appearance in Nutcracker, having featured even earlier in Tchaikovsky’s tone poem Voyevoda late in 1891. So Tchaikovsky may well have been, as legend has it, the first to use the celesta in a public performance.

Here is Prima Donna Nina Kaptsova as the Sugar Plum Fairy in the Bolshoi Ballet 2010 production of The Nutcracker.

 

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