Hansel and Gretel – Humperdinck
The Great British Bake Off contestants have been nothing if not inventive when it comes to gingerbread, creating structures ranging from pubs to entire weddings. Humperdinck’s 1893 opera sticks to a more traditional but no less ambitious construction – a gingerbread house.
With Star-Baker-worthy skill but dubious motives, the delicious edible home has been created by the Gingerbread Witch to lure in children. Humperdinck’s colourful, tuneful music has made this fairytale opera a classic.
Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy – Tchaikovsky
In Act II of Tchaikovsky‘s The Nutcracker, Clara is whisked to the Land of the Sweets. It’s the realm of the Sugar Plum Fairy, a magical creature inspired by a sweet made up of sugary layers. To conjure up her otherworldly delicacy, Tchaikovsky turned to an instrument that had been invented just five years before he wrote his ballet.
The silvery Celesta gives the Sugar Plum Fairy’s variation a distinctive colour, accompanied by pizzicato strings and woodwind, including bass clarinet.
Schlagobers – Richard Strauss
Princess Pralinée, Prince Cocoa and Mlle Marianne Chartreuse are just three of the characters that pop up in Strauss’s ballet Schlagobers – ‘Whipped Cream’. Set in a Viennese cake shop, various sweets come to life and entertain a group of children.
A lavish premiere took place in 1924… but it turned the critics’ stomachs. In a post-war era of food shortages and deprivation, perhaps this saccharine vision was a step too far. Strauss explained: ‘I cannot bear the tragedy of the present time. I want to create joy.’
Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland – Joby Talbot
Alice sits on a cupcake chair, a flamboyant character is tap-dancing on a table. This is the ‘Mad Hatter’s Tea Party’, an ear-catchingly orchestrated number from Joby Talbot’s full-length 2011 ballet for Covent Garden.
There are baked goods aplenty in Lewis Carroll’s famous tale, adapted for stage by Nicholas Wright: Alice eats a cake that makes her grow huge, while the Queen of Hearts is, of course, on a mission to find out who stole the jam tarts.
‘Cakes and Ale’ from the Suite on English Folk Tunes (A time there was) – Britten
‘We’ll Wed’ and ‘Stepney Cakes and Ale’ are the two melodies that Britten draws inspiration from in the first movement of his Suite on English Folk Tunes (a time there was). Dedicated to Percy Grainger and drawing inspiration from Thomas Hardy’s Winter Words, it was the British composer’s last orchestral work.
Don’t be fooled by the ‘Cakes and Ale’ subtitle, though, as there’s not a spoonful of sugar or ounce of fat added to this leanly scored movement.
Wedding Cake – Saint-Saëns
Nicknamed the ‘Wedding Cake’, the Valse-Caprice for piano and strings, Op. 76 is a charming confection that’s joyous and uplifting. Written for the wedding of the composer’s friend Caroline de Serres, an excellent pianist, the solo piano part is aptly virtuosic.
O Dame Get Up and Bake Your Pies – Bax
Bax wrote this slight yet enjoyable set of piano variations for his friends Anna and Julian Herbage ‘in acknowledgement of pies baked and enjoyed “on Christmas Day in the morning” 1945’.
Bax based his musical thank-you gift on the old North Country carol of the title, although it was actually broadcast by Harriet Cohen on Radio 3 on 23 December 1945. There’s no record of what was in the pies.
Sweeney Todd – Sondheim
We do, however, know exactly what was in Mrs Lovett’s pies, her secret ingredient transforming them from the worst to the best in London. Unfortunately for them, her unsuspecting customers had no idea that they were gobbling up Sweeney Todd’s hapless victims. Sondheim’s 1979 show, a ‘black operetta’, as he described it, was a hit.
Listen out for echoes of Britten, Bernard Herrmann and the ominous Dies Irae in his vibrant score.