Christmas with the Master Composers (Part 5) - Analysis of The Nutcracker's "Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy" by Tchaikovsky

in classical-music •  4 months ago Licensed in the Public Domain

Hello everyone! Welcome to the fifth article in my series of analyses of the Christmas works of Tchaikovsky and Handel. Yesterday, we discussed the Tenor recitative and aria from the Messiah, and we will be discussing the infamous "Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy" from Tchaikovsky's nutcracker suite today. If you missed any of the previous analyses, they will be linked at the bottom. Without any further delay, let's get into the Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy:



As always, we will first discuss form. The form of this piece is simple enough being classified as rounded binary. I consider this to be rounded binary rather than ternary because it feels as though the B section does not have a conclusion. It ends on V where a cadenza occurs leading back to the A section. It feels as if the B section is woven to the A section, and I have therefore feel that it would be best classified as rounded binary.

Here you can see the end of the Cadenza which simply leads back to the A section. I used pink to highlight harmonies which I considered to be harmonically non-functioning; instead, they function as a neighbor to the inversion of V.

The maroon notes are pedal points.


Though this is a copy of the piano score (which I have been copying myself), I would like to discuss the incredible orchestration of this piece. I especially enjoy the use of the bass clarinet for the descending 32nd notes at the end of phrases in the beginning and then shifting it up to the clarinet as everything gets higher.

The obvious orchestral decision to discuss in this piece is definitely the use of the celesta. The sound world created by this simple choice is astonishing. I cannot imagine any other instrument playing this piece better than the celesta does. It really is quite remarkable how much effect is created simply by this one decision. Something interesting about this is that John Williams obviously drew inspiration from this piece (as well as the Nutcracker as a whole) when writing the soundtrack for Home Alone. Listen to his use of the Celesta in this piece from the Home Alone soundtrack (if you can't access it here, I recommend clicking through to the YouTube):

John Williams adopted a very similar sound world to that of this movement. I have heard/read several criticisms of this strategy, and, personally, I think it is quite intelligent to use an established sound world which audiences will be familiar with in order to establish a mood.

Another orchestral decision which I will also mention is that later on in the movement the strings play the pedal point as 2 16ths rather than the 8th I have notated. I am aware of this, but the 1918/1922 edition that I copied from has it as an 8th note.


What I found to be most interesting within this piece was the harmony. There are a lot of pedal points (as the previous example shows). But there are also a lot of interesting harmonic decisions. For instance:


Notice the voice exchange between the soprano and inner voice in the first example. Also notice the fact that these are consecutive vii°7 (in different inversions). I found this use of harmony quite fascinating.

Also notice the descending bass line in measures 9 and 10. I found this use of harmony also quite interesting especially having the A-sharp in the Ger6 resolve down by step to scale degree 4 rather than resolving it up to scale degree 5 as is conventional. This makes me wonder if this A-sharp should really be a Bb since it is resolving down. But the decision is interesting none-the-less.

Overall, if I discussed everything which fascinated me about this work, I'd be writing this for the next 3 hours. Here is my harmonic analysis:

Previous Analyses

The Nutcracker Suite
Miniature Overture (12/4)
March (12/6)
Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy (12/8)

The Messiah
Overture (12/5)
Comfort Ye. . .Ev'ry Valley (12/7)

Upcoming Analyses

And the Glory of the Lord (12/9)


Thanks for reading this! This is almost certainly one of the more famous pieces that I will be analyzing for this Christmas season. I hope you found my ideas to be insightful/understandable. If you have a problem with anything I have written, please don't hesitate to let me know in the comments! As always, feedback is always appreciated! I look forward to tomorrow's analysis of And the Glory of the Lord! See you tomorrow!

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