Daily Archives: December 4, 2009 7:26 am

Musical surprises #4: There’s a cuckoo in the Nutcracker

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Well, a toy one anyway. If you look at the instrumentation for The Nutcracker over at www.tchaikovsky-research.org  (possibly the best resource about any composer on the web), you’ll see that apart from the famous celesta in the Sugar Plum Fairy, Tchaikovsky also includes a toy trumpet, drums, cuckoo, quail and cymbals. Either I’ve been asleep for most of the 200+ Nutcrackers that I’ve seen, or it’s not often that they include these instruments in performances,  because it’s only in the last couple of years that I was at a show and thought ‘what on earth was that?’, and only a year ago that I at last put a name to it. A toy quail, of course.

If you don’t believe me, go to the Nutcracker page of the  International Music Score Library Project, and  look at the score of Act I No. 5, pages 129-130. On page 129  you’ll see the two lines for toy drum & cymbals (trompettes d’enfants and tambours d’enfants). On page 130 you’ll see a direction in Russian which says that “Apart from these two children’s instruments in this place and in the next similar one, noise can be made by other toy-symphony instruments such as cuckoo, quail and cymbals etc. Only the rattle is not suitable, since it is already used in the orchestra for other purposes [i.e. Clara’s dance with the Nutcracker]. The cuckoo and the quail should be in the key of C.”

Interestingly, the song of the quail (the real one that is) is apparently almost identical to the dotted pattern of the trumpet rhythm in the second half of the first beat of each bar.

And finally

For the record, and to balance some of the recent hype about the latest Tchaikovsky monograph,  this is still my favourite article about Tchaikovsky.