Tag Archives: mirlitons

What is a mirliton? The best link so far

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The mystery of Tchaikovsky’s mirlitons

If you know my site, you’ll be aware that I’ve been trying to find pictures of and information about “mirlitons” the title of one of the divertissements in Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker (see earlier posts). 

Now today I’ve found a great page on the mirliton on the “Bard of Cheshire” site that is one of the best so far. It brings together pictures and reliable information about the instrument called the mirliton.  I still like the possibility that Tchaikovsky was referring to the cake, the Mirliton de Pont-Audemer, rather than the reed-pipe as an instrument, given that the divertissements are supposed to represent sweets (and that was always the biggest mystery—why are these reed-pipes in a bag of sweets? (see also this page on the topic from a recipe book) And “candy canes” make even less sense, until you’ve seen a picture of a 19th century mirliton that’s decorated like a barber’s pole). 

On that subject, there is also a postcard of an artiste at Les Mirlitons, the cabaret opened in Paris by Aristide Bruant, which has a woman in candy-cane stripes with what look like mirliton pipes in her hair. Probably just a coincidence, but it adds a lovely confusion to the story. 

At last: a picture of a mirliton

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I can’t tell you how pleased I am about this: Here, on a site dedicated to the iconography of the bagpipe, are two pictures of mirlitons (scroll down to see them), placed as I have always suspected within the general category of kazoo-like instruments, in French termed “flûte eunuque, kazoo, mirliton ou bigophone”. ‘Danse des Bigophones’ has a certain ring, n’est-ce pas?  The pictures clearly show the the swirling stripes as they are seen in the mirliton costumes of some productions.

A history of my search for the meaning of mirliton

in case you didn’t know, I’ve been perplexed and annoyed by the term ‘Mirliton’ in The Nutcracker for years – how does this thing turn from marzipan, to reed pipes, to shepherdesses. What is a mirliton? Why do people talk about them as if we’ve all seen one (I never have). I’ve posted on mirlitons as cakes before, but I still have never seen evidence of the supposed mirliton-as-reed-pipe. My mind is finally at peace on this issue and I shall have a happier Christmas.

Update on 27th May, 2012: Here’s another  picture of a mirliton from a site about traditional instruments of the Iberian peninsula. There’s also a sound clip if you want to know what Tchaikovsky may have had in mind. Though I’m still rather convinced that the piece is a pun on Mirlitons de Pont-Audemer, as I wrote in a previous post, with a double pun lurking in the background, since pastushka (Russian for shepherdess) and pastiche (French for pastry) are so close in sound.

Musical surprises #5: Mirlitons are cakes

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Mirlitons on sale in Paul, Kings Road, 2008

Mirlitons on sale in Paul, Kings Road, 2008

OK, so I’ve posted about this before, but hey it’s Christmas, and it’s still one of the great mysteries of musical life: why in the Kingdom of the Sweets in The Nutcracker do you get chocolate, coffee, ginger, sugar plums, and er….reed pipes?

Although the mirliton is some kind of instrument (the nearest thing to it is a kazoo), it makes a lot more sense of Konfiturenburg if you know that the Mirliton is also a cake. One, the mirliton de Rouen is a cross between a Bakewell tart and a Maid-of-Honour, the other, the mirliton de Pont-Audemer is bit like a cigarette russe filled with a chocolate praline mousse, each end dipped in melted chocolate to seal the mousse in.

Other people want to climb Everest or swim with dolphins, I just wanted, before I die, to see a bloody mirliton, this darned reed pipe or cake, which is on the title page of one of the most famous and overplayed pieces of music in the world, but no-one could ever show me. Well, I’m happy now. Firstly, over at Louis La Vache’s recipe page, there is a picture of a real mirliton (the instrument) and a recipe for the mirliton de Rouen.

Mirlitons from Patisserie Aubry in Pont-Audemer

Mirlitons from Patisserie Aubry in Pont-Audemer

But what  Tchaikovsky had in mind is almost certainly not this cake, but rather  the mirliton de Pont-Audemer,  a speciality of the town of Pont-Audemer in Normandy,  allegedly [but disputedly] first created by Guillaume Tirel (a.k.a. Taillevent) in 1340, and still available from the Patisserie Aubry in that town, and pictured on the left. It’s easy to see the relationship between this and the instrument shown on Louis La Vache’s page, right down to the ‘membrane’ of chocolate at either end.

The picture on the left is of a box of these mirlitons from Patisserie Aubry  in Pont-Audemer.

Mirlitons

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One conundrum I missed out from the list earlier: I was passing Paul in the King’s Road the other day, when I noticed a plate of Mirlitons in the window.  Bearing in mind that Act II of The Nutcracker is all about sweets, and the other divertissements have names like coffee, chocolate, tea etc. why do people continue to talk of Mirlitons as being  ‘reed pipes’, when it would be handy to first explain that they’re a cake, too?  For more Mirliton fun, the wikipedia Mirliton page is enlightening.