Tag Archives: nutcracker

Musical surprises #5: Mirlitons are cakes

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.

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


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.

Tchaikovsky’s Großvater


Tchaikovsky’s Großvater: two sources

The source of Tchaikovsky’s Großvater (the “grandfather dance” in the party scene in Act 1 of The Nutcracker, and the tune that Schumann quotes in Carnaval and Papillons)  is usually given as a song called “Als der Großvater die Großmutter nahm…”  It took me a long time to find a source, and then I discovered I had one right under my nose,

Als der Großvater die Großmutter nahm: Source 1

Tchaikovsky's Großvater dance: a source

From Erk’s book of songs

It’s my hunch that the Großvater is a combination of two songs, both of which are found in Erks Deutsche Liederschatz Vol. 1 (serendipity: I found this in a second-hand bookshop in Balham, now replaced by an estate agent). The first is, as other sources say, Als de Großvater die Großmutter nahm. But what about the second half of the tune? Or the 2/4 section at the end that you get in the Nutcracker?

The answer may be another song, Drei Reiter am Tor.


Drei Reiter am Tor: Source 2

Tchaikovsky's Großvater - a source from Erk's LiederschatzDrei Reiter am Tor from Des Knaben Wunderhorn is not as perfect a fit for the first part of the song, but it’s very similar. But the second part provides the other half of the tune that is missing in Als der Großvater die Großmutter nahm, and has a similar shape to the 2/4 section.  My volume is inscribed with an ex libris dated 1918, so it’s less than 20 years after the first production of Nutcracker. 

I wonder what the story is? Possibly Tchaikovsky knew the dance (see source 3 below) and made up a second section that had similar thematic material to the 2/4 coda, so that it would be related to the first part of the dance. The contour is generic enough that you could unwittingly create something that sounds like a German folksong by reverse-engineering the coda.

Or did Tchaikovsky deliberately mash up the two songs? Or forget which was which? If the  lyrics, as well as the tune, were in Tchaikovsky’s mind, could there be a darker layer of meaning to be mined (‘Scheiden und Meiden tut weh’, for example). The underlying 16th century (?) German folk melody has another correlate in the Saltpetre shanty (see the music here).

Tchaikovsky’s Großvater, source 3: “Characteristic songs and dances of all nations”

I’m indebted to Joy Morin, who commented on this post (click on comments/replies to see), for providing a link, in Characteristic Songs and Dances of All Nations, to a near-contemporaneous source for the nearly the whole dance from 1901. This gives the first half of the tune (Source 1) and the 2/4 section.  This is wonderful – published only eight years after the first production of The Nutcracker, it provides the proof that this was probably a currently well-known tune and dance. However, it still doesn’t explain the second half of the tune in The Nutcracker. I think “Drei Reiter am Tor” might provide the answer to that, and possibly to the source of the melodic contour of the 2/4 section.

The introduction to this book is fascinating and in places extraordinary. It’s hard to understand why an elementary music student would so urgently need to tell a mazurka from a scalp-dance, or how a music book could present material in a way that could be “repulsive”—

“A third object has been to preserve examples of the leading National Dances in an easily accessible form, to enable even the most elementary musical student to obtain a slight knowledge of the differences in, and structure of, a reel, waltz, mazurka, or scalp-dance of the Dakota Indians.

A final, and by no means the least important object, has been to try and interest the general public in National Songs and Dances, by presenting a typical selection in a manner not too scientific to be repulsive.”

From the introduction to “Characteristic Songs and Dances of All Nations” 1901.

For the pedantic, I reverted to esszetts in Großvater because I like them, and a quick Google revealed that the neue Rechtschreibung failed to get rid of them after all. Thank goodness, they’re One of my Favourite Things, as Julie would say.



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.