July 2016 | 2 Music Tips for Dance Teachers | Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker

Photo courtesy Nina Pinzarrone

Photo courtesy Nina Pinzarrone

Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker

By Nina Pinzarrone

Tip 1
For many dancers and musicians, the holiday season is synonymous with The Nutcracker. Tchaikovsky’s 1892 score, composed according to Petipa’s libretto, is fascinating in many ways. The orchestration includes toy instruments and the celesta, a recently invented cross between a piano and glockenspiel. Its silvery sound fit perfectly Petipa’s instructions that the Sugar Plum Fairy variation evoke water splashing in fountains.

Folk tunes recur throughout: Act 1’s “Parents’ Dance” (Bon voyage, cher Dumollet, French) and party scene farewell (Grossvater Tanz, German, a traditional signal to guests to go home); Act 2’s Arabian dance (Sleep Violet, Georgian lullaby) and “Mother Gigoyne” (Cadet Rousselle, French).

One of Tchaikovsky’s most interesting techniques is using scales as melodic material. Listen to the descending G major scale that opens Act 2’s Grand Pas de Deux. Notes of different lengths create variety; lush harmonies and arpeggios support the simple melody.

Tip 2
The Nutcracker includes many dances that work well for class. In Act 1, try the March (no. 2) with marches in children’s class and the Gallop (no. 3) with gallops and spring points in 2/4. In Act 2, try a section of the accelerating Russian Trepak (no. 12d) with turns from the corner, the Spanish Bolero (no. 12a) with pirouettes and pas de basques in center, and the Tarantella (no. 14, first male variation) with frappés at the barre.

The score also includes two notable waltzes. Act 1’s Waltz of the Snowflakes (no. 9), which I consider a compositional masterpiece, creates an aural snowstorm using hemiola patterns, which create the feeling of three bars of 2/4 time (1-2 / 1-2 / 1-2) within two bars of 3/4 time (1-2-3 / 1-2-3). Act 2’s Waltz of the Flowers (no. 13) begins with a lengthy harp cadenza (an elaborate solo passage).


Nina Pinzarrone, pianist at San Francisco Ballet since 1992, has bachelor’s and master’s degrees in music from the University of Illinois and has recorded seven CDs for ballet class.