The “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy” was composed by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky as part of his ballet, “The Nutcracker.” It was premiered at the Imperial Mariinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg in 1892. It had only modest success at first, but has since become deeply woven into the fabric of music and dance, in addition to appearances in animation, video games, and a host of other media. The New York City Ballet produced George Balanchine’s staged reinterpretation in 1954 and has done so for every Christmas season since, to houses packed particularly with parents bringing their children to see the grand two-hour spectacle.
Tchaikovsky employs the majestic, French-made Celesta (celeste meaning heavenly in French), an instrument still unknown at the time in Russia. He secretly brought the instrument to the theater hoping to avoid other composers from knowing about it, and thereby writing for it, before Tchaikovsky himself got to use to it to great effect. While not the musical piece from where it originally appeared, “The Nutcracker” is largely considered the first major work to truly feature the Celesta. The ballet has gone on to inspire the instrument’s inclusion in works by Gustav Mahler, Béla Bartók, George Gershwin, Dmitri Shostakovich, Duke Ellington, Benjamin Britten, Philip Glass, and John Williams.
Curiously, sugar plums are not candied plums, but in fact seeds (or nuts or dabs of spice) covered in a shell of sugar, commonly referred to as comfits. There’s little to no relation to actual plums. Instead, to have sugar plums in your mouth—at least in the 17th century—meant either you spoke sweetly with insincere intentions, or that you had been bribed. A hundred years later a plum was slang for 100 British pounds. And a hundred years after that, a plum simply meant anything good or desirable.