Meet the instruments: The celeste

16 December 2014 | By admin

Kissing cousin to the piano but with a sound straight from fairyland, the celeste is the perfect accompaniment to the Sugar Plum Fairy’s solo in The Nutcracker. How is that sound made? And what does it have to do with Harry Potter? We caught up with our Principal Pianist Stuart Macklin to find out.

Tell us a little about the history of the celeste.
It was invented by Auguste Mustel in Paris in 1886. It is often said that the first composer to use the celeste was  Tchaikovsky in The Nutcracker; however, this is not true. The French composer  Ernest Chausson was the first to use it, in 1888. It wasn’t until 1892 that Tchaikovsky introduced the celeste to Russian audiences, in his score for The Nutcracker. Although Tchaikovsky wasn’t the first to use the celeste, it would be safe to say that the Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy is the most recognisable composition for the instrument.

How does it make that magical sound?
The celeste looks like a small upright piano, with the same black-and-white keys, but that’s where the similarity ends. When you press a key on a piano, it makes a hammer inside the instrument strike a string that produces the note. When you press a key on a celeste it also activates a hammer, but instead of hitting a string, the hammer strikes a metal chime bar suspended over a wooden resonating box. It has a sound very similar to a glockenspiel, but because it has the wooden resonators, the celeste has a much warmer timbre. Also the celeste, like the piano, has a sustaining pedal which enables the player to play with a smooth, connected quality.

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How is playing it different to playing the piano?
The difference is in the touch. You can almost stroke a piano key and it will produce a sound, albeit a very quiet one, but with a celeste, if you don’t use enough force the note will not sound, so you have to play with a heavier touch.

It’s famously used in The Nutcracker – where else can we hear it?
You can find the celeste in the music of many classical composers, including Mahler, Holst, Gershwin and Bartok, to name just a few. It’s also heard in popular music from the Beach Boys to Paul McCartney and in film scores, such as John William’s score for the Harry Potter movies.

Anything else we should know?
The celeste gets its name from the French word for heavenly.

Want more insights into ballet music? Attend one of the pre-performance music talks given by our Music Director and Chief Conductor Nicolette Fraillon. They’re fascinating, and they’re free!