The crystalline sounds that herald the appearance of the Sugar Plum Fairy in Tchaikovsky’s ballet The Nutcracker emanate from a celesta. Not many people know the name of the man who invented the instrument.
In 1788 an Irishman living in London mounted a row of tuning forks or metal prongs on a hollow box which were struck by small hammers operated by a keyboard. The instrument had a range of three to six octaves, but it never evolved beyond the experimental stage.
Around 1860, Charles Victor Mustel, a builder of harmoniums, invented the dulcitone: an instrument with a keyboard and a row of tuning forks to produce the sound. It was said to be very similar to the later celesta, but it was very quiet and failed to gain interest.
It was Mustel’s son, Auguste, working alongside his father, who in 1886 came up with an instrument that grabbed everyone’s attention and rapidly found a place in the orchestra. Mustel’s celesta (named for its “heavenly” sound) was constructed on the same pattern of keyboard and thin metal bars, but with the addition of wooden resonators and a pedal. It produced a sweeter sound that more subtle and less metallic than the well known glockenspiel.
Originally, the celesta had a range of five octaves, but the timbre of the lowest octave was unsatisfactory and the second generation had only four. To make it easier to play, the celesta sounds an octave higher than the notes that appear on the page of the score.
Tchaikovsky is often cited as the first composer to employ the celesta in a work for symphony orchestra. He tried it out in his symphonic poem The Voyevoda, premiered in November 1891, but he was disappointed with the work and destroyed the score (although the orchestral parts survived and were later reassembled). The following year, he used the celesta in his ballet The Nutcracker, most notably in the Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy (nothing to do with plums, but the original fée dragée meaning sugared almond fairy).
In fact, the French composer Ernest Chausson got in ahead of Tchaikovsky in December 1888 when he used the celesta in his incidental music for La tempête (a translation of Shakespeare’s The Tempest):
“Be not afeard; the isle is full of noises,
Sounds and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not.”
After Tchaikovsky, composers from Gustav Mahler to Vaughan Williams to Morton Feldman made ample use of the celesta. The American Earl Hines took it up in 1928 and other jazz pianists have occasionally used it as an alternative instrument. In the 1930s, Fats Waller occasionally played celesta with his right hand and piano simultaneously with his left hand.
Film composers make use of its ethereal sounds to invoke other dimensions. John Williams’s score for Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (2001) features the celesta, most noticeably in “Hedwig’s Theme”, where it neatly captures the enchantment of a world filled with wizards, witches and magic.