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I first played Tchaikovsky’s music for the Mirlitons (otherwise known as the ’Dance of the Reed Flutes’ among other titles) when I was about 11 years old, in a flute trio put together by my flute teacher, Russell Parry. I already knew the tune, not from listening to the ballet, but because at the time it was used for a Cadbury’s Fruit and Nut chocolate advert on TV, with added lyrics of ’Everyone’s a fruit and nut case’. Of course, once you know the words, you can never get them out of your mind when you’re playing it, even decades later!

There seems to be something of a mystery as to why it’s known as the Mirlitons. A mirliton is a musical instrument, made from some kind of gourd, which apparently sounds rather like a kazoo (perhaps flautists should politely ignore the facts that its alternative name is the ’eunuch pipe’, and that Tchaikovsky decided to score it for flutes rather than oboes). The name is also used for a french pastry, the Mirliton du Pont-Audemer, shaped rather like a cigar, and filled with chocolate and praline. Was this an intentional link by the Cadbury’s advertising department..? In earlier versions of The Nutracker somehow the Mirlitons became Marzipan in the parade of delicacies that forms the second act divertissements (chocolate, coffee, sugar plums, candy canes and even a cough sweet). In Balanchine’s 1954 production of the The Nutracker, the Mirlitons are represented by marzipan shepherdesses, presumably because in both art and music, the flute often conjures up a pastoral idyll. 

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Tchaikovsky’s father was a flautist, and he himself studied the flute at the St Petersburg Conservatory in the 1860s with the Italian virtuoso, Cesare Ciardi, who was also Principal Flute of the Bolshoi Theatre. However, despite knowing the instrument thoroughly, he still wrote some fiendishly difficult solos for it in the orchestra, and keeps the flutes very busy in all his ballet music! 

The Mirlitons is charmingly orchestrated, the three flutes having rhythmically identical yet tonally separate parts, with a pizzicato string accompaniment. It’s in the key of D, which is a nod to the key of the simple classical flute, despite those of Tchaikovsky’s time being capable of much faster fingerwork and harmonic changes through major redevelopments of the instrument in the 1840s, which he really made the most of. 

My flute is an old French flute from the late 1860s, and I like to think that someone may have played The Nutracker on it not long after Tchaikovsky wrote it in 1892 – maybe even in the premiere! I always enjoy the second act divertissements with their individual characters. They’re so beautifully crafted and stylistically perfect. And all done with a great sense of humour. I only wish we could see the dancing…

Top: the Royal Ballet Sinfonia, including Flautist Joanna Shaw; Photo: Bill Cooper 

Bottom: Beatrice Parma, Miki Mizutani and Karla Doorbar in the Dance of the Mirlitons; Photo: Emma Kauldhar