When picturing a music box, most people imagine a shiny or decorative box sitting on a little girl’s dresser. Tiny dancers may be twirling around to clunky music that lasts just a minute or so. Music boxes come in many different shapes, sizes, and colors. Each plays its own unique sound, the tempo gradually changing from fast to slow until it has to be rewound. A music box tells a story through a chiming melody. It sits silently in its place until the next time someone is interested in hearing it. My music box has its own story to tell about a Russian grand duchess named Anastasia and the Romanov dynasty.

The Romanovs

Tsar Nicholas II, his wife Alexandra

The Romanov dynasty ruled over Russia from 1613 until the start of the Russian Revolution in 1917. Tsar Nicholas II was the last tsar of Russia, and the father of the Grand Duchess Anastasia. Anastasia was one of five children; she had three older sisters and one younger brother. She was known for her sense of humor and fun personality. Anastasia grew up during a time of political change in Russia. By the time she was 16, the people of Russia began a revolution fighting against rule of a tsar. Tsar Nicholas II was forced to give up the throne and move his family into exile in Siberia as a result of the rioting.

The Romanov family was executed in the Alexander Palace

After Tsar Nicholas II was exiled, the Bolsheviks took over the Russian government and imprisoned the Romanov family in the Ural Mountains in 1918. Soon after they were imprisoned, Bolshevik guards executed the family. Anastasia and her brother, Alexei, were rumored to have escaped the execution, but no one knew details about their whereabouts.

Over the next few years, many women claimed to be Anastasia; all of them were proved wrong. All except one, that is. Anna Anderson convinced even some of Anastasia’s surviving relatives that she was the real Grand Duchess. It was not until 1993, nine years after Anna’s death, that scientist discovered through DNA tests that Anna was not the real Anastasia. The true fate of Anastasia and Alexei is still a mystery today.

Anastasia (1997 Film)

The 1997 animated film by 20th Century Fox, Anastasia, is based on the execution of the Romanov family. It is not true to the real story of the Romanov execution and the Russian revolution. It is a fictional version of these events that is focused more on the legend of Anastasia’s disappearance than the actual history.

Catherine Palace
Catherine Palace ballroom

The movie begins with Tsar Nicholas II hosting a ball at the Catherine Palace in honor of the Romanov tercentennial in 1916. His mother, Marie, travels from Paris to attend the ball and gives Anastasia a necklace that inscribed with the words “Together In Paris”. This necklace is the key to a music box and symbolizes that their family bond remains strong in spite of the distance between them. The ball is suddenly interrupted by the villain, Rasputin, who was previously banished by the tsar. Rasputin places a curse on the Romanov family in retaliation of his exile. He takes over the palace and the Romanov family is never heard from again, the only survivors being Marie and Anastasia who receive help from a young servant named Dimitri. Dimitri leads them to a passageway that brings them out of the castle and into safety. Marie and Anastasia come across a moving train to board and escape from the start of the Russian revolution, but only Marie is able to make it aboard.

Anastasia grows up in an orphanage and the memory of her past is completely erased. She begins to use the name “Anya” and loses all sense of her true identity. After 10 years in the orphanage she decides to look for her family that she believes is in Paris. The only clue that she has is the necklace that she received as a gift from her grandmother 10 years prior, whom she does not remember. Meanwhile, her grandmother is also in search of her. Marie announces that she is offering money to anyone who can bring Anastasia to Paris safely.

On her way to find her family, Anya stops in St. Petersburg to find a train runs into Paris. While she is there, she explores an abandoned palace that was once her home. Still unaware of her real identity, Anya runs into the former servant that saved her, Dimitiri, who is trying to find a woman that closely resembles the real Anastasia to bring to Marie. Dimitri and Anya do not have any recollection of each other, and therefore do not realize that Dimitri was the boy that saved Anya and her grandmother from the siege of the palace. Dimitri is now a conman that is only interested in making money and notices Anya’s striking resemblance to the childhood portrait of Anastasia still hanging in the palace. After much convincing, Dimitiri takes Anya to Paris to present her to Marie. Anya only agrees to go when Dimitri offers her a free train ticket to the location she was already planning on traveling to.

Dimitri presenting the music box to Marie

Many conmen had already brought imposters to Marie, only in search of the large sum of money she was offering. When Marie meets Anya, she is extremely skeptical and is reluctant to believe that this girl is different from all of the other women pretending to be her granddaughter. But once Marie, Anya, and Dimitri spend more time together, memories of the ball in Catherine Palace come flooding back. Dimitri is sure of Anya’s true identity and presents the music box that Marie gave Anastasia as a gift on that same night. He gained possession of the music box after he found it abandoned in the palace during the siege. This was the final proof needed to convince Marie that Anya is truly her granddaughter, Anastasia.

This film was released four years after scientists discovered Anna Anderson was not the grand duchess Anastasia, but just another imposter. Anya’s character could be interpreted as a representation of Anna, the difference being that the movie ends with the viewer understanding that Anya is a true Romanov. The film touches on the truth that many women became Anastasia imposters and tried to fool the remaining Romanov relatives. The movie does not portray the true cause and result of the Russian revolution, but tells a dramatized story of the mystery of Anastasia’s survival.

Nicholas & Alexandra Anastasia Music Box

The Nicholas & Alexandra Anastasia music box is a beautiful replica of the music box in the animated film and plays the song “Once Upon a December” which Anya sings when she is trying to recall her past. There are two figures that twirl around to the tune every time the box is wound up, and they are supposed to represent Anastasia’s mother and father, Tsar Nicholas II and Alexandra. This music box is a collector’s item made by the San Francisco Music Box Company. The music box does not come with the matching necklace that is Marie gives Anya in the movie.

The outside of the music box is decorated with faux pearls and gold paint. There are dark green floral details that surround the base and top of the box. When the box is opened, the top of the inside contains a very detailed painting of a white emperor swan enclosed by a glass cover and surrounded by a gold border. Black velvet covers the inside of the base where a spring holds the dancing figures.

How It’s Made

The Anastasia music box is an 18-note, hand-wound music box. Music boxes contain a musical comb that is tuned to play notes by adjusting the length of each tooth. Short teeth produce high notes and long teeth produce low notes. This metal comb is attached to a metal block holding a cylinder with tiny knobs that pluck each tooth when the handle is wound. A motor containing a coiled spring creates mechanical energy which allows the cylinder to continue moving after it has been wound.

Music boxes are timeless objects. It was first made in Switzerland in the 19th century and quickly spread to other parts of the world. They were originally items that were too expensive for a family home to afford. It has since been tweaked and modified to produce many different models and sizes.

There are many different types of music boxes. There can be up to 72 notes and they can include bells in addition to the tuned music comb. There are also digital music boxes, but these do not produce the same classic sound as the standard type. A music box can be as small as a pocket watch or as large as a grandfather clock and they range vastly in price.

My Music Box

I found the Nicholas & Alexandra Anastasia Music Box while I was browsing a thrift store in Philadelphia. I immediately recognized what it was and the story behind it since I watched the animated film many times growing up. I always admired the music in the film and the beauty of the box itself. Finding this trinket box inspired me to look into the history behind the movie and learn more about figures dancing to the tune. The story of the Romanov family execution is haunting and mysterious. Knowing this makes me view this music box as an enchanting object.

The music box now sits on my dresser and reminds me of not only of the animated film, but also of the legend and history that inspired it. To some this music box may be just a collector’s item, but it is so much more. It represents the fall of a dynasty, the start of a revolution, and a mystery that will most likely never be solved.


Anastasia (1997 Film)

Anastasia Music Box — Review

Images courtesy of Creative Commons

Music Box — How Does It Work?

Russia: A Primary Source Cultural Guide by Suzanne J. Murdico

The Age of the Music Box by John A. Pfirrmann

The Execution of Tsar Nicholas II, 1918 Primary source account by Pavel Medvedev