The aggressive beat of "School of Demons" provides a sinister prologue that gives way to the warmer, simpler melodies of "Rooftop Gardens", establishing the setting of Hans Christian Andersen's tale in a beautiful Danish town where flowers hang from rooftops "like waterfalls of blooms". The melodic themes representing Kai and Gerda, the two young friends at the heart of the story, are introduced in a quiet waltz in which the voices of the clarinet and the flute playfully dance together ("Kai and Gerda"). "Snow" heralds the first ghostlike appearance of the Snow Queen, with floating crystalline textures that eventually move toward a darkly ominous build and gusting flurries of percussion, bells, zither and flute. "Winter Play" nostalgically evokes a child's memory of waking in the morning to see the streets covered in freshly fallen snow, and of joining the town's other children to sled and play games outside.
"River" marks the beginning of Gerda's fateful journey to find her lost friend Kai; the feeling of being pulled inexorably downstream by a river's powerful current is conveyed through majestically swirling orchestral arrangements with a children's choir singing in Latin. Gerda's subsequent entrapment in the Garden of Eternal Summertime, where she gradually loses her sense of purpose and her memories of the real world, is the subject of "Forgetting", a song that oscillates between eerie lullaby and quietly seductive zither melodies. The spell of oblivion is broken when the appearance of a beautiful rose suddenly reminds Gerda of Kai; her tears of remembrance fall on the ground, and dozens of rose bushes grow there as her memories come flooding back ("Return of the Roses").
Gerda's terrified escape from the enchanted garden into the nearby woods ("Dark Forest") is marked by a sudden shift toward twentieth-century instrumentation techniques, with dissonant noises and Stravinsky-esque motifs evoking the frightened voice of a child lost in the woods at night, filled with doubt and surrounded by imagined dangers on all sides.
Those imagined dangers resolve into a very real danger in the form of a band of ferocious thieves ("Robbers"); the discordant cacophony of their voices as they travel through the forest gives way to a wild, stomping dance that is suddenly interrupted by Gerda's arrival in their midst. A frantic chase ensues and the robbers soon capture Gerda.
Gerda's life is spared by the youngest robber girl, who wants to keep Gerda alive so she can have a friend to play with. But Gerda's hopes of finding her long-lost friend Kai are unexpectedly revived when she overhears the birds in the rafters of the robber girl's bedroom ("Wood Pigeons") talking about Kai. Gerda learns from the wood pigeons that Kai is being held captive by the Snow Queen, a mysterious entity who lives in the snowy wastelands of the far north. Moved by Gerda's story, the robber girl decides to help her; she lends Gerda her pet reindeer, who carries her swiftly across the tundras of Lapland and Finland toward the palace of the Snow Queen.
"The Queen's Warriors" are a deathless host of snow spirits that the Snow Queen has charged with defending her palace against any intruders. Gerda struggles against their relentless, freezing onslaught. At last she manages to enter the palace, where an eerie, deathly silence reigns. Gerda finds Kai, the object of her rescue, sitting alone at the heart of the palace, but Kai shows no reaction at all to her arrival. Blank-eyed, emotionless, frozen nearly to death, he has completely forgotten Gerda. He is consumed by a single obsession: solving the impossible puzzle of ice fragments that the Snow Queen has created for him ("Ice Puzzle"). Gerda weeps with joy to see her long-lost friend, but her tears of joy and love turn to tears of grief as she realizes that he is no longer himself. Her tears splash on Kai, and they melt the fragments of ice lodged in his eyes and heart, releasing him from the Snow Queen's spell.
Kai and Gerda embrace, and together they travel back to the town of their childhood, revisiting friends and places from Gerda's journey along the way ("Reunion").