A year of ballet playing cards #17: One of those 6/8s for allegro (4h) from Verdi’s “Jerusalem”



There’s a kind of allegro that’s in 6/8 that needs music like this. I don’t really know what to call it, only that the model is “Sempre libera” from La Traviata (below):

The trouble is that there’s only about 16 useful bars of that aria, and for this kind of exercise that comes forward in multiple groups, you need at least a hundred. Most of the things I know that fit the bill are equally short, or turn out to have too many notes to keep up the necessary speed without wilting. Also, the exercise usually needs lift and movement in particular places, so I usually end up improvising – until I found this piece from Jerusalem. 

I was going to skip this in favour of something that looks more interesting on paper, but when I came to play it, it felt and sounded better as performed music than it does on the page, and it’s also very handy because it goes on for ages. Even though I can hear a score in my head by reading it, there is often – as with this piece – a chasm between what it feels and sounds like as a physical experience, and what it looks like on paper. I’m certainly influenced by just how useful this is, so maybe a normal pianist (rather than a ballet pianist) wouldn’t feel that way.

What I love about this piece, the more I hear it and play it, is its constantly changing rhythmic shape. I wouldn’t have noticed this so much, or had the words to talk about it, had it not been for two instances recently where I was supposed to be teaching pianists, and learned something myself.

The first occasion was in Ljublana, (photo gallery here) leading a weekend seminar for ballet teachers and pianists at the Conservatoire for Music and Ballet. A  question came up about battements tendus with the accent in or out: how much does that affect the music that you should play? I wasn’t giving answers, it was a discussion between teachers and pianists. After nearly 30 years of playing for ballet, I noticed something for the first time: teachers, when they want to stress the accent in, appear to give more “accent” to the out preceding it. That figures logically, because if you want to chop a log harder, you lift it higher before it falls, and you have to show that the leg is out before it comes in on one. But it really messes with your metrical head, because you hear “accent in” as a verbal instruction, then you hear “AND a 1″ as a musical cue. Also, “accent in” doesn’t (I think) mean accent in the sense of chopping logs, but of where the close is in relation to the musical metre.

So maybe this is a case for pieces that exhibit what Rothstein explains as “Franco Italian hypermeter” (see previous post)  I tested the theory by playing this piece (playing card 46) which has more than half a bar anacrusis (which is one of the requirements), and asked teacher Tom Linecar-Boulton during a London Amateur Ballet class to see if it did the trick. It seems to, and it illustrates a fascinating thing about the incommensurability (in my view, at least) of musical accent with ballet accents. There’s a lightness and accentuation about this which has a very different kind of body to it than non-ballet music, and “anacrusis” in music has too many implications about downbeat that may not work for dance.  What it has is a long “and,” not a heavy one, and the one has an accent which is not to do with volume or weight, but – I don’t know how to describe it – where it is. It’s like saying “I’m going to put this here, and that there,” without shouting about it.

Try this (at a slow speed) for tendus with the accent in. It's fun.

Try this (at a slow speed) for tendus with the accent in. It’s fun.

The second occasion was yesterday, when I was talking to some music students who were going to have a go at playing for ballet classes. They were asking if it’s acceptable to have a stock of chord sequences that you improvise over. I said yes it was, and that it’s surprising how much a simple repeated sequence can be masked by the detail that you hang over it. I took this Verdi piece as an example. It’s in 6/8, but as Danuta Mirka would say, the “composed meter” varies – that is, the first two bars are indeed in duple with triple subdivision, but then the next bars, with the little grace notes, and the emphasis on each beat, are effectively in 3/8. As the piece goes on (I’ve sewn two together and done a bit of reworking to try to make enough for several groups), there are many variations on the rhythm of the phrase (with an anacrusis, or on the beat, with a half-bar anacrusis, or a short one) even though the basic duple structure is maintained. My favourite is this one:


That triple forte is the upbeat to the next “1”

This to me solves a conundrum with a certain kind of jump that jumps before the 1, yet mustn’t be heavy. When a teacher I played for recently kept saying “a bit lighter” I thought he meant just “quicker” but I think he really did mean lighter – but in the sense of not thumping either downbeats or upbeats, but maintaining a kind of tension between the two, as in this wonderful example.

You’d have to pick your moment to play this – if the dancers need the music to tell them what to do on every step, then avoid it – but if they know what they’re doing, the subtle shifts of grouping over the phrase bring all kinds of lightness and accent to it, in a way which is definitely Franco-Italian, and not German: what you have to avoid is obeying the (Germanic) rule that every downbeat has to have an accent. Think about Italian or French poetry, with its end-accented lines, and swoop over the bar lines, resisting the accents until the final bar.

I can’t find a recording of this that is at a tempo which I think would work for class, so I’ve done a very rough one here – my apologies for the botched job, but I’m sight reading, and the piece has only just come out of my musical oven.  Teachers, I’d love to know what you think about this, and whether I can give a name to this (is it particularly good for a certain kind of jump?).

If you can’t play this, or want to download it, right-click (or command click on a Mac) this link

The point of posting stuff like this is not to bring back Verdi’s Jerusalem because it’s the best thing for allegro, but to offer models for either improvising or finding other repertoire, and the changes of accent, metre, phrasing, rhythm, grouping and so on in this offers all kinds of ideas.

IT tip: how to stop Guardian links from displaying 404 in Facebook posts



I can’t remember when this started, but for a while now, if you paste a link into Facebook from the Guardian, you get the 404 page above as a thumbnail. If you click on the link, it does go to the page you wanted to link to, but who in their right mind would want to click on a 404 error?

To force the Guardian links to behave, all you have to do is to add a trailing slash (/) on to the URL. So if your link looks like this:


add a / on to the end so it looks like this:


Do it before you copy and paste the link rather than adding it when you write the post, because most of the time, Facebook will already grab the 404 page and grab it before you’ve had a chance to edit. So add the slash in the address bar, then copy it, then paste it.

Do that, and that nasty 404 page will magically turn into this (for the URL above)


By the way, it’s a great article, so do click on the link and read it, as well as taking the tip.

A year of ballet playing cards #16 : A big male variation from Esmeralda (3h)


Click to download the score (pdf)

You can never have enough grand allegro, and this is handy because it’s in a class of pieces that are ballet music, which means that you have to be careful where you play them, but on the other hand, it’s repertoire that’s not often performed, so either people won’t know where it’s from, or they’ll smile and go “Isn’t that…??” and you look good because you know weird stuff that you found on Youtube. The solo is at 48’46” in the clip below. It should start there automatically when you click, but if it doesn’t, drag the slider to the correct time.

See also: 

By the way, for metre geeks: 

This should really be in the Clubs suit, not Hearts, because it’s actually a truly triple meter, not the dodgy six-eight kind—the phrases end on the eighth count, not the seventh. What fooled me was the melodic phrasing, which is in two bar units, which definitely feels duple.  But look more closely, and not only are the cadences on 8, but also the harmony changes every bar, which strengthens the case for truly triple metre even more. Also, the introductory vamp before the first jump is one bar long, not two, which aligns somewhat with what William Rothstein has to say about “Franco-Italian hypermeter.” I transcribed this from the recording, so I don’t know whether in fact Drigo did write in 6/8, in which case the single count  vamp would align with that theory even more.  If it were the case, then the “extra” bar in the middle is not extra at all, because the melody begins on the half-bar in a 6/8 (but don’t try actually playing it that way in class).

On the other hand, it could just be a kind of compositional economy: given that you’ve already got an eight-bar phrase of entrance music, you don’t want to prolong the vamp any more than absolutely necessary, so keep it short, if you must have one.  Maybe it’s there  to provide the dancer with a run-up into the first jump (the vamp-like nature of the music telling the audience that what’s happening isn’t yet dance, just preamble to be ignored.

Once you start thinking about Rothstein’s theory (see other posts here and here) it makes something apparently as unimportant as an introduction suddenly fascinating, and it opens up all kinds of possible discussions about metre, grouping, phrasing, accent, and so on. For me, dance makes those questions particularly obvious because you’re dealing with accents and trajectories that happen in time, but they aren’t “musical” in the sense of being tied to time signature or accent. It’s like seeing a landscape compared to an ordnance survey map.



Trissie’s dollies: tunes, travel, gardens and a Blue Shawl


“Trissie’s Dollies” – from Bournemouth to London via three gardens in 40 years.

Last year I either discovered, or re-remembered, that my friend, contemporary and colleague Julia Richter had been taught by Rosemary Barnes, who was a friend and colleague of my piano teacher, Trissie Cox. Julia said that she had in her garden what Rosemary had called “Trissie’s Dollies” (her nickname for “persicaria bistorta” or “common bistort“). That is to say, many years ago, Trissie had given Rosemary some of the plants for her garden, and Rosemary had given Julia some of those. Then In turn, last year, Julia gave me some of hers for my garden. And so here they are: plants from my piano teacher’s garden, uprooted and replanted three times, and flourishing a hundred miles away some 40 years later. It would be nice to think that I’ll have a reason to give a few to someone else one day.

It struck me that this is what happens to tunes when they pass from one person to the next. The person you got them from doesn’t lose them, they just give you a bit of the plant stock, and then you have some to play with too. You transport those tuneful plants all over the place, and they grow, as if they’d always been yours, and that’s probably how others think of them. It’s only when you come to blog about how you arrived at your repertoire (like I sometimes do) that the journeys become clear – and then only to people who read it.

What caused me to think all of this was a lovely incident in the seminar I was teaching at in Ljubljana for ballet teachers and pianists.  We were looking for music for an exercise, and one lady played a beautiful, plaintive waltz. A Russian teacher at the back of the studio gave a deferential nod and said “Thank you for that” – because, as it turned out, this was a famous WW2 song, and it happened to be VE day, so it was appropriate in more ways than one. It was one of those moments where you see a dozen meaningful transactions at once in a split second – which funnily enough was what I was going to talk about in another lecture, with reference to Daniel Stern’s forms of vitality. I asked what the name of the song was, thinking that if it wasn’t in copyright, I’d put it straight in the 52 cards repertoire. It was Синий Платочек (Sinii Platochek/Blue Shawl). It is in copyright, unfortunately, so I can’t transcribe and put the score here, but here it is: choose your moment and play it for your Russian colleagues, or just for the sake of a beautiful song for class. As you’re doing that, you’ll be taking part in the kind of replanting and gardening activity that is the subject of this post.

See also

A year of playing cards #33: A deathly slow waltz (7c)


Click to download score

Thanks to Grant Kennedy in Australia for this as an idea for adage/ronds de jambe, anything turgid. I’m running to the airport (ironically) so no time at the moment to talk about slow music, except to say, isn’t this similar to Sibelius’s Valse Triste? Even in the same key – and it’s also about death.

And if you’d like to see what they do in the ballet.

How powerful is satire? Hollaender, Hitler, “The Book of Mormon,” and Nigel Farage


I finally got to see The Book of Mormon yesterday, and it was everything I’d expect a Matt Stone and Trey Parker production to be. Orgazmo – their 1997 film a similarly outrageous Mormon reference- is one of my all time favourite films.

It’s only a couple of minutes into the musical that you realise that the real outrageousness in this musical has nothing whatsoever to do with insulting Mormons, but is pointed at worldwide indifference to elephants in the room such as AIDS, poverty, military dictatorships, FGM and so on. It’s a curious mixture: three retired-age ladies in the audience on my left had disappeared after the first interval (and it wasn’t to find better seats – it was sold out, and this was the stalls). I was only surprised that more people hadn’t left, since there was no out-of-bounds topic or swear-word left untouched by the end of the second song. What the ladies probably hadn’t got the hang of, however, is that all those things that they were singing about weren’t indigenous to the musical, they were out there in the world. Stone & Parker are just make you see and hear it through the medium of song, and in a style that is so immediate and familiar, that it’s like someone dropping 10 ton ideas on your foot, while you’re laughing.

We all laughed, it’s a hilarious show, and the more outrageous the songs are, the funnier it gets. I thought to myself, this is great. I live in a world where there’s a whole theatre full  of people who get the point like I do (apart from the three ladies, of course). The Book of Mormon is hugely successful, there must be thousands of us. So is this show a force for good? Can culture save us? Probably not, I thought – because what we’re doing, those of us who turned up, is celebrating the values we already hold through some kind of public ritual. It’s like choral evensong in South Park. Great, but eventually, will it change anything? It’s high satire, probably some of the most provocative satire in the world (more so than Charlie Hebdo, in many ways) yet I’m not sure it makes a difference, precisely because it’s preaching to the choir. There was a wonderful moment when Elder Cunningham, who has called the Ugandan girl Nabulungi by the wrong name every time he speaks to her (implying that he can’t be bothered to find out what it is, or spend time learning to pronounce it), calls her “Nigel Farage.” The house collapsed with laughter for several seconds. It was a master stroke. In one multimodal moment of musical theatre, the politics and personality of Ukip and Nigel Farage just imploded in a communal guffaw. The trouble is, of course, no-one could hear us.

And that led me back to thinking about another period of intense satire, Germany in the 1930s. If it hadn’t been for a cabaret singer that I teamed up with when I worked in Berlin in the early 1990s, I would never have known about a song by Friedrich Hollaender, written in 1931, called “An allem sind die Juden schuld” (Everything is the Jews’ fault).  The song, sung to the tune of the habanera from Carmen, pokes fun at Hitler, two years before he came to power (so the commonly held idea that Germans just woke up with a start after the second world to find that Hitler wasn’t who they thought he was needs some revision, if this song is anything to go by).

It has some cracking lines and rhymes like schwul/Stuhl (“If the Prince of Wales is gay, or your dog has hard stools… it’s the Jews’ fault”).  It’s as risqué in several senses as The Book of Mormon. But my point is, as accurate and funny as it is, it didn’t stop Hitler getting to power. My guess is that like The Book of Mormon, there were probably clubs full of people who were glad to find their ideals celebrated in song, but who nonetheless found themselves transported and killed by people who had no time for such things.

By chance, I’d recently read a brilliant article (Rediscovering Operetta – and overcoming the Nazi shadow) on how operetta, once a caustic, Book-of-Mormon type genre for social and political satire, got toned down into the anodyne schmaltz that we think of it today by – guess who, the Nazis. What’s brilliant about The Book of Mormon is that it satirizes within itself the kind of sanitized, politics-free sugary world of musical theatre, while carrying on its own more edgy version at the same time. The song “We Are Africa” is a masterwork of this kind of parody,

And yet. And yet, and yet.

Much as I love satire (and I love it almost above everything else), I think we overrate its power. Did Spitting Image change much? Or did it just give us a vent for our powerless rage at the politics that had overcome us? Months after Charlie Hebdo, have a few cartoons really changed the world?

I don’t think so, and that’s why, whatever you think of him (I don’t care – I love him), I think Russell Brand has got it right. He’s a comedian, but he’s not relying on comedy to change the world, but a Buddhist vision of right living and thinking. I’m not saying stop the satire, don’t laugh, or don’t see “The Book of Mormon,” but don’t pretend that “free speech,” in the form of satire is magically going to get us out of any conceptual ruts, because in the end, we choose what we listen to, and we pretty much know what we’re going to believe before we listen.  It takes much bigger thinking, and much more personal investment in change to make a difference.

The schottische and the chotis, and other dances


It’s years ago since a Spanish friend and dancing colleague told me that there was a connection between Schottische and a Spanish dance called chotis, and I’ve been meaning to look it up properly ever since. I’ve now come across this fabulous page:  Kicking It Up: ‘Asi se baila el chotis’ (this is how you dance the chotis) which traces several international links between the Schottische and its counterparts in other countries. The page is  part of a project called Modern Moves: Kinetic Transnationalism and Afro-Diasporic Rhythm Cultures, a “five-year =research project (June 2013 – May 2018), funded by a European Research Council Advanced Grant, and located at the Department of English, King’s College London.”

I’m thrilled by this, but also slightly dismayed that yet again, when you want to know something that has really bugged you about dance and music, more often than not, it seems to be done by people outside conventional music or dance studies, as if those disciplines are in fact too disciplined to generate the right kind of questions and research methods. The site looks fantastic, and I’m looking forward to exploring more.

Here’s a nice sample of one of the clips – music: Feira de Mangaio by Sivuca