Evenings on Žofin

Share
Zofin - 01

Žofin island (now called Slovanský Ostrov/Slovansky Island). The building is the Žofin Palace.

One of the most complicated music references I’ve ever had to research was for a piece that I found on an album called Little Pearls of Czech Classics. The piece was called “Poem” by Zděnek Fibich, and we used it for an adage at the barre in the RAD’s new Advanced 1 in 2013. When I tried to find a piano version of the piece (it was in fact originally a piano piece), it seemed that every time I looked, a new reference would turn up. In the end, I settled for this:

“Večery na Žofině” (Evenings on Žofin) from Moods, Impressions, and Souvenirs Op. 41 No. 139 (originally Op 41 No. 6). Also known as Na Podvečer Op. 39, or Poem [Poème] Op. 39a.

To that, you can now add Op. 41 No. 4, which is the title given to it at AllMusic, where you’ll find a concise history of the piece.  For all this numbering, I can’t even remember where I eventually found it – IMSLP have a good selection of FIbich’s works, but not the original piano work (presumably it’s in Volume 4, they only have 1-3).  I’d like to think that the memoral slab on the side of the  Žofin palace puts one strand of the story literally in stone, which is that it was the Czech violinist Jan Kubelik who made Večery na Žofině (Evenings on Žofin) famous by arranging it for violin, but even that isn’t quite right: to be more precise, Fibich arranged and extended Evenings on Žofin  into an orchestral work that he called V podvečer (At Twighlight, Op. 39), from which Kubelik then extracted a bit, arranged it for piano and violin, and called it Poème, whereafter it was catalogued – understandably – as  Op. 39a in the list of Fibich’s works.

Zofin - 03

It was a lovely moment when I realised that this complex history referred to a place that I’d walked past (and on) for so many years on my annual visits to Prague for the International Ballet Masterclasses in Prague. As the Allmusic article tells you, many of the hundreds of piano miniatures in Fibich’s Nálady, dojmy a upomínky (Moods, Impressions and Reminiscences) apparently document the history of Fibich’s late-life love for his one-time pupil Anežka Schulzová (she was 24, he was 42, he was still married to his second wife). There’s barely a part of Schulzovà’s body, or an aspect of their relationship that doesn’t get a musical mention (“Nos. 303-313, however, return to the theme of Anežka’s toes”). As anatomy lessons go, I still think diagrams are probably more reliable.

The more you read about Fibich and Anežka in brief biographies, the greater the sense of misleading moralizing whitewash. Fibich’s first wife died very soon after they married. They had twin children, one of whom died at birth, the other only a few years later. On her death bed, the first wife made her sister Betty promise to marry Fibich, which she dutifully did (or perhaps it was Fibich on whose side the sense of duty lay).  It’s hard to imagine how this could last, and hard to begrudge Fibich the unexpected love he found with the much younger Schulzová, an educated woman, expert in Nordic literature, and eventually librettist for Fibich’s later operas. A site about Fibich refers to these years of his life as “fateful love.” The ABRSM, advertising their collection of pieces from Nálady, dojmy a upomínky describe the works as “highly individual miniatures…dedicated to his mistress.” Anežka surely deserves more than this.

Here’s the original orchestral Poème, and further down, a little gallery of pictures from Žofin island, including a view of the National Theatre which you can see from the island. Built between 1868-1881, both Fibich and Schulzová must have spent a long time looking at the building site, and admiring it once it was built from their vantage point on Žofin. The row of impressive buildings on the river bank directly opposite post-dates Fibich’s death I think.

A year of Ballet playing cards: new score published

Share

If you’ve been following the Year of Ballet Playing Cards, you might have missed a couple of updates, as I’m setting the “published” dates as when they should have been published, rather than the date when I publish them. It’s just easier to keep track of that way. The best thing to do is to either follow the blog, or to bookmark this automatically page of links to the playing cards in date order. If you can’t be bothered to scroll down the page, click here to get today’s update, the coda from the Talisman pas de deux, a nice big waltzy thing.

 

Hooray for Forscore

Share
ipad-forscore

Swan Lake on the iPad, in Forscore. You can just draw all over it like this, and no-one cares because you can rub it out again. I love it.

I have to admit that I can be very slow to adopt stuff. It’s at least a couple of years since my colleague Ho Wen Yang told me about Forscore, a sheet music app for the iPad. But then another colleague, Chris Hobson told me about it (because we were sharing footpedal stories – he with his bluetooth pedal to turn pages on the iPad (which in fact another colleague, Grant Kennedy, had told me in about 2012), and me with my USB footpedal for transcribing from audio).

Then, as the time approached again for the annual Ballet Masterclasses in Prague, I remembered all those failed resolutions to use these two weeks to take and learn new rep, and I recognised my own stubborn resistance for what it was. If I’m really honest, of course an iPad with your scores on it is a good idea, and it would be a way of taking a load of stuff with me (including my 52 cards work) without weighing down my luggage. I could scan bits of stuff that I wanted, rather than having to bring the whole darn book.  I checked out the alternatives, and there seemed to be little competition – iPads are pretty good at what they do in that price range (though there is also mobilesheets for Android devices).

And, dear reader, after just one morning with my iPad and Forscore, I just love it. I got it partly because I recognised that the technology has made it possible for pianists to take libraries round with them, and that means there’s not really an excuse not to do the same. Part of my apprehension was because I prefer to play from memory for class. I still do, but actually the iPad’s pretty unobtrusive, in fact less so than a score. And, well, Jonathan, get over yourself and read from a score now and again.

  • The best bit was when I needed a bit of Swan Lake in a rehearsal, and I could just draw in a cut on the screen, without having to worry about rubbing it out.  Everything you write  on the score is non-destructive, and you can save different versions of the same thing with different cuts. Perfect for rehearsals.
  • It’s easy to read because it’s got light behind it.
  • You can find stuff quickly
  • You can bookmark bits of larger scores  – keep the whole of Swan Lake there, and bookmark the two pages you need.
  • You can be spend the time you save searching and setting up music on thinking about what else you’re going to play. It’s a matter of seconds, but it makes a huge difference.
  • Nothing is at the bottom of the pile any more. It’s all instantly findable.

I don’t think I’ll ever be a convert to the Kindle or iPad for reading books. I’ve tried both for years, and books win out every time for me (not least because most of the books I want aren’t available digitally). But for music? I’m sold. It’s times like this that I’m thankful to be around enough younger people to have my stubborn old brain have some sense kicked into it.

 

A year of ballet playing cards #21: A gigue by Grétry (8h)

Share

 

Gretry-card

Click to download the file

I can’t remember why I started listening to Grétry’s music after neglecting him for so long. In the years I’ve hunted for music for class, syllabi, other people’s ballet shows and so on, I’ve stopped at nothing as far as search routines are concerned, sometimes chucking any old search term into iTunes, like “carrot” or “milk” and seeing what comes up – so heaven knows how I might have found Grétry (random search terms can be very productive – give it a try if you haven’t already). Or perhaps it was reading about him in a music history book that led me to discover his catchy music for “Turks” in the Cairo Caravan, and to wonder whether there was more where this came from.

Gigues that have real triple movement in them (as opposed to being marches with a bit of a triplet-y lilt)  as well as being in 8-bar phrases are quite hard to find. Pieces like this are useful for those teachers that set petit allegros which need this continuous, filigree surface. It’s interesting how much you find this kind of texture and movement in Tchaikovsky (think of the party scene, see below) which supports Taruskin’s thesis (I’m paraphrasing) that Tchaikovsky was more of a French composer than a Russian one.

party-scene

Extract from Act 1 of Tchaikovsky’s “Nutcracker,” party scene

I was all excited at how much more interesting Grétry’s music was than I had thought it would be when I heard the clip below. Later, I realised that what I was listening to had been arranged and added to by Felix Mottl, as you’ll find out if you compare the two scores at IMSLP (i.e. the orchestral ballet suite, and the vocal score of the opera from which the ballet music is taken).

I happen to love Mottl’s re-hearing of the gigue (sadly, I’ve had to cut some of the best bits for the sake of making it work for class. When you look at Grétry’s original, you realise that Mottl had heard something in the music that needed polishing to summon the genie in the lamp. Perhaps I would not have been so ready to admire Mottl’s arrangement, had I not just re-read one of my favourite passages about arrangement from Peter Szendy’s Listen: A history of our ears. 

As ballet musicians, we are used to arranging (it fascinates me, incidentally, the  sociological implications behind the two terms dance arranger and “composer”) but it is Szendy who dignifies the practice with what you might call a poetics of arrangement:

amazon-szendyI love them more than all the others, the arrangers. The ones who sign their names inside the work, and don’t hesitate to set their name down next to the author’s. Bluntly adding their surname by means of a hyphen: Beethoven-Liszt (for a piano version of the nine symphonies), Bach-Webern (for an orchestration of the ricercar in the  Musical Offering), Brahms-Schoenberg, Schubert-Berio, who else—in short, a whole mass of double-barrel signatures.

Now it seems to me that what arrangers are signing is above all a listening. Their hearing of a work. They may even be the only listeners in the history of music to write down their listenings, rather than describe them (as critics do). And that is why I love them, I who so love to listen to someone listening. I love hearing them hear.

(Peter Szendy Listen: A history of our ears, Fordham University Press, 2008, pp. 35-36)

There’s enough material in this to make your own version – you might not want to begin the exercise in octaves in the bass, but that might be fun half way through, for example. Arrange away, add a fourth or fifth name to the credits.

 

Supermarkets: will we (or they) ever learn?

Share
Picture of courgettes and price tickets in Sainsburys in 2010.

Misleading? Courgette pricing in Sainsburys in 2010. Have they got any better? Check at your local store!

For those who enjoyed my 30 days without a supermarket challenge, you might be interested in this news in today’s Guardian – UK supermarkets criticised over misleading pricing tactics. Which? have lodged a “super-complaint” about dodgy dealing by supermarkets – including the kind of misleading or confusing pricing that I’ve banged on about in the past about courgettes and digestive biscuits.

 

Ballet classes and dance calling

Share

I’ve had two conversations with people who play for ceilidhs which have made me think that there’s much more in common between dance calling and teaching a ballet class than we’d like to think.  And now I’ve found a website which has convinced me even further.

The first conversation was with a fiddle player some years ago who explained in two sentences the relationship between marches and single jigs (you can replace one with the other) and how double jigs can be replaced with another dance (can’t remember which one now). The second was with someone recently who was explaining that they were going to do their first gig as a caller rather than just a player. When he gave an example of what he was going to do, I thought “hold on, this sounds just like someone teaching ballet, except with different steps.” It wouldn’t have occurred to me, had I not just transcribed a bit of a ballet class, and seen on paper what teachers say when they mark exercises.

The point I’m getting towards is that I think we often make far too much of a palaver out of what music for ballet class involves, because we (by which I mean “the ballet world”) would like to think it’s more classy and distinguished than it really is: elegant smoke and mirrors (literally, in the case of the ballet studio). We worry about whether this piece of music or that will have the right feel and atmosphere for that exercise, but if you look at fiddle books like Kerr’s Merry Melodies, you can see immediately that for a polka, for example, you can use all kinds of music, as long as you can still polka to it – and as the fiddler pointed out, single jigs and marches are interchangeable. Whether the music’s called a galop, hornpipe, reel or whatever is neither here nor there, it’s how it goes that matters; and if nothing else, people don’t always give their tunes correct names (classical ones are the worst at that – like Widor’s so-called Pavane in 6/8).

pavane-widor

“It’s a Pavane, Jim, but not as we know it.”

And then I came across this, a “Caller’s Workshop” on the website of Colin Hume, a caller himself.  There, on a page, is about the best introduction I’ve seen to dealing with music in a ballet class – all you have to do is imagine he’s talking about ballet rather folk dance calling. It’s concise, it’s clear, it’s down to earth.  He deals with  Working With Live Music  music in a few paragraphs, without making  a (excuse the pun) song and dance about it:

So that’s one thing to discuss with the band beforehand: who counts?  The other is signals.  “One more time”, so they can go back to the original tune or just give it everything they’ve got.  “Out” — particularly in a patter square where you’re jabbering away.  “Kill”.  “Slower”.  “Faster”.  You think it’s obvious what you mean; they don’t have a clue.  Walt Tingle uses a circular movement of the hand to mean “Wind it up — finish”, but many callers use that to mean “Faster”.  Make sure you know who to give signals to — it might not be the obvious person.  I tend to give signals to the whole band, for safety.

I reckon if ballet teaching manuals were written in this style, no-one would get in such a flap over it. It’s only music, it’s only dancing, but we’d all like to think that it’s something more, something that transcends the everyday. For sure, ballet at it’s best is extraordinary and out of this world, but when it comes to class, “You think it’s obvious what you mean; they don’t have a clue” is what it boils down to (on both sides, in fact).

 

 

 

A year of ballet playing cards #20: A luscious big waltz

Share
Talismancoda

Click to download the score

This is probably the nicest and most useful waltz for grand allegro I’ve found in a long time. It just sounds like ballet. You can use it straight off the shelf, and it’ll work instantly, and I love it.

The same goes for the adage from the Talisman pas de deux (my last entry) which I tried out in class today. It sounds just like all the things teachers seem to have in their heads when they mark adages, yet so few pieces actually deliver.

It also has within it a brilliant example of the difference between “normal” waltz metre and truly triple metre. The first and last sections are in “normal” waltz metre, i.e. in what we could otherwise notate as 6/8, with a weaker second main beat of the bar, whereas the middle section is truly triple, with accents every three. It’s hard to think of a better example to make the point with.

It’s not the cleanest score I’ve produced, but I’m trying out my little Akai LPK25 for the first time, and getting used to using laptop commands (i.e. without a numerical keypad)  for a big editing job in Sibelius. It’s hard work, but I’m so glad to have finally done what I’ve been meaning to for years, and buy a little touring keyboard for inputting scores. I remember reading once that Czerny had so many projects on the go that he’d have a room full of desks with a project on each, and go round each one for an hour each, and then move on to the next one. It hasn’t got to that yet, but I found myself rather naturally using one side of the table for PhD work, and the other side for playing work. It makes it so much easier to put things down when I get in.

prague-table