A year of ballet playing cards #49: A medley of Hornpipes

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fairandforty

I don’t think there’s any other book on my shelves that I’ve ransacked for tunes as much as Kerr’s Merry Melodies (see earlier post), and possibly nothing quite so useful to build a repertoire as hornpipes. They move a lot, so it always sounds like you’re doing something, and because the melodies are suited to the physical characteristics of the violin rather than the piano, there’s something that sounds instantly fresh and different about them. After nearly a decade, I’d got almost everything I could out of the book I bought, and moved on to O’Neill’s 1001 a collection of, you guessed it, 1001 Irish dance tunes.

Hornpipes are usually written as even quavers or semiquavers, but played with a lilt. I’ve written out a suggestion of the lilting by dotting all the tunes, but before anyone writes to complain, yes, I know lilting’s more subtle a practice than that, but it’s better than accidentally giving the impression that they’re not lilted. You can spend hours reading about lilting on the net, but for a brief overview of the topic, see this.

I’m not sure what it is that makes a good hornpipe tune, but I like the ones that have the occasional triplet in, that have a wide tessitura that give you the feeling of a fiddler using the whole of the violin rather than just twiddling about up the top end. Sometimes it’s the name that endears me to the tune (like O’Connor’s Favorite in this set), and the modal ones are a welcome change.

Sometimes, a tiny fragment of melody reminds me of another tune, like the beginning of Fair and Forty, which is just like “Here we go looby loo” which my dad used to sing to me and my sister as children, and I have seldom if ever  heard since.

Another example is Whiskey You’re the Devil (or the same tune under different names). The end of the first phrase is identical to the second half of the first line of Out of Town, the theme tune to a programme that I couldn’t stand as a child, but in the school playground we used to change the words to “Say what you will, school dinners make you ill…”

saywhatyouwill

The end of the first line of “Whiskey you’re the devil”

And here’s the song:


As it happens, me and my friend Johnny Dyer were suspended from my C of E junior school for three days, aged 10, for leading a protest march with a few others in Bournemouth with banners written in biro on the side of cardboard boxes saying “School dinners are only fit for pigs!”  I don’t think the school dinners really were that bad – we’d seen a group of kids in Southampton on the 6 o’clock news doing the same thing, and we wanted our 15 minutes of fame too.

 

A year of ballet playing cards #48: Three French petit allegros (9d)

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auber-running2

Click to download the score

Several times since I started this “playing card” project, I’ve found myself looking for music that solves whatever problem turned up in class that week. Last week it was finding music for those twiddly allegros that need exactly the music that you don’t really want to play – the continuous semiquaver solos that seem to characterise a lot of French 19th century ballet music (see a related earlier post). Most of the time, I’ll try to play anything but that (rags, jazz standards, fiddle tunes and so on) but there are times when nothing else will do – in one class, the teacher made it clear she exactly wanted what she’d asked for, not some more entertaining alternative, and as it turned out, she was right – it did work better.

I’d already heard a couple of things that I rather liked while I was going through the Auber Gustave III score, so I decided to make a little medley of them. In fact, it’s only a medley on paper, you couldn’t play them in a row for class. In the third one, only the first 8 bars is even – you’d have to find a way of cutting/fiddling the last section. I started to do it myself, and then I remembered that other pianists often find much better ways than I do of finding cuts, so I’ve left the material there for you to make your own cuts in. You’ve been warned.

It’s easy to think that this music is so simple and lacking in harmonic/rhythm interest that you could just make it up as you go along. But actually, it’s not that easy to do, and you’ll find this isn’t that easy to play either.

I picked the first one, which starts at 9’47” because it has a half-bar anacrusis, and that’s my new favourite trick for class, experimenting with what William Rothstein calls  “Franco-Italian hypermeter” (see earlier post).  You could start it on the beat if you wanted, but I’ve found that these half-bar anacruses things bring a lightness to duple meter things that works like magic. In this case, there’s also a forte-piano dynamic marking from the weak to the strong beat, which creates even more lightness. Little touches like this are counterintuitive but look perfect with the right exercise. Try it and see.

The second one starts at 5’19” and is the most usable of the three perhaps.

The third one starts at 12’18” and isn’t really a “running 4″ at all, but I like it, and I seem to be short of things that go like this. Be warned about the second section (see above).

A year of ballet playing cards #18: Another 6/8 allegro – by Auber (5h)

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auber-pas-degustave

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This is what I call an “assemblé 6/8″ because it’s often in assemblé exercises that teachers ask for a 6/8, or what seems like a waltz. Once the exercise starts, you realise that it’s neither a waltz, nor the kind of 6/8 that grows on trees. I call it “one of those 6/8s” (see  recent post for another example), or an “assemblé 6/8″ – you can also use it for some battements glissés exercises at the barre.

The longer I’ve played for ballet, the more I’ve come to appreciate pieces like this. On the surface they appear to do nothing – the bass line barely moves for the whole piece. But as a rule, taking stuff away rather than adding it seems to work well in ballet class. Structurally, too, the middle section with its upward motion and drama is all the more exciting for being set off by rather static stuff either side. What also looks like musical dullness – the same note in the bass for most of the piece, also acts like a drum, and a musical “floor” for the person doing the exercise. It’s easy to denigrate 19th century ballet music for being samey, but it works, and what the hell, Uptown Funk doesn’t suffer from having too many of the same notes in the tune either.

This piece is a good example of music that has physical constraints in its design that prevent you from snatching a few milliseconds in the middle of the bar as you might in a waltz or jig-like rhythm. Those two semiquavers in the central beat (punctuated by horns in the orchestration) keep this in a genuine three, and make you hold your tempo. I borrowed the idea of physical constraints as a design feature  from Donald Norman’s The Design of Everyday Things (Norman, 1989).

The value of physical constraints is that they rely on properties of the physical world for their operation; no special training is necessary. With the proper use of physical constraints there should be only a limited number of possible actions – or, at least, desired actions can be made obvious, usually by being especially salient.  (Norman, 1989, p. 84)

An example of this in everday life would be a door that had a push-plate on one side, and a handle on the other. You simply couldn’t pull the door on the push side by accident because there’s nothing to grab, and you would naturally go to pull the door on the pull-side. In this music, those semiquavers are the physical constraints, they prevent you from squeezing the tempo in the middle of the bar. The same principle works like a dream when you use polka-mazurka types for a pirouette – it’s almost impossible to get out of time.

Despite it’s simplicity, this piece was difficult to reduce for piano, and I’m still not happy with it, after several revisions.  It’s hard to capture the bouncy lightness of the orchestration on a piano with only two hands, so this would probably make a nice duet. In three places, I’ve missed out one beat, in order to drag the piece into a meter that works for class. The start of it comes from Act 1 (should start automatically start in the right place when you click, but if not, drag the slider to 6:11)

The A minor section comes from Act 5 (starts at 16:17, again, should start there automatically on click, but drag to the right time if not). Altogether, this week’s score has four variants of 6/8 for allegro, one of which will probably work for the exercise. It’s handy to have a piece that keeps changing rhythmic emphasis like this, because then you can see which particular variant works. You’ll notice that the final section also removes the constraint that I wrote about in the F major section – which will be either a good or a bad thing, depending on the exercise.

I can’t say I was much of an Auber fan before this week, but the more I listen, the more I like it. There are some really bizarre, tender and wonderful moments of orchestration.  I also began to realise how much Tchaikovsky’s dance music resembles Auber at times (the Tchaikovsky pas de deux female variation could have been written by him, in places, and there’s a bit that sounds straight out of a march in Swan Lake.

There’s also a strong resemblance between this last A minor section from Act I, and Tchaikovsky’s “August” (Harvest song) from The Seasons which is used in the pas de trois after the duel in Onegin. There seems to be a worldwide competition to play this as fast as possible, until the rhythm just blurs into rabid prattle of notes, but I do rather like this orchestration, which makes the piece sound a lot better than it is:

Bibliography

Norman, D. A. (1989). The design of everyday things. London: MIT Press.

A year of ballet playing cards #47: A tango by Tárrega

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Short and sweet today, a little tango by Tárrega that is barely arranged at all from the original guitar piece. It’s tempting to fill it out (and I probably would a little in class, by doubling the bass occasionally, and doubling the thirds of the tune in the left hand where possible) – but on the other hand, part of the appeal of the piece is its simplicity. I kept changing my mind about whether the first tune would sound better an octave lower or not. I think you could probably experiment with playing the first half an octave lower, and the second half an octave higher.

It was also tempting to cover the piece with Grainger-esque articulations and dynamics to try and mimic the touch of the guitar, but thought it might look a bit presumptuous. It was also tempting to pimp it up Godowsky-style: to play a piece like this, which has so little in it, is hard to do well, whereas the Godowsky arrangement of the Albéniz Tango has voluptuousness built into it, so it sounds pretty good even if you don’t play it well. To make the original, much thinner piece sound like something, you have to work much harder, and so it is with this. I figured that you can fill it out yourself, if you want.

The reason for choosing this unassuming piece is because the holy grail for the ballet pianist searching for new repertoire is the “tango”-that-isn’t-a-tango, the kind that teachers request for battements fondus, and which also work well for slow tendus, because they have a perpetual feeling of in-and-out in their rhythm.  This piece is in the right area, I think. If nothing else, it’s a lesson in less-is-more. The reason improvised tangos often don’t sound effective is because there’s a temptation to throw every harmonic trick going at them, or fill them out with masses of chords, forgetting that the real thing tends to just toggle between dominant and tonic a lot of the time – the interest is in the rhythm, and the way it’s played.  It’s interesting that in the second half, the G major section, the peak of the phrase is every second bar, which creates an interesting tension between the metre and phrasing. So far, my favourite performance is the one in the clip below:

I came across this  because I was going to upload a piano version of the Gran Vals by Tárrega, better know as the Nokia tune/Nokia waltz/Nokia ringtone  as this week’s card (my thanks to the student who told me it was originally by Tárrega). It would have been fun, but the more I looked at it, the less I could see how it could be useful in class, except for the fact that the last four bars (the ringtone) happen to be in truly triple metre, whereas the rest isn’t, so it would be great for an exercise that needed detail at the end of the phrase, or to slow down as you turned around on the barre or something. But the truth is, there is little use for the bog-standard waltz in class, because it’s essentially duple metre with triple subdivision, so apart from the increasingly rare occasion where a teacher actually asks you for a “little waltz” during tendus, say, there’s no reason to fill your toolbox with them (it’s probably full of them anyway).

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

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17-4h-verdi

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:

17-4h_0003

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

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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:

http://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2015/may/16/sophie-heawood-fallen-out-of-love-with-music

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

http://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2015/may/16/sophie-heawood-fallen-out-of-love-with-music/

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)

guardian-true

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)

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esmeralda

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.