Film clips of ballet pianists playing for class are so rare. There are films (such as the World Ballet Day online classes) where pianists play for a class that is being broadcast, but that is quite a different thing. The pianists are usually already in place in their corner, expertly making the class work, the piano mic’d and mixed in with a mic feed from the teacher, so that you never hear what a class sounds like as a natural observer, from a particular corner of the room. You don’t see the moment the pianist walks into the studio, whether they have music with them or not, how they are greeted (if at all) by the teacher, or what kind of people they are when they are not playing the piano.
So it was great to find this short clip, (starting at 28:20—should start playing there automatically) in The Children of Theatre Street (1977) a feature length documentary, with Grace Kelly, about what is now called the Vaganova Academy.
The voiceover intones mournfully, “Maria Ioseyevna Pal’tseva has walked these halls for 40 years. Like Madam Frankopolo [?], she has become part of the fabric of the school. The dancers come and go, but Pal’tseva remains, going from class to class with her purse and her old bag of music.”
Meanwhile, Pal’tseva is filmed walking down the corridor; the camera shifts to behind the piano, and shows her ambling slowly towards it. There is an almost embarrassing wait—as if editing hadn’t been invented in 1977— while the pianist puts her “old bag of music” on the floor, and places her right foot on the sustain pedal almost before she has finished sitting down properly. And no wonder: without a second thought, she provides a tinkling flourish to accompany the entrance of the teacher into the room.
There then follows a short interaction where the teacher explains to Palt’seva what the exercise is, and what music she wants for it. It’s a noticeable contrast to the 2007 film about the young English dancer Henry Perkins who studied at the Bol’shoi, where the pianist was invisible, and just supplied music on demand as the teacher barked “AGAIN” repeatedly at his student.
Both may be fictions. I doubt whether such interactions ever happened in quite that way in real classes in 1977 (any more than they do now). Documentary makers seem to swing between portraying idealized forms of collaboration, or cherry-picking tense moments which they may even have induced themselves, so I am likewise cautious about drawing any conclusions about the status of the pianist in the Bolshoi documentary. But that’s precisely why I find these clips interesting. You have to unpick so many strands of fiction to get at any kind of truth, and to do so would involve a lot of difficult work.
Thanks to Kathie Brobeck who commented on one of my favourite posts, about the origins of the children’s galop in “Tchaikovsky’s” Nutcracker, saying that Steamboat is a Scottish tune. I have to say I’m still keeping my options open as to where the tune originated, and whether maybe it came to Scotland first via Spain/France. But Kathie’s observation that the tune is just called Steamboat in Scottish music circles sent me searching, and here, for fun, is another version of the tune. I have now heard so many versions of this tune in folk music contexts that it seems exotic when I hear it in The Nutcracker.
Just a random observation this. There’s a little snippet of Les Patineurs (the red girls pas de deux, for which the music was taken from the Prelude to Act III of l‘Étoile du Nord) which is almost note-for-note the tune of “Dites-Moi pourquoi la vie et belle” from South Pacific.
For comparison, see/hear below—though I’ve no doubt the South Pacific clip will go offline before long
Prelude to Act III of l’Étoile du Nord by Giacomo Meybeer, used in Ashton’s Les Patineurs—highlighted part is straight out of “Dites-moi pourquoi” from South Pacific (or rather, vice versa)
Read it for yourself, but the take home point is that although we’re prone to believe that marches have a dotted rhythm, a carefully selected sample of 200 pieces from IMSLP that are categorized as marches appear not to fulfil the stereotype. I think what the authors are getting at is that there are many reasons from a perceptual-motor point of view why marches would be better off having dotted rhythms: it’s easier to synchronize to a beat when it’s divided thus, particularly in the preparation for a downbeat. Despite this, the numbers just don’t stack up when you take a sample of marches from IMSLP, so the roots of the “conjectured propensity” for marches to have dotted rhythms lie in culture, rather than practical, physical concerns.
The march as musical topic
An example (mine, not theirs) of such a cultural source for the idea can be found in Raymond Monelle’s The Musical Topic: speaking of a march in an 18th century opera Monelle notes that “the musical figures are in a dotted rhythm, like marches in all ages” (p. 161). Here’s another: dance and music historian Marian Smith in “The Forgotten Cortège,” in Bewegungen zwischen Hören und Sehen: Denkbewegungen über Bewegungskünste (2012, pp. 405-416)
“The Opèra procession’s sense of immediacy was enhanced by its music, for the march (the usual type of music used)—in real life and on the stage—attracted its listeners physically. After all, it was a genre intended to inspire and sustain walking; to supply the energy of forward motion. This attraction was achieved mainly by its rhythms (which typically included triplet figures and dotted rhythms), whatever the tempo or mood—though the tempo was always (by definition) walkable.” (p.411).
Annoyingly, I cannot remember where I read it — possibly in Eric McKee’s book on the waltz, maybe in one of Lawrence Zbikowski’s many articles on music, dance and meaning—but someone more scholarly than me has made an important point that the more music is composed as a recollection, a souvenir or representation of dancing, as opposed to music practically intended for dancing, the more prominent are the rhythmic patterns that signal the dance in question. Listening to music for aesthetic enjoyment, watching an opera, you are being presented with the idea of other people marching, you aren’t doing it yourself, nor is there probably much marching going on on the stage—there isn’t room, or a large enough cast. The responsibility for signalling “this is a march” thus lies more on the music than on the physical movement.
By the same token, many different dance/music forms—polkas, reels, rags, marches, hornpipes, galops— will suffice if you want to do a polka as long as it’s roughly the right tempo, but if you are in the Wigmore Hall and you want to titter behind your fan at your neighbour and gesture knowledgeably “Oh what a pretty little polka the pianist is playing!” then you’re going to need big signals from the rhythm of the music that it’s a polka that the composer wanted you to hear (so it’s likely to be a tune with a rhythm that sounds like “potato chips”). And it won’t particularly matter about the tempo either (which is why you’re unlikely to find ballet pianists by going to the Wigmore Hall).
The conclusions of the conference paper don’t undermine Monelle’s point, which is that the dotted rhythm is a kind of musical-literary symbol of a march and the military, regardless of what people actually march to—rather like his other concept, the cheval écrit: a horse represented in music, not a horse-horse. Similarly, even as early as Stravinsky’s Petrushka (1911), there was a musical symbol for “ballerina” (slow, tinkly waltz) which persists today, though Stravinsky surrounding it with music which itself defied the stereotype while real ballet was going on.
Perhaps it was a little reckless for Monelle to say “like marches in all ages,” and perhaps he was seduced in that regard by the proliferation of dotted rhythms in the musical literature that he specialised in, but he was talking about soldiers and the military as a topic in music, not a genre of music for marching to. It’s not altogether surprising that in music that was actually intended for marching, dotted rhythms are somewhat redundant and unnecessary. For one thing, you’re already marching, so the rhythm of your step is doing half the work. Marching to a tune that sounds like it’s marching is like buying a dog and barking yourself. . . kind of.
These relatively simple questions—about what makes a march a march, and how is listening to a march as a cultural signifier different to actually marching—are quite basic to choosing repertoire for ballet classes, and ought to be lesson one in talking about dance rhythms in the context of ballet, yet it’s rare to see them raised or discussed in a scholarly context, supported or challenged by empirical research. I have some issues with the sampling procedure: the collection of music on IMSLP is to my mind a strange place to look, given that what is there is dependent on what is out of copyright, and what people around the world have decided to upload. I’d be more interested to see data drawn from, say, recordings of march music made by bands that actually march or play for marching.
Keeping in time in real-life marching
William McNeill’s book on marching and drill (Keeping Together in Time: Dance and Drill in Human History) is frequently cited whenever an author wants to quickly make a scholarly reference to the joys of being together in time. Less well-known is the excited flurry of expert argumentative correspondence that followed a review of the book in The Times Literary Supplement in 1996 (I’m indebted to the detailed footnotes in Kate van Orden’s 2005 book Music, Discipline, and Arms in Early Modern France for pointing me towards this wonderful exchange of views.) The debate on those pages is inconclusive, but eye-opening. A particularly interesting one was from 6th September, by John Keegan, who argued that drums might serve a number of purposes in troops, including frightening the enemy, but keeping in time was problematic:
“Music can detract from precision drill. The explanation was suggested to me recently by a former adjutant of the Scots Guards, who revealed that the end of a column, if it marches to the received beat of the band, will be out of step with the head of the column. Guardsmen therefore learn to carry the pace in their heads, and actually march off the beat they hear, when they know that the speed of the sound through the air is misleading them. (The Times Literary Supplement (London, England), Friday, September 06, 1996; pg. 17; Issue 4875.)
As a result, he concludes that “soldiers had, from about 1760 onwards, to programme themselves to the idea of a cadenced step” —that is, I suppose, it’s something they had to do themselves, based on judgement and skill, not by synchronizing to an external beat. I recognize that sensation: in the days when I used to be an organist, there was one church that had a “choir” organ in a side chapel. The delay in sound was about half a second, so to keep in time you had to pay attention to the rhythm and tempo of your hands on the keyboard, and ignore what you were hearing. As an accompanist, there’s a kind of reversal of this in class: you clearly can’t accompany everyone at the “right speed,” and even in a solo, you have to look at a dancer and judge the tempo that you think they really want overall, rather than the one they appear to be giving in the moment—they may be rushing, or lagging, or have tripped over themselves. I imagine that for dancers it must be similar: if the tempo of the accompaniment is unstable, they have to find a way of being more or less in time, without being pulled hither and thither by the music.
I thought of this whole topic as I was re-reading an interview with a conductor talking about the way that you conduct the front desk of the violins, but the ones at the back are following the movement of the bows in front of them; if you conduct for the back desk, then the ones in the front are going to be ahead, and so on. And that’s leaving aside the fact that people hear and respond to beats differently.
And finally, the “ballet march”
Over the years I’ve played for ballet, I’ve come to realise that there are dance rhythms that are particular to ballet class: the habañera/tango that is so slow, it almost grinds to a halt; the ronds de jambe waltz that is like stirring a vat of porridge with an oar; the medium allegro 6/8 that is neither a jig nor a waltz; the “waltz” for grand allegro that is so big and fat you could fell trees to it. And then there’s the Grands Battements March, which I’ve already written about in an earlier post. People of my generation used to refer to this as “stripper tempo,” referring to the David Rose tune The Stripperof 1962 [NSFW], but even that tempo sounds too jaunty for the 21st century grand battement.
Interestingly, though, the rhythmic model of that grands battements march, often sung (slowly) by ballet teachers is Non più and’rai from The Marriage of Figaro, or the march from The Thieving Magpie, both of which have the dotted rhythm-to-downbeat rhythmic figure that the authors of this research refer to, yet tend not to find in their survey of the IMSLP marches. That illustrates their point again, that the figure is probably a cultural phenomenon, rather than one occasioned by the needs of marching itself. At the same time, the ballet example perhaps indicates one of the routes through which such cultural work is done: the tune comes out of the opera house and into the ballet studio, and tends to stay there. Play Colonel Bogey or The Liberty Bell and it won’t feel like a “marchy march,” even though those tunes are probably much more common as actual marching music. But play the much more recent Darth Vader theme from Star Wars (the “Imperial March“) and there is that dotted rhythm again, illustrating once more the resilient potency of musical topics—which was exactly what Monelle was writing about.
Christmas carols for ballet class: get ready for advent!
Five years ago, as an “advent calendar” I uploaded a free ballet-class version of a Christmas carol every day for advent. As it’s getting to the time when teachers start putting their festive classes together, if you haven’t had enough of these already, or haven’t tried them yet, here’s the link to all of them as a list. The last one in the list is a link to download all the tracks at once.
The result? Though I say it myself, I was delighted to find that I actually forgot I was playing this variation at all—I usually hate it—to the extent that I enjoyed the rehearsals without any dark interior monologues. There is something about the way that you get to spread your hands properly over the keyboard that literally helps you to “get a grip” on the solo; when it’s thin and whiny like the piano version, it has no body, it runs through your fingers, away from them.
The design of everyday things: including orchestral reductions
As I was playing it and thinking about these things, I was reminded of a section in Donald Norman’s The Design of Everyday Things about the importance of physical constraints in design, and how these enable us to take the right actions without having to think about it:
“Why the apparent discrepancy between the precision of behavior and the imprecision of knowledge? Because not all the knowledge required for precise behaviour has to be in the head. It can be distributed—partly in the head, partly in the world, and partly in the constraints of the world.” (pp. 45-55)
There are four reasons, Norman says, that precise behaviour can emerge from imprecise knowledge: information in the world, great precision is not required, natural constraints are present, cultural constraints are present. Of natural constraints he explains:
The world restricts the allowed behavior. The physical properties of objects constrain possible operations: the order in which parts can go together and the ways in which an object can be moved, picked up, or otherwise manipulated. Each object has physical features—projections, depressions, screwthreads, appendages—that limit its relationship to other objects, operations that can be performed to it, what can be attached to it, and so on. (p. 55)
An arrangement of Black Swan plots out specific combinations of piano keys that have implications for how hands can move around in time. My arrangement is much more constraining physically than the original piano piece. The presence of Drigo’s countermelodies, for example, introduce a secondary web of semiquavers that keep time, keep the fingers occupied in finding a way to play the melody and countermelody, keep the brain occupied by introducing the difficulty, and keep your spirit challenged and alert. All of this automatically constrains the possibility of rushing individual beats or moving too fast generally. (Conversely, though, my simplified version of the final chords—without those ridiculously unnecessary repeated spread tenths—frees up your mind and eye to concentrate on the much more important task of seeing how the dancer is doing on her diagonal.)
The extended mind
It’s taken me since August to actually go to my shelves and find the book and page, so I could write this post. The impetus for doing so is probably because I have recently bought and started to read Andy Clark’s Supersizing the Mind: Embodiment, Action and Cognitive Extension. Clark’s book is a huge elaboration on this idea that some of our “thinking” is in the world, not entirely in our heads. It’s at once rather mind-blowing, yet persuasively simple.
In turn, I finally bought Clark’s book because I was re-reading my notes in my computer on Tia DeNora’s work where she introduces the notion of musical affordances, and the musically extended mind (for a recent conference paper on this concept, see Joel Krueger’s “Musical Worlds and the Extended Mind.” (published in 2018, from a conference in 2016).
And as it happens, the reason I’m writing this post, the reason I have a website at all is increasingly because it’s a useful place to offload things like this into the world, so my brain has more room to remember where my glasses are, and which bit of my bag I put my umbrella in. I also get tired of thinking “It’s like that bit in that book by whatshisname, it’s a concept called I can’t remember, I’m not sure where the book is.” Occasionally, when I go back to look, I find that I have misremembered or misinterpreted, but in this case, I’m delighted to see that it’s not the case.
It might not look like much, but it was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to write, but it was worth it. The book itself seemed such an easy read first time through, but when I came to try and condense the main points for a review, it was a lot tougher.
I was going through some kind of romantic phase at the time when I thought there must be something organic and better about making notes in longhand. I thoroughly enjoyed the feeling of using a fountain pen again, but in truth, it turned out to be the biggest waste of time and effort: I’m now re-typing those handwritten pages into MaxQDA so I can make some use of them in my other work.
DeNora uses a wonderful metaphor to describe the complex temporality of music therapy, whose effect might not be immediate or direct: the good that music does in a person’s life might come later—perhaps much later—than the intervention itself. To capture this, she describes it as being like the future perfect tense (e.g. “I will have done”). That idea has dropped into my head at least once a week in connection with some experience of my own. Whenever people ask me if I enjoyed the three years I spent in Berlin, for example, I have to try and explain that when I was actually there, I was often miserable—but it was one of the most enriching and wonderful periods of my life, from which I continue to draw so much in different ways even today, It’s not retrospect or nostalgia, and it’s not the same as saying “it was awful, but it was good for me.” It’s a feeling that something is by nature good (not awful) in some kind of eternal time zone where when you are ready for it, you can draw on its goodness.
In a previous post about the so-called “lyrical waltz” (a term sometimes used by some ballet teachers) I took a long time to come to the conclusion that perhaps “lyrical” in this instance is not so much a quality of the music, as of what may be done to it. The more I think about this, the more I am convinced of that explanation, and am enjoying developing the idea further by applying some theory to it.
I think that for the teacher who asks for a lyrical waltz, the boundaries between the properties of the music, and what it affords, are blurred. You could go further: music has only the properties that we assign to it, using whatever categories and terms we happen to bring to it; so for the teacher, if music affords lyrical movement, then the music itself is deemed to be lyrical. A nappy bucket, likewise, is so called for the things that it affords, or is commonly used for (washing nappies) but there is nothing inherently nappy-like about the bucket.
Think of music as a bucket, and it’s easier to see that there no such musical object as a waltz in the sense of something that has intrinsically waltz-like properties, but there are “waltz buckets”: pieces of music that you can fit the movements of waltzes to. This is much clearer with contemporary ballroom dancing, where the waltz-like qualities or propensities of music that you’ve hitherto only been able to hear as a ballad become evident when you see waltzing done to it, as in the example below from Strictly Come Dancing, where waltzing to Hallelujah points up the three-ness at one level of the metrical structure. Having said that, what happens on Strictly is so far removed from the practicalities of everyday ballet classes that it’s not a great example, frankly.
What confuses the issue is perhaps the fact that there are so many musical compositions called waltz that seem to “call forth” waltzing, as if it was something about the properties of the sounds themselves that did the calling-forth. But if you have ever stood unmoved and unmoving while some dance music played that seems to be animating people around you into joyful, seemingly spontaneous dancing, you’ll probably have to admit that enculturation is important (unless you’re the kind to say that there was something better about the waltz than there is about whatever is being played in clubs now).
Enter Tia DeNora, and theories of affordance and perception
This has been articulated theoretically by the music sociologist Tia DeNora in After Adorno (2003), in relation to music, obviously, rather than nappy-buckets:
Music comes to afford things when it is perceived as incorporating into itself and/or its performance some property of the extra-musical, so as to be perceived as ‘doing’ the thing to which it points. (DeNora 2003, p. 57)
Earlier, she has explained this with reference to marching music:
Music may also afford the imaginative projection of bodily movement, as when one ‘pictures’ a type of movement when hearing a type of music. The example of marching music serves to illustrate these points. On hearing march music one may (but not automatically—see below) be reminded of or begin to imagine—to ‘picture’ marching. One may, in other words, become motivated or aroused in relation to a type of agency—marching—to a particular movement style, and one associated with a particular set of institutional practices and their particular agent-states, such as bodily regulation, coordination, and entrainment. One may ‘become’ (produce one’s self as) a ‘marcher”—that is, on the occasion of music heard, one may adapt one’s self to its perceived properties and so become, via the music, a type of agent, in this case, one imbued with march-like, militaristic agency. (DeNora 2003, p. 47)
A ballet teacher asking for a lyrical waltz is a rather strange reversal of this, in that she is in effect saying “Play me a piece of music in waltz rhythm that will enable me to picture myself moving lyrically, so that when I hear it, I and the class will then be motivated or aroused to move in that way.” Or perhaps, more accurately, the subtext is: “I have been told by my teachers that if I use the term lyrical waltz, you will play me a piece of music in waltz rhythm that will enable me to picture myself moving lyrically” etc.
The trouble is, the teacher usually does not know how to define a lyrical waltz in terms that have any meaning or currency for musicians, and cannot cite or sing any examples of one; but like Justice Potter Stewart and hard-core pornography, she will know it when she hears it. (In Jacobellis v. Ohio, 1964, giving his reasons for deciding that something should not be considered hard-core pornography, the judge said, in a statement which has since become famous, “I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description; and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it. . . “).
Implications for teaching
It is things like this that make playing for ballet so wretchedly difficult at times. At the same time, trying to unpick the problems theoretically fascinates me, particularly when this has implications for the way that music is taught or thought about in ballet training. For example, the teacher who says “Can’t you hear it in the music?” may be barking completely up the wrong tree. DeNora speaks (in the quotation above) about institutional practices and movement styles, and how the conventional association of particular music with such practices is what enables us to perceive (or perhaps tricks us into perceiving) a certain piece of music as “march” music, or whatever. That being the case, what will enable the student to “hear” music as lyrical is to do lyrical movement to it, in the style and manner encouraged by the teacher. The music alone holds no clues, no “information” on its own.
To a limited extent—and I’d be interested to know if the experiment could be repeated elsewhere with the same results—my late colleague Holly Price and I discovered this in relation to teaching about “dance rhythms.” You could chalk-and-talk til you were blue in the face about the properties and characteristics of dance rhythms from a musical point of view (e.g. the waltz is in three four time, the polka has this rhythm, the hornpipe has these characteristics), but it was much more effective to just get a class of students to polka, waltz or hornpipe or whatever, around the studio for a couple of minutes to the relevant kind of music.
The lyrical waltz and the not-so-grand allegro
An associated problem, though, is that both music and movement are adaptable. You can do the same movement to different kinds of music, and the same music will fit different kinds of movement. Only in the last few weeks—and I’ve been playing for class for over 30 years— I realised that a certain kind of grand allegro is ideally accompanied by the kind of (wait for it) lyrical, 6/8 music that opens the pas de trois in Swan Lake, or the entrée of Odalisques from Le Corsaire.
The pas de trois from Act I of Swan Lake by Tchaikovsky.
The entrée of the “Odalisques” in Le Corsaire. It’s more allegro than it looks
I realised about Odalisques because I was playing for a repertoire class where the teacher explained to the students the amount of energy and dynamics they needed to put into the movement, which made me realise how “allegro-y” it was, contrary to the way it looks on the page and feels under the fingers. As for Swan Lake, this was a rare example of a teacher (the wonderful Romayne Grigorova) citing the prime example of what she was after.
In both cases, the music may not seem to be dynamically the equivalent of grand allegro (which is the test that I think a lot of us ballet pianists would apply) but it affords a certain kind of grand allegro, and the music would be associated in the minds and bodies with the choreography customarily done to it. It seems counterintuitive at first glance, but it makes sense: this is about doing energetic movements with grace and lyricism (there, I said it again).
My recent discovery that one of the interpolations in Coppélia for Franz’s variation is from a “Scottish” ballet (Gretna Green, by Guiraud) encouraged me to re-watch Philip Tagg’s wonderful hour-and-a-quarter long documentary on the so-called Scotch snap. I say “so-called” because that’s the chief take-home point of the documentary: it’s called the Scotch snap, but it was once as characteristic of English music as Scottish, and the speech rhythm from which it derives is still prevalent in English today. If there’s a reason why we think of it as Scottish, or “Celtic” it’s because the English musical tradition where it was once common has been wiped clean, “upgraded” as Tagg puts it, of such elements, precisely because they became associated with lower class, country people. I suppose you could compare it to the way that people with regional accents or sociolects are taught RP in elocution lessons. English music from roughly Handel onwards became the Elisa Doolittle or Lina Lamont (see below—and for more on all this, watch Tagg’s video).
In the Guiraud solo, that snap is an an identifier for “kind of Polish/Ukrainian” (i.e. 19th century Galicia), except that in the piece it came from, Gretna Green, the snap is Scottish. There is also the drone D in the bass that suggests rusticity, but it’s the snap that’s the real giveaway. Here are the two side by side:
The Galician “snap” in Swanilda’s “Frends” dance (Thème slave varié in Act I)
Guiraud’s Scotch snap from Gretna Green, used as Franz’s solo interpolated in some productions of Coppélia
As Tagg argues in his video, what this is about, surely, is not so much race, nation or ethnicity. but class. The same seems to be true of Coppélia: it doesn’t really matter (at least to modern audiences, I suspect it did matter to Delibes) where Franz comes from, what matters is that he’s a rustic local, not a prince, or an urban(e) shopkeeper or toymaker. In theory, Franz could be dancing to Chopin, since Chopin was Polish. But how wrong would that have looked? Chopin is the wrong class of Pole, the concert-giving, salon-performer in Paris, the poet with a floppy cravate in Les Sylphides. Franz is a rustic, like those villagers in Giselle whose waltz is all Bohemian snaps.
The Waltz from Act I in Giselle, showing the Scotch snap (or Bohemian snap, if you like)
But I’m leaving out an important detail here. The music that Delibes *cough* “borrowed” the “Friends” tune from, is an art song by Moniuszko (see earlier post for all the details), and the “snap” doesn’t exist in the original: it’s something Delibes added. The notes at the same position in Moniuszko’s song are semiquavers, and they are for a single syllable.
Poleć, pieśni, z miasta by the Polish composer Moniuszko (1819-1872). Source: IMSLP
Fair enough, there’s an acciaccatura in the piano accompaniment but does that amount to a Scotch snap? Not really, I think.
They would have…
I can guess how that Gretna Green solo ended up in Coppélia. It sounds kind of foreign, kind of rustic. That’s usually enough geographical detail and social context for the average ballet scenario. I once heard a student ballet teacher tell a class of children, “Your hands are like this in this dance, because they would have…” That phrase, they would have has stuck with me ever since: she was talking about character/national dance, referring to people from another country as if they were not only remote geographically, but also historically. There was no detail about who “they” were, or where they were from, they were just “they.” The construction would have seemed to imply that what these people did (whoever, or wherever they were) could not be documented in terms of real people or events, but just as a list of possibilities, of permanent characteristics. That sums up the strange universe of ballet pretty well. We do this, they would have done that. I’m not sure what it was that the hands were supposed to be doing. Digging potatoes? Showing off handkerchiefs that they had embroidered? It’s not the students’ fault: this is the casual, institutional racism, snobbery and ethnic nationalism of ballet that seeps from the walls of the art form.
Rustics and rustication
Ballet apparently needs settings like these to make it interesting, to give it what programme writers call “colour.” Here’s an example from Pittsburgh Ballet, which is so representative of the genre, that you should not read anything into the fact that it’s that company or that author. It could be any ballet programme, anywhere:
Nuitter and Saint-Léon changed the names of the characters, except for Dr. Coppelius, and moved the location from Hoffmann’s Germany to Galicia, a province of Austria-Hungary, because it was thought to be more colorful. Today’s map finds Galicia in southeastern Poland and western Ukraine. The “color” of the region can be seen in the brilliant colors, heavy embroidery and elaborate trimmings of the peasant costumes, widely enhancing the designer’s palette, both then and now. It can also be heard in the rich nationalistic melodies and complex folk dances of the composer. (Source: Pittsburgh Ballet Programme Notes)
Before continuing, let’s take a moment to remember that “Friends” is not by Delibes, and nor is the Csárdás, and nor is this variation for Franz. I’m not sure what a “rich nationalistic melody” sounds like, or that Delibes “folk dances” are really that complex, but never mind. The main point is that ballet seems to need those Scotch snaps (or Celtic, Hungarian, Polish, Galician, Bohemian or whatever kind of snaps they are) to prevent the music from being a wall of ballet gammon, or perhaps ballet mayonnaise. It’s a perverse form of “poverty tourism” where you can admire the rustics from the comfort of your box in the theatre, but at the same time shine a light on your own dullness, your lack of the rhythmic vitality demonstrated by the people on stage.
No-one, particularly not your average ballet audience, would actually want to go to those places of course. One of the punishment for academic misdemeanours at Durham University was (and still is) “rustication,” i.e. being sent back to the sticks. According to a lecture by Dr Martin Pollack, this is apparently how Austrians (who annexed it in the 18th century) once viewed Galicia, a place you didn’t want to get sent (one writer referred to it as “Halbasien,” “half-Asia”), at least, until the job of Germanification had been completed, and the locals had been tamed.
Of course, there is poverty, and there is staged poverty. Pollack mentions that his stepfather had been stationed in Galicia in the first world war (so less than 50 years after the premiere of Coppélia). His memory of those experiences included “wide wooded uplands, and impoverished hamlets where everything was built from wood, even the churches.” The wooden churches were what surprised his stepfather most, since in his native Austria, he had never seen such a thing. One thing is for sure: it didn’t look like the set of Coppélia.
The inhabitants of Galicia aren’t just a fictional people invented for the ballet scenario. They had names, and lived and died in villages with names. Where he can, using archival records, Tagg names some of the English workers who went as indentured labourers to the US in appalling conditions. Likewise, you can find out about the inhabitants of Galicia: Poles, Ukrainians, Jews, and others at the time of Coppélia by searching the All Galicia Database which has records going back to the 18th century. Obviously, Coppélia is a fiction, not an attempt to portray real people. But it matters that Galicia is a real place, with complex histories, if you’re going to start saying local colour, and they would have…
Esmeralda and the Truands
Next on my list is La Truandaise from Esmeralda, another example of the “Scotch” snap being used to denote otherness that is geographically vague (Bohemian? Gypsy?) but definitely poor. In the video below (assuming YouTube don’t block it) of Osipova dancing the “Truandaise,” the flexed foot is perhaps the movement equivalent of the Scotch snap. She does it, because (as a ballet teacher might say) they would have flexed their feet (because they couldn’t afford to go to ballet classes, and find out about good toes and naughty toes). So how could she afford pointe shoes then? Best not to ask too many questions.
Pugni’s “La Truandaise” dance from Esmeralda (1844)
Feed the birds
Tagg demonstrates through many examples that the Scotch snap rhythm is common enough in English speech that it is bizarre that it should have come to denote anyone from the British Isles except the English (as “Celtic” has come to mean). Playing for class today, I discovered another example: “Feed the Birds” from Mary Poppins.Tup-pence, Tup-pence. I “discovered it” because as I was playing it, I thought first of all, “here’s a rather odd example of a “Bohemian” snap in a musical, until I realised that is not Bohemian at all, but English—and, fitting Tagg’s hypothesis, it’s a certain kind of Englishness—an old beggarwoman selling breadcrumbs for tuppence a bag. If you’d never seen Mary Poppins, and just heard the tune of Feed the birds, you might well think that it’s a tragic song from old Bohemia.
Feed the birds is an interesting case. According to the Wikipedia page on the song, the author of Mary Poppins, Pamela Travers, only wanted period Edwardian songs in the film, and had to be coaxed round to Americans writing the soundtrack. Oddly, it turned out to be an excellent choice, because the Sherman brothers portrayed Englishness in music particularly well with those “Scotch” snaps (there’s another one in A spoonful of sugar.The class issue is less clear there, though Mary is still only the nanny, however posh she might be). Listening back to “Feed the birds” with Tagg’s documentary in mind, I wonder what it is that I think I can hear—and it’s the very ordinary speech of my childhood. My dad, and the local shopkeepers saying “tuppence” or “tuppence ha’penny,” or “throppence.” The (musical) idea that the Scotch snap is Bohemian, gallic, celtic, Hungarian, or whatever, has blinded me to the rhythms of my own speech. Extraordinary.
What a difference a demisemiquaver makes. And how much history you can write, just by focusing, as Tagg does, on detail like this. And as one final aside, writing this post I came to hear of a novel I should have known about years ago, Joseph Roth’s, Radetzky March(Dr Pollack mentions it in his lecture), and am thoroughly enjoying reading it. I wish I had read it before any of my travels in what was once the Austro-Hungary, and I suspect it will make great background reading for Coppélia.
As this will be a longish ramble about finding music, I’ll cut to the chase. The Bugatti Stepby Jaroslav Ježek is a fantastic piece of piano music that you could use for class, and the sheet music is available online. I’m not usually guarded about sharing ideas for class music, but in this case I have to confess it’s taken me weeks to do so, because I love it so much, I don’t actually want my colleagues to have it in their repertoire as well. But I can’t help it. It’s too good not to share.
How I discovered Ježek and the Bugatti Step
What prompted me to finally share the score was that the route to finding it (and other music by Ježek) has been so delightful and interesting. Not long after I vacated Facebook and Twitter a few weeks ago, I was listening to the radio in the car, and heard Barry Humphries talking about his forthcoming show at the Barbican, a presentation of music from the Weimar period, including some of my favourite cabaret songs and composers. As I love the music of this period, I thought I can’t possibly miss it. I checked the dates. Then, because I wasn’t on Facebook anymore, I wrote an old-fashioned email to someone who I thought would appreciate this as much as me, but who is probably the busiest person I know, and lives hundreds of miles away. I don’t suppose by any chance you’re in London when this is on, and free? As it turned out, he was, and so we went, and it was wonderful.
Barry Humphries presents this collection of music as if you’re having a pleasant after dinner chat in his sitting room (or, if you’ve ever been there, the Kleine Philharmonie bar in Berlin, which in turn looks like the set of Cabaret). The story he tells is wonderful: as a young man, he discovered this music in second-hand shops in Melbourne, remnants of the possessions of Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany, who had clearly loved the music enough to bring it with them. He fell in love with it, and has ever since nurtured a fascination with it, leading eventually to this show.
One of the first pieces in the programme was Bugatti Step, played as a piano solo. I couldn’t help thinking, this is wonderful music in itself, but it would also be great for class, so I made a mental note to check it out afterwards. The composer, Jaroslav Ježek, (known as “the Czech Gershwin”) as so many others, was forced in the late 1930s to flee the Nazi occupation of Czechoslavakia and go to New York, having until then been a huge contributor to the Czech music and theatre scene.
What comes across as Humphries introduces the music, is a sense of loving and cherishing these pieces, of giving them the value and the hearing they deserve; a will for them and their composers not to be forgotten. It’s infectious, but It’s something more than enthusiasm; there’s a warmth and intelligent sensitivity about Humphries’ advocacy of this music that sometimes helps you hear it almost too closely for comfort; you hear with the ears of those who wrote it and heard it at the time. It’s hard not to draw parallels between the politics of then and now.
Rendezvous with Ježek in Prague
So now fast-forward a little (I went to the concert on 23rd July, and it’s now 10th August), and I see an former Czech colleague of mine at the studios in Prague—she used to play for class when the ballet masterclasses in Prague that I’m at now first began. Years ago, she had told me where I could find a second-hand music shop in the city. I asked her it was still there. She checked on her computer; she wasn’t sure, but there’s this bookshop in Wenceslas Square No. 42 that has a new and second-hand music department. By chance, I was walking there in the afternoon, so popped in.
The book of Ježek’s music I found in Prague today
And blow me down, one of first things I see on the shelves is a book of 81 songs and dances by Ježek, arranged for piano byu Sidonius Karez. (81 melodií a tanců z modrého pokoje). I had to buy it, even if I wasn’t sure what I was going to do with it. I’m glad I did. It’s a wonderful book, lovingly and carefully put together, with interesting panels of information about Ježek and photographs of him and fellow musicians and performers from the Liberated Theatre in Prague. I can just about work out what it all means, with a bit of help from Google Translate, and my background as a Slavic languages graduate. I start to search for the original 78rpm recordings on YouTube. The music is just wonderful.
I’m telling the story because it’s not the first time that my route to finding music has been face to face, material, hand to hand. Meeting people, going to bookshops, being present somewhere. If I hadn’t been to that concert at the Barbican, I might never have heard of Ježek, or had the chance to be thrilled by his music. Barry Humphries found the music in a second-hand shop where it had come from Europe in the 1930s. And now, I’m finding more of it, actually in Prague, in a bookshop, because I bumped into my colleague and she recommended that bookshop. I would not have known what I was looking at, had it not been for someone bringing that music to Melbourne in a suitcase, and Barry Humphries looking after it, and years later, presenting it at the Barbican. If I hadn’t got off Facebook and made the effort to make arrangements to see a friend in real life, I wouldn’t be writing this now.
There are other ways to find music, of course, and YouTube is great for researching what has already triggered your interest. But for me, at least, the music you discover like this, passed from hand to hand, music that you can touch, or music that you hear in the physical presence of others, is somehow always more precious. Barry Humphries tells a story in the show about how his mother didn’t like library books “because you didn’t know where they had been.” For him, that was precisely what he liked about them, and that was the appeal of the music he had found in the second-hand shops that led eventually to this concert.