A year of ballet playing cards #45: A country wedding (polka) from Má Vlast (6d)



A friend and I were talking the other day about how even something as apparently soulless as a bit of computer code (try telling that to a programmer like him) can have a history to it that marks it emotionally.  Every time you use that useful, remarkable snippet of code, you think fondly of when you learned it, and from whom, and how you felt about them and the job at the time. I think of a particular musical theatre conductor every time I sellotape photocopies together, because he showed me how to do it in a way that’s easy and works perfectly, and I’m grateful to him for teaching me whenever I have to prepare a score.

Likewise, a lot, maybe even most of the things I play for class have the feel of a handshake about them: they are things handed on by others, liked by others, mentioned by others, or offered to others in tribute. What I like about this method of collecting music is that the repertoire comes pre-loved, so to speak, so you have to try and work out what it is that made it appeal to the person who recommended it to you. Even if you are wrong, you’ve made the effort to get inside the piece with good intentions and a positive frame of mind, and you end up loving it yourself.

A dancer friend told me a few years ago that this “Country Wedding” scene in Smetana’s Má Vlast was one of the pieces he’d love to hear for class. I don’t think I’d ever concentrated enough during Má Vlast to notice it (that’s my fault for being a very distractible listener, nothing to do with the music, which I like). What an odd piece of music to like that much, I thought, and vowed that I’d learn it one day, even though the chances of anyone else except him recognising it or wanting it for class are fairly slim. [Starts at 4.38 – should begin automatically by clicking on the link below]

I thought it was going to be an easy job – just copying someone else’s (public domain, before you ask) piano reduction. But I couldn’t leave it alone. The piano reduction I found was a mess, and even left out my favourite bit, which is where the violins go up to the top D (5:08″-5:09″, or bar 20 in my score) because it transcribed the woodwind instead of the string parts at that point. So I got the orchestral score and started again. It took me ages.  Although it sounds like a simple piece, the simplicity is achieved by elaborate means – there’s something happening on every semiquaver, and in all kinds of registers, in parallel and contrary motion, in thirds, sixths and octaves, and it’s impossible to transcribe for the piano in a way which conveys this richness. I’ve done my best, but it doesn’t lie that easily under the fingers.


Where that tree is in front of the cream-coloured building on the left is the café/bar we called “Smetana’s Arse” because there’s a larger-than-life statue of a seated Smetana there, outside the Smetana museum. The willow tree used to be one of the most distinctive features of this bit of Prague and of that bar, but it was uprooted in the floods of 2002, and what you see is the newly planted one, not a patch on the old one yet.

In this respect, it’s rather similar to Jaromír Weinberger’s score for the polka from Schwanda the Bagpiper. It sounds like a simple tune, but the orchestration consists of multiple streams of non-stop chromatic semiquavers cascading over the tune in a sea of black beams. When a colleague of mine first saw the score, he couldn’t quite believe his eyes, and said he wasn’t sure he’d like to play it if he saw it on the stand.  But the effect is nice: what goes on between the notes of the tune happens so thick and fast that it’s affected you before you’ve had a chance to hear what it is properly.

This would be really handy for the kind of exercise that needs rhythm but not sharpness. All that movement, all those suspensions and appogiaturas give it a tender  kind of accent, like a tenuto plus a staccato plus a marcato in brackets.

I also couldn’t help wondering whether there’s more than a family resemblance between the rest of Vltava and the opening of Act II of the Nutcracker: same key, same time signature, same evocation of a journey by water.

A year of ballet playing cards #14: A small, medium and large waltz by Adam (Ah)


Click to download the score

Even though I haven’t used a laundrette in years, I can’t get out of the habit of holding on to 20p pieces for the dryer, just in case. Likewise, when I’m in Prague, my heart sinks when I realise that I’ve just taken out 2,000 Czech crowns at the ATM, because you’ll get a 2000 note, which is currently about £50. Try buying a bus ticket from the airport with that.

change-boxSome ballet exercises, particularly those in a medium waltz tempo, are like a launderette where you need a whole bag full of assorted change for the various machines. It needs to be lyrical (notes), then accented (pound coins) then some detail for smaller movements (20p pieces), then some 50p pieces for the bit that’s strong and lyrical, but not so lyrical as the bit you paid for with a tenner, and then lyrical again, but with a strong beat. In other words, whatever accompaniment, dynamic or articulation worked for one bit of the exercise won’t work for all of it, and it’s never quite one thing or another, and you need to be able to keep it all going just under the surface, in case you need to accentuate a different level of the music suddenly.

I’m calling this piece from Le diable à quatre a “little waltz” because that term is usually a sign that you need to get your laundrette money out: a waltz is just a waltz, a big waltz kind of plays itself, but a little waltz is like an overweight dachsund that you have to cajole but not so much that it drags it’s tummy along the ground. I apologise in arrears for all the metaphors, but that’s the nature of the problem – this kind of music isn’t anything in particular, it’s a lot of things at once, and it doesn’t have a name, just a capability.

It starts at 11:09 in the clip above (it should start there automatically). 

This little waltz has got it all: it’s lyrical, with the possibility of long phrases. it’s sometimes in 6, sometimes in 3 (which is a big deal: see my earlier post on the rarity of truly triple metre) sometimes subdivided, sometimes not, sometimes heavy, sometimes light, sometimes quiet, sometimes loud. What’s more, you can play it several different ways without sucking the life out of it.

As if that weren’t enough reasons to include in my year of ballet playing cards, I love the fact that you can hear echos of Giselle’s opening Act 1 solo (the G major 6/8 one) in this.

See also


A year of ballet playing cards #44: A long, jolly polka/galop from Le Diable à quatre (5d)


Click to download the score (pdf)

There’s something so like this in a piece by Shostakovich (I think it’s in Moskva Cheremushki) that if I’d heard snatches of this on the radio, I would have sworn it was by him, not Adam. That sold it to me, because sometimes you need something long and jolly for those fast exercises at the barre, and to be honest, nothing beats an accented  G flat in the middle of a sea of B flat major: it’s the musical equivalent of a whoopee cushion, and I expect composers will still be doing it a hundred years from now when they want a laugh at the Proms. In the clip below, it begins at 51:00 – clicking on it should take you there automatically, but if it doesn’t, drag the slider to that time.


To me this is a text-book example of how to be cheeky, funny, good-humoured, or call it what you will, in music. It requires 95% diatonic blandness spiked by the occasional funny face poking out from behind a doorway (accented wrong notes, or syncopations), sudden changes of direction (key or dynamics, but not at the same time  – less is more), mock-seriousness (minor keys), sleight of hand (repeating the same thing so many times you know what’s coming next – and then changing the ending), and then – how can I put this? – there even seems to be a little bit of national stereotyping going on, when a krakowiak suddenly appears just when you thought the whole world was a galop. This music has to be at a silly tempo – not show-off speed, but just slightly too fast.  I reckon about 121 bpm should do it. Too slow and it’ll sound leaden, too fast and it’ll just sound like showing off. Fast is rarely funny, unless it’s this kind of fast (thank you Gavin Sutherland for drawing my attention to it), the Circus Galop by Marc André Hamelin for player piano:

A year of ballet playing cards #27: A big polonaise by Glazunov (Ac)


Click on the picture to download the score

In an earlier post on polonaises in ballet class, I mentioned how difficult it is to find a Tchaikovsky polonaise that you can actually use in class – they sound regular but they aren’t. Here’s one by Glazunov from Scènes de Ballet that would be useful for an exercise that’s slower than you’d like it to be. I wouldn’t play the introduction that’s written, but I  thought I’d put it in there (it’s what’s in the score immediately before the tune comes in) in case you ever used this for an assessment class or something where the class had a chance to learn how it goes.

If you think this doesn’t fall under the fingers easily, don’t blame me: Glazunov’s music has a way of just not translating well on to the keyboard. In fact, this is really awful writing, with the tune running up and down and around three octaves like a dog in a park. It  looks like the writing of someone who didn’t try it out at the piano. But that’s what makes it sound rather exciting if you can be bothered to get your hands round it, because it’s clearly not something that you could just make up on the spot. Nonetheless, I think there’s a way of simplifying it and keeping the tessitura in an easier range, and I’ll probably do a second edition of this in a week or two.

Whether it was conscious or not, it’s suspiciously like the Chopin A Major polonaise, which of course Glazunov had orchestrated for Chopiniana. 

Poor Glazunov. According to the Wikipedia page, his death came as a shock to many people, but not for the reason you were probably thinking as you read that, but because they “had long associated Glazunov with the music of the past rather than of the present, so they thought he had already been  dead for many years.” I think he would probably have taken that in his stride however:  Jack Lanchbery told me once that in a dress rehearsal with orchestra in Russia, a ballerina (a very famous one, shame I can’t remember who) stopped dancing and shouted something to Glazunov about being a “third-rate conductor.” He replied:  “I’m most disappointed to hear that. I knew I was a third-rate composer, but I had always hoped I was a second-rate conductor.”


A year of ballet playing cards #43: A csárdás-like Nocturne by Schubert (D4)


Notturno by Schubert – click to download the file

I didn’t mean to keep finding csárdáses everywhere, it just seems to have happened. I don’t know if anyone else would call the Nocturne/Notturno from Schubert’s piano trio a csárdás, but even if it isn’t, it fills that slot in class where a csárdás can work really well: battements fondus, or one of those slightly ceremonial walky adages. The opening chords sound like the Raymonda principal girl variation, or the Monti Csárdás, which is how I made the connection.

This is a piece that you’ll probably only find a use for once a year, but when you do, it’ll be gorgeous. It has obsessed me all week, the first 16 bars playing on repeat in my head everywhere, like a meditation (I can do without hearing the rest of it, that’s how obsessional I’ve become about it).  I first came across it when Christopher Hampson used it for a pas de deux for Thomas Edur and Agnes Oaks. At the time, it never occurred to me to use it for class, probably as I’ve explained before, slow music and me don’t really get on.

It has a lot of things that are hard to find: restful yet with a forward drive, grandeur without being bombastic, dramatic but relatively simple and concise, and – this is the really big one – it has a lot of action at the end of the bar. Now, they teach you in music classes that 4/4 goes 2 3 4 2 3 4, with a fat accent on the beginning of the bar. What they don’t tell you, is that most of the music that we like has a lot going on at the end, not just the beginning of bars or phrases: think of the “turnaround” at the end of a phrase in a song, the dramatic drum solo announcing  the EastEnders theme, the famous drum fill In the Air Tonight – they all happen at the end of a phrase, anticipating the big tune. Although “1” has an accent, think about the energy you invest in the “8” when you count “5, 6, 7, 8″ into an exercise.

One of the problems of finding music for fondus is that you need something that has equal energy in the second half of the bar as in the first, rather than a dead, flaccid sink after the initial accent while you wait for the next bar to come along. This nocturne by Schubert is almost the opposite of that, and hence great for fondu exercises, I think: there’s energy and drive right on what is supposed to be the weakest beat of the bar (supposed to be, but don’t believe everything they tell you in theory classes, unless those theory classes are taken by top-notch theorists – see my Meter & Rhythm Page for some names to look out for).

The theme is beautiful, but it doesn’t resolve conveniently for class. I’ve given several options for ending it. The more dramatic version – using the coda – retains more of Schubert’s composition, but it might be just a bit too dramatic, and in addition, the rhythmic flow changes in a way that might work for some exercises, but not all. Handle with care. In the second part, I’ve put the violin pizzicato chords up an octave to get them out of the way of the tune, and so make it easier to differentiate between tune and accompaniment. I’ve also put in more notes than you might want to play, but I prefer to have them there so you can choose what to play and what to leave out.

A year of ballet playing cards #42: Diable à Quatre male variation – big 2/4 jumpy thing (D3)



Click here to download the score of Diable à Quatre male variation  or click the score above. There’s the full solo (pages 1-2) then on page 3, an adaptation for class – it’s not entirely even, and there’s a lot of waffle at the end.

See here for more about my “A year of Ballet Playing Cards”

One of my “ballet problems” is finding music for those medium/big allegros in 2/4 like sissonnes. (see previous post on the “dreaded 2/4 sissonne“). In this post I’ve solved two problems at once – I’ve found a piece of music that does exactly what I want, and  settled something (in part, at least) that’s been nagging at me for over a decade.

It’s about 14 years ago that I got a phone call from Dance Books in the middle of a summer afternoon, saying that they’d got Yosvani Ramos in the shop:  he wanted to know if they’d got the music to Diable à Quatre. They didn’t, so they put him on the phone to me.  I was so pleased to be asked, and so wanted to help, but I couldn’t. It’s bugged me ever since, because it ought to be out there somewhere, but it doesn’t seem to be, even though I’ve been checking all the sources I can think of.

So, like the Black Swan solo issue, if you want something done, do it yourself: I set about finding a youtube clip, and transcribed the male solo –  both in deference to Yosvani since he put me onto the idea in the first place, and because it’s the right kind of music.  What’s really good fun about having stuff like this in your repertoire is to play it for class, and see who recognises it.  For me, there’s nothing so gratifying as when someone turns round and says “Oh that’s such and such a piece, isn’t it?” when you’ve played one of your favourite ballet musical shibboleths.

You can see a version of the solo in the clip below – it starts at 8.40 – but it should start there automatically if you click on the video. If you know who the dancer is in the clip, let me know (or put it in the comments on Youtube).

I’ve found it hard not to mix this up with one of Medora’s solos in Le Corsaire (not one of those that’s in the ENB production, but it’s in the Corsaire piano score  at IMLSP, on page 20, in A flat). It’s in the same kind of tempo and style, but it also has the same way of starting with a dotted rhythm, and finishing up in a scale of triplets:


phrase ending of Medora solo from “Le Corsaire” by Adam – from IMSLP, on page 20

Then that got me thinking that the rhythm of the first line is almost identical to the Polichinelles music in Drigo’s Les Millions d’Arlequin (Harlequinada) on page 80 (No. 11). Put these three solos (Corsaire, Harlequinada and Diable à Quatre) and you can begin to see a model emerging.



Here’s a clip from that section of  Harlequinada performed at the Whitehouse in 1979 (starts at 4:41 if the clip doesn’t start there automatically).

See also
If you want a recording, hurry: as of today there are only three second-hand ones left at Amazon.co.uk (at £6.96). It was recorded by Richard Bonynge and the LSO, but this album wasn’t included in the Decca 10-CD re-release.

Daniel Levitin on the perils of multitasking



“Instead of reaping the big rewards that come from sustained, focused effort, we instead reap empty rewards from completing a thousand little sugar-coated tasks.”

That’s a quote from a great article in the Guardian about multitasking by Daniel Levitin, Why the modern world is bad for your brain  (thanks to Vicki for sending me the link).

If you’ve been reading this blog a while, you’ll know that multi-tasking is one of my pet hates: it’s a myth. You can’t do it, you can just flit from one thing to another, and do none of them particularly well. See this page for links to all my previous rants about multi-tasking.

The Levitin article is a teaser for his book, The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload, which offers advice, based on an understanding of how your mind works, on how to live better with all this going on, rather than try to pretend that there’s something great about behaving like an overstimulated, distracted 12-year old when you’re an adult.

I reckon it’s probably one of the uncomfortable truths of the modern world, that no-one who achieves anything wonderful does it without turning their social media, indeed, the whole darn internet off while they do it, but in a world where the high street is dominated by people selling laptops, tablets and smartphones, it would figure that the dominant message out there is that online, networked multitasking is a Good Thing. I’ve been enjoying reading Russell Brand’s Revolution – and in the middle of that, he tells the reader to go and look some fact for themselves: he goes offline to write, so can’t do it himself. That might come as much of a surprise as learning that Jim Carrey doesn’t eat sugar, but it’s true.