The mystery of Tchaikovsky’s mirlitons
If you know my site, you’ll be aware that I’ve been trying to find pictures of and information about “mirlitons” the title of one of the divertissements in Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker (see earlier posts).
Now today I’ve found a great page on the mirliton on the “Bard of Cheshire” site that is one of the best so far. It brings together pictures and reliable information about the instrument called the mirliton. I still like the possibility that Tchaikovsky was referring to the cake, the Mirliton de Pont-Audemer, rather than the reed-pipe as an instrument, given that the divertissements are supposed to represent sweets (and that was always the biggest mystery—why are these reed-pipes in a bag of sweets? (see also this page on the topic from a recipe book) And “candy canes” make even less sense, until you’ve seen a picture of a 19th century mirliton that’s decorated like a barber’s pole).
On that subject, there is also a postcard of an artiste at Les Mirlitons, the cabaret opened in Paris by Aristide Bruant, which has a woman in candy-cane stripes with what look like mirliton pipes in her hair. Probably just a coincidence, but it adds a lovely confusion to the story.
The curse of the operatic adage
I think I only have about three of these in my repertoire, which is why it was high time I got another. The way that some ballet teachers mark adages, you’d think the world was just full of voluptuous music that went “and one and a two and a.” I guess my worst fear is when you’re thinking of what to play, you settle on something fairly plain that will work, and then the teacher does that inclined head thing, gives you a knowing smile, and says “Something inspiring.” You have to hope they don’t add “…for a change”. This is the stuff of nightmares, because it usually wipes out what you’d decided to play (which is another reason not to decide what to play until the last minute. You never know what tempo or adjective is going to hit you in the few nanoseconds before you play the first note of the introduction).
This aria from Rusalka is just about perfect. The tune really does go “one and a two and a” so there’ll be no fumbling about while the class finds the beat, and half way through, it goes all Maria Callas. I’m afraid I’ve had to do inexcusable metrical surgery on the first part, leaving out a whole 8 bar phrase in order to make it regular, but it’s hard to hear the joins unless you know the aria really well.
You have to have heard this before trying to translate it into piano music. The opening muted strings are hard to reproduce on a piano, and you have to do a lot of work to get the tune out on top, but If you’re lucky, you won’t have to fill it out with semiquavers, though that’s a possibility if you don’t have a very good piano or nice acoustics.
Watching this video is a rather fascinating lesson in how to play for adage well. Listen to the elastic, free, fluid vocal line in the “chorus” bit, and look how the harp accompanies it with almost metronomic rhythmic precision. It must be really precise, because in fact, the last semiquaver that you hear in the bar (part of a single group in my piano reduction) is not the harp (which is silent on the last semiquaver of the bar), but the last note of the pizzicato string figure (quaver, quaver, semiquaver semiquaver) that accompanies the harp.
Pianists tend to be “expressive” and pull the timing around in the bar, but for adage you need to choose your moments very carefully. To provide the right kind of support for a dancer who is doing the equivalent of the vocal line, you have to be as rhythmically solid as that harp and those strings, but at the same time hint at the elasticity of the vocal line. It’s something like the Chopinesque rubato where the accompaniment remains steady while the right hand floats free, but somehow conceptually different. Hard to put into words, but easy to see in this clip.
I’ve put this in “Spades” (Adage) because it’s quite definitely an Adage (see here for an explanation), but on the other hand, it’s about as truly triple metre as metre gets, which is common in some Czech music. Yet more proof that “three” is a big subject in music: so many ways to be triple.
- Download the free piano score of this Tárrega piece (pdf)
- Read more about my Year of Ballet Playing Cards
A Tárrega ballad, the perfect plié music?
When I say “perfect” what I mean is that this music somehow meets precisely the expressive, metrical model that you often need for pliés: something in 3, that has precise demarcations of the beat and sub-beats (so that the movement can be carefully measured) yet avoids being metronomic. It is also in the 2+2+4 phrase pattern (demi-demi-full) that so many plié exercises require. It has breath and space at the end of the phrases for changes of position, or what I like to call forgiveness in the design. It’s simple and “quiet” rather than complex and bombastic. For the first exercise of the day, it opens the door softly and whispers “come in!” Although the dynamic markings are mine, they indicate how the pitch contour and the dynamics can contribute to the gentle up-down-squeeze movement of the exercise.
When I say the perfect plié music, I don’t mean that this is what all plié music should sound like (and I like to go all out sometimes, with a big song like Tonight from West Side Story) but that it’s the proof in musical form that somewhere in the musical universe, there is something that sounds like the thing the teacher marked. It’s taken me about 30 years to find it. The song from Jeux Interdits used to do it for me, but I can’t play that anymore, ever since I put it in a syllabus, and ever since I heard someone say “And she played that song for god’s sake!”
I’m calling this a “triple meter ballad” because I have no idea what else to call it, but I hope it makes sense as a category.
Guitar playing as a model for piano playing
I could have walked straight past this music, had I not heard Per-Olov Kindgren play it in this Youtube video.
Listen to this, and see if you ever dare play a single note on the piano without thinking about how you’re going to place and time it. The trouble with the piano is that it’s so easy to play. What makes music sound like music is often the sense of effort or skill that it takes to do something difficult like play a high note. On a piano, it makes no difference whether the note is high or low, it takes the same effort. Likewise, when notes fall easily under your fingers, they can come out with no more expressivity than typing. It’s a keyboard, after all. But on a guitar, you can’t do this. There are ergonomic challenges, affordances that lie between the human hand and the construction of the guitar, that give rise to nuances of timing and expression.
The trick with playing this piece on the piano is to hold back, to place the notes with the same care and precision as if you were having to pick them individually by a combination of movements in both hands, even when there is only a single line to play. I’ve found that Lagrima enables you to find moments in plié exercises where you can be very free with timing in a way that feels totally right. Teachers don’t have to hold you back, or tell you not to hold back when you do. The more you can keep the teacher quiet, the better, so it’s perfect in that sense too.
The second piece, ¡Adelita! is a little mazurka. You have to be even more careful to keep the slow three going in this. If you maintain the same tempo as you set up in Lagrima, you can use it to extend and vary the music during the plié. Of course, it would also work for port de bras, ronds de jambe etc.
About the arrangement
I’ve changed the bass line in a couple of places because otherwise it would sound a bit exposed on the piano. I’ve added in some notes that maybe Tárrega would have done, had they been easier to play on the guitar. Sometimes when I’m playing this, I also go down an octave. Once you’ve got the general idea, you can play around with dynamics and pitch to add interest. With ¡Adelita! I meant to add some octaves in the bass, and maybe bring the melody of the first half down an octave, but I forgot. I’ll play around, and maybe upload a new version.
I’ve over-notated the score with dynamics, phrasing and articulation, just as a kind of warning not to let the notes fall out of your fingers too easily. What I was aspiring to was the kind of finger-by-finger dynamics that Percy Grainger does in some of his arrangements, that informed much of the way I play now. There’s almost nothing to this piece at all – it’s all in the articulation and dynamics, but there’s no need to take them as directions, more as an idea for how to approach it.
Where have I and my 52 cards been?
It’s over six months since the last update. It’s been a hell of a year, most of it entirely good, but everything (including my PhD which I had to interrupt for 6 months) had to take a back seat. I’m hoping to resume better (if not normal) service from now on!
Dancing your country back
The Chestnut Tree Dance is a bizarre bit of British dance history. It seems worth remembering for a moment in the current atmosphere where some English have been printing “I want my country back” on badges and t-shirts, and Sarkozy wants to reclaim France “for the French.” If you got your country back, and “reclaimed it” in some way that meant you got the right to impose national dress and culture on people who happen to share the same nearby landmass, what might the dancing look like?
Well, maybe a bit like this. In her article  on social dance in interwar Britain, Rishona Zimring quotes contemporary accounts of nightclubs and rhythm clubs (mainly from the Mass Observation project of the time) that demonstrated the novel diversity of social dance habits of the time:
These were places where races mixed: the interviews reveal that club-goers were highly conscious of this mixture, in some cases attracted by it, in others, uncomfortable. Places where social dancing occurred or where dance music was played were locations of everyday “cosmopolitan modernity.” They displayed a hybridity hard to discern elsewhere (say, at Cambridge) but highly significant as a challenge to English xenophobia and a harbinger of a new, multicultural society. (p. 715)
Those who were uncomfortable with this hybridity wanted something that could reclaim social dancing for the English. The dance halls in comparison to rhythm clubs were a bit dull, and couldn’t compete with the novelty of jazz. As Zimring explains:
The dance halls’ monotony arose in confrontation with the multiculturalism of jazz, which for some in the music business was a problem, a threat to English identity as revealed and bolstered by native traditions in music and dance. The solution was to invent a tradition. (p. 715)
Inventing tradition: The Chestnut Tree Dance
The result was the “Chestnut Tree Dance,” invented and marketed in 1938 by a dance hall impressario, C. L. Heimann. As a press bulletin of the time stated, this dance was a conscious revisiting of past epochs (they wanted their country back then, too).
“The musical basis . . . is an old-time melody—this and the Dance itself is severely ENGLISH. So many of the new and short-lived dances that have been introduced in recent years have been American, and based upon Negro rhythms that have not been suited to English temperament.”
What could be more English than a chestnut tree, what could be more unlike a nazi Salute than raising both arms to symbolise it’s branches? And of course, if you did this in a dance hall, you’d be reasserting your national identity through the medium of dance. Thanks to the wonders of the internet, you can see what it looked like:
You can imagine how well this might have gone down with people already in thrall to new rhythms, nightclubs, jazz, and a change from the Lambeth Walk:
The Chestnut Tree”’s flexibility as a symbol made it especially resonant as a potential icon of social coherence to counter the hybridity of jazz that threatened the dance halls. Mass-Observation assiduously collected responses from volunteers about “The Chestnut Tree”; it was the dance whose impact they most doggedly pursued (to discover, through interviews, that the majority of dance hall attendees found it fairly silly). (p. 716)
How I found the Chestnut Tree Dance
I’m delighted I found this article. I wouldn’t have done so, had it not been for this beautifully written review of the video game Bound by Farah Rishi. She quotes a journal entry about dance written by Virginia Woolf in 1903, which I found also referenced by Maria Popova at Brainpickings (Party like it’s 1903: Virginia Woolf on the Ecstasy of Music and Dance). That led me to Zimring’s article, and to the Chestnut Tree Dance. A few months ago, I would have read this and thought “how quaint.” Now, with Trump, Sarkozy, and Farage all circling round what Billig calls banal nationalism, it would hardly surprise me if something as bizarre and loopy as the Chestnut Tree Dance surfaced again.
- Zimring, R. (2007). “The Dangerous Art Where One Slip Means Death”: Dance and the Literary Imagination in Interwar Britain. Modernism/modernity, 14(4), 707–727. http://doi.org/10.1353/mod.2007.0096 [currently available here]
Zimring has also written a whole book on the topic:
- Zimring, R. (2013). Social dance and the modernist imagination in interwar Britain. Burlington, VT: Ashgate.
What a difference a sub-clause makes
In the latest issue of Dance Gazette (“Don’t shoot the pianist”, Dance Gazette (2) 2016, p. 44) I’m quoted as saying this about live versus recorded music in ballet training (in answer to the question, do I think live music for ballet training is a dying profession?):
“I think a lot of it is based on tradition: the pianist is almost like the sacred cow.”
I did say that, but that’s only half of what I said. “Sacred cow” in English is a rather pejorative expression, used to imply that a thing or an idea is venerated and beyond criticism, as a result of an irrational belief or tradition. The further suggestions is that if we were to subject these unconsidered beliefs to reason, we might save ourselves unnecessary grief.
But that’s in fact the opposite of what I meant, which would have been clear had the rest of what I’d said been included.
Ballet pianists, sacred cows and anthropology
When I said that pianists were maybe like the sacred cow, I followed it up by saying that as with sacred cows, there’s maybe a very good reason why they’re sacred. As I said it, I had in mind a particularly memorable section in Catherine Bell’s Ritual: Perspectives and Dimensions (1997), in which she discusses “neofunctional systems analyses,” in particular the work of anthropologist Roy Rappaport (1926-1997).
Ritual, Rappaport argued, not only regulates the interaction of one human community with another but also can regulate the interaction of humans with local materials, foodstuffs, and animals—especially pigs in the New Guinea case, since they are an important component of the diet and the economy. […] Rappaport described how the Maring-speaking peoples of New Guinea slaughtered domestic pigs only under special circumstances and within a ritual framework. For example, a ritual killing of pigs is organized if the number of pigs multiplies to the point that too much labor and food are needed to feed them. (Bell, 1997, p. 29)
Bell goes on to discuss the work of Marvin Harris (1927-2001) in regard to cow worship among Hindus in India:
Harris pointed out that the cow was an indispensable resource for Hindu farming families with small plots of land, not only enabling them to plow and plant but also supplying them with milk for food and dung for fuel. If in times of severe crisis, such as an extended drought, people were to butcher and eat their cows, they would lose the one resource they needed to get back on their feet later. Hindu cow worship, the religious obligation to show the greatest respect to cows, ensures that people do not eat their cows in times of crisis —at least not short of total desperation. Hence, the ritual attitude toward the cow guarantees the maintenance of a basic level of economic resources and does so more effectively than any economic argument would. (Bell, 1997, p. 30)
Although I didn’t quote all that, that’s what I meant when I said pianists were like sacred cows—i.e. maybe behind the unthinking veneration of the presence of musicians in the ballet world there is a logic, a vital ecology that we won’t see until the rational economic arguments have got rid of them: by the time we’ve figured out the reason we used to venerate live music, it might already be too late.
Live versus recorded music, a dangerous framing
So what I meant was in fact the opposite of what came across: I was defending the apparently irrational valorising of live music in ballet training. It’s often the case now that people in schools and companies have to justify their expenditure on music to accountants who are looking for “efficiencies.” You can’t. To frame the argument as “live versus recorded music” misses the point: it treats music as nothing more than a sonic object that emanates either from a clattering cabinet of keys and strings, or a box of electronics.
As soon as you start trying to apply “rational” arguments to the question, you risk losing them. Live music is better than recorded? What about terrible pianists? You hear teachers all the time saying “better a good CD than a bad pianist. What about the thrill of dancing to an orchestra on CD, rather than an out-of-tune upright piano? Does having live music speed up the process of training a ballet dancer? No.
The worst part of the argument about live versus recorded music is that if you view musicians as an alternative way of achieving the same thing that you get from your iPod, then there’s almost no argument. An iPod wins on almost every point, starting with the financial. But music is wrapped up in everyday life in ways that are much more complex and relational than this, and in a ballet class, with good teachers, the music is neither in the pianist or in the teacher, it’s something woven between them (if you’re familiar with the work of Tim Ingold, you might recognise some of his ideas there). I could write a thesis about that. Oh wait….