The rarity of truly triple metre

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The male solo from 'Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux' - a truly triple 3 (despite the 6/8 time signature)

The male solo from ‘Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux’ – a truly triple 3 (despite the 6/8 time signature)

If you’ve been following this blog recently, you know that I’m a little obsessed with time signature and metre in the 18th & 19th centuries (see Compound errors and  Counting Tchaikovsky). Today, it paid off in company class, when I managed to play about 5 minutes of pirouette exercise in 3/4 without getting a single tempo correction. That’s rare for me. I speed up in pirouette exercises.

This is how learned to stop doing it: I wondered whether it would help if I deliberately thought in 3 – maybe I inadvertently think in 6 when I’m playing waltzes.  3/4 bars never stand alone in waltzes, they’re always in pairs, and usually in pairs of pairs. It had never occurred to me to make a connection between this and my acceleration problem. But my speeding-up was cured instantly when I made an effort to think in 3 rather than 6. That is, I made sure my cadences were on ‘8’, not ‘7’, and that every bar was a closed circle of 3, rather getting sucked up into an imaginary 6/8. It was hard work. I’m correcting a habit of a lifetime, made worse by playing all that waltz music which is by nature in hypermetrical duple compound metre, not ‘truly triple metre’ as I call it. 

I coined the term ‘truly triple metre’ when I wrote the RAD’s Music in Focus and Dance Class Anthology books (2005). I’ve recently repurposed some of this for Dance rhythms for ballet pianists on the RAD website. The hardest rewriting was about ‘truly triple metre’ for grand allegro, because all the truly triple metres I can think of are polonaises, mazurkas and so on, which of course aren’t right for grand allegro. So what’s wrong?

Truly triple waltzes are an impossibility. They shouldn’t exist, and they don’t. What teachers mean by a ‘big waltz’ or ‘grande valse’, is usually that big balletic waltz-type variation that you only get in ballet, and while they’re in 3/4 and they’re reminiscent of waltzes, It would be better not to use that name for this type of music except as shorthand for something that we all know is really something else. The only trouble is, we don’t have a name for it. I call them ‘waltz-type variations’, and I think Galina Bezuglaya does in her book about ballet accompaniment (in Russian), but I can’t find the page right now.

Truly triple allegros are not waltzes. Think of the male solo from Tchaikovsky pas de deux, the cabriole variation from Bayadère, Flower Festival male solo, the E major solo from La Source that is used in Australian ballet’s Coppélia, and the Act 1 pas de trois male solo from Swan Lake (C minor), the coda from Diana and Acteon pas de deux, and one or two of the Paquita solos. Then there are waltz-ish variations that have a really marked three in a bar, even if they have their cadence on 7 rather than 8 (the giveaway for not-really-triple-metre*) – the Bayadère and Diana and Acteon male solos, for example.

The reason I get faster playing pirouettes is because I’m treating every other bar as a weak hypermetric beat, which I then tend to swallow up or slightly snatch (something I do in 4/4 as well, I’ve discovered, listening to recordings. Sometimes that can be just right, but if there’s stuff happening within the bar, like the finish of a pirouette, then the dancer needs all the time that’s available in the bar. That’s what real 3/4 would sound like, it’s just that it doesn’t happen very often.

* The exception (I think) is where you get a cadence on 7, but then 8 is a proper thump of a final chord – not an afterthought, but an autonomous accent that isn’t an appendage to the bar before.