Confessions of an anxious ballet pianist day #6: Playing the Black Swan variation music

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The original piano piece, Op. 72 No. 12, orchestrated by Drigo for the 1895 production of Swan Lake.

The original piano piece, Op. 72 No. 12, orchestrated by Drigo for the 1895 production of Swan Lake.

The music that is harder to find than a black swan

Let’s start with a few facts. Although this solo, and the Black Swan pas de deux that it comes from, is one of the most famous bits of the most famous ballets in the world, the chances are that if you pick up a score of Swan Lake, you won’t find it – either the solo, or the pas de deux. There was no such thing as “Black Swan Pas de Deux” in Act 3 of the original (1877) score of Swan Lake. Most of it was taken from a pas de deux for “two merry-makers” in Act 1 (No. 5). Not only is Siegfried’s solo not there in the form that we generally know it today (it’s a chirpy, playful, and much longer violin solo, by comparison with the galumphing machismo of Drigo’s re-orchestration that most people know as “Siegfried”), but Odile’s solo isn’t there at all. That’s because it was only added in 1895, after Tchaikovsky’s death. It’s a piano solo (Op. 72 No. 12, L’Espiègle) orchestrated by Drigo, along with other interpolations and changes, documented on this Wikipedia page about the 1895 version of Swan Lake.

The original source of the black swan variation music

L’Espiègle, the subtitle of Tchaikovsky’s piece, means something like “Sprite,” “Demon,” or “Prankster.” It’s apparently related to “Eulenspiegel.” You get the idea. It’s a little novelty piece that should be cheeky, irreverent, playful, elusive, naughty. You can see why they might have chosen such a piece for Odile’s solo. Accordingly, it’s marked Allegro moderato (con grazia, in modo di scherzo. Stokowski’s Richter’s recording will give you an idea of what I mean: [many of the YouTube videos I embed get removed, which is a shame. Stokowski’s recording is orchestral, so it’s more fun to listen to and compare: listen to it here on Deezer, or here on iTunes or just use the relevant terms to search for it elsewhere]:  

But you’ll be in trouble if you play it like that. To accompany this solo, you have to ignore just about everything that’s in the score, and add things that are not there, and still aren’t printed in any version of the score that I’ve seen. Versions of the score that include the solo just reprint Tchaikovsky’s piano version (you can download one here, from IMSLSP, though it doesn’t contain the cut), not a reduction of the Drigo orchestration.  Let me list just a few examples of what I mean.

  • Time signature: No. it’s marked C, but really needs to be re-barred as 2/4 (a classic case of compound duple time – see an earlier post for more on that).
  • Allegro moderato: No. Think Air on the G String instead as your tempo ball-park.
  • Con grazia, in modo di scherzo: No. Oh no, no, no. Put such thoughts right out of your mind
  • Stringendo, ritenuto, a tempo: No. Don’t even think about it. While you’re playing this, there’s so much stuff going on in that solo, if you don’t keep a rock-steady slow tempo, you’ll be in trouble, and so will Odile.
  • Did I mention the cut? You’ll be in trouble if you try to use the original piano solo. In the ballet, there’s a cut before the tune comes back again.

Now let’s talk about this:

Ballet's best kept secret: this is NOT how it goes.

Ballet’s best kept secret: this is NOT how it goes.

  • Don’t play what’s written for the semiquavers: find the chord that each pair creates, and repeat them in pairs (F#F# G#G# A#A# etc.)
  • Don’t play what’s written for the big fortissimo chord: that actually needs to be rhyhmically performed arpeggios. There is stuff going on there that needs a beat.
  • If you were thinking about pausing for dramatic effect on that chord – don’t. Count like crazy.
  • The middle of the piano solo is cut. Sometimes, the cut is wrongly marked, or maybe there was a version that had a different cut in. The cut includes a funny half-bar.
  • When the tune repeats, ignore all tempo markings, except that it’s going to be slightly faster this time. Possibly.
  • At the end, keep it in tempo. Or at least, play it as if you’re keeping in tempo, but make adjustments just in case she’s a little bit late. But be sure not to sound as if you’re slowing up, because otherwise that might make it sound like she’s late and we don’t want that.
  • Get used to the idea that you’ll probably miss the G# in the left hand chord 80% of the time, because you’re trying to watch the end of the solo.

As with the White Swan of yesterday’s post, it doesn’t get any easier, no matter how many times you’ve played this, for how many ballerinas. If it hadn’t been for my colleague Julia Richter, who initiated me into the secrets of this solo (like the arpeggios) when we were playing at a ballet competition together in 1987, I wouldn’t have known, and would have made a fool of myself for I don’t know how many years before someone told me. 27 years later (and 119 years after the first production), we’re still playing it, and there’s still not a proper piano reduction of it floating around – and Drigo’s orchestration isn’t available online to do the work yourself (if I’m wrong about that, let me know).

Update February 2015:  where to find a piano score of the black swan variation music
I did do it myself in the end – see my Black Swan page if you want some background, or just download it from IMSLP.

And finally – a dodgy comedy version of the black swan variation music

A little bit of unknown, or rather, just forgotten ballet history. Back in about 1992 (I think?) I was so sick of this solo, and so captivated by my new Yamaha SY35 keyboard and MIDI technology, that I did the only thing that would save my sanity: I turned it into a silly kind of ballroom number. Christopher Hampson made a solo to it for that year’s ENB cabaret that he called a TBA, that was danced by Alex Foley. I don’t remember anything about the solo (he probably doesn’t either) except that she had long black gloves on. It was made on an Atari computer over 22 years ago, and I no longer have any of the files, but it was on a cassette tape somewhere. I thought it had been lost forever, but then in 2008, Chris found it in a box he hadn’t unpacked since moving house several years before. Here it is. Dodgy timing, and restored to MP3 after years in a box.

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