Monthly Archives: April 2015

A year of ballet playing cards #32: A Scottishy-Czechishy-minuettishy thing by Boccherini


Click to download score

The magic of Boccherini for ballet class

This is only a short piece, but it’s going to be like the magic key to open a dastardly exercise box somewhere on Planet Ballet – probably in some intermediate class where they’re trying to teach ballonné composé or a pas de basque glissé.  I discovered it after recommending Boccherini’s  Passa Calle from Musica notturna delle strade di Madrid (Night Music of the Streets of Madrid), Op.  30 No. 6 (G. 324) to a friend for a short film he and a friend were making. When I finally saw the film, I realised that they’d also used the Minuetto dei Ciechi from the same piece in the opening scene, to great effect: it’s quirky, atmospheric, physical music, and that’s exactly what the film was.  Because I’d skipped over that track before, I’d forgotten just how bizarre and lovable it is, and so here it is.  You might only get to play it once in a ballet lifetime, because there isn’t a name for this rhythm, but I am pretty certain that it’s perfect for something, it’s just a question of what that something is.

Check out the difference between Ciechi and Cechi

Minuetto dei Ciechi means “Minuet of the Blind People” which is translated as “blind beggars” elsewhere. I have a theory about this, that maybe, just maybe, this is a mis-spelling on Boccherini’s part, and what he meant to write is “Minuetto dei Cechi” which sounds the same, but means “Minuet of the Czechs.” Rather bizarrely, he marks this “con mala grazia” (with bad grace). So was he taking the mickey out of blind people stumbling around trying to dance in the street? Or did “mala grazia” simply mean in a folkish style? It’s a complete stab in the dark, and I have absolutely no evidence for the idea, except that this scotch-snap  (or “lombardic rhythm” – see this article) in a 3/4 is characteristic of no other music I can think of, except some Czech folk dances that I’ve heard, including the sousedská from Dvořák’s Czech Suite, and some Mozart minuets.



Boccherini turns out to be a much more interesting composer than I ever thought, and for that we have to thank Elizabeth Le Guin, and her fabulous “carnal musicological” studies of the composer  .   Cook  mentions one of these in Beyond the score, in what is the first acknowledgement I’ve seen  of the connection between dance training and musical pedagogy:

“…following the pedagogy of dance, the late eighteenth century saw ‘a huge increase in the production and publication of instructional treatises for every instrument. Here mechanical processes, not just of instruments, but of the bodies operating them, began to be conceptualized and systematized (2002:243).”

I doubt that any teacher will ever ask you for a piece of music like this, so I suggest you just play it to yourself in their hearing, and see if they go “Oh that’s great, what’s that?” or “That’s perfect for…” I’m afraid it’s more likely they’ll look at you, smile, put their hands above their head in a gesture that means “Scottish dancing” and smile, and then ask you for something else.

Update on 5th August 2015: 

Well I was wrong. I was playing for Nehemiah Kish at the Balletmasterclasses in Prague, and he came out with this exercise that seemed to be crying out for a bit of this Boccherini. Here’s the result:

A year of ballet playing cards #31: A polka mazurka by Verdi (5c)

Piano score of the polka mazurka by Verdi

Click to download this polka mazurka

Another polka mazurka? Yes, and here’s why

After I posted the two pieces by Ziehrer, the Fächerpolonaise and the Wurf-bouquet polka Mazurka, I doubted myself – were they just too uninteresting to be worth inputting and posting online for other people to play?  Well, they may not be the world’s most exciting pieces, but they have been lifesavers in recent classes. The polonaise works because it’s simple. By contrast, I sometimes detect dancers stuck in a kind of cognitive traffic jam when I play something that’s what you would normally describe as musically “interesting” – it’s just too much to try and process the music and the steps of the exercise at the same time. As for the polka mazurka, using that for class in one of the dreaded slow mazurka pirouette exercises  that I blogged about last year enabled me to play for about 10 minutes without a single tempo-correction, and that is a record for me.

That’s why I’m serving up another polka-mazurka this week, because you can never have enough of this stuff when there’s a dozen groups coming from the corner on both sides. This is form Un ballo in maschera. Incidentally, nearly every clip that I tried to load had been disabled for copyright reasons, so I don’t know how long this one will be there. This is a fine example of how classical music is killing itself through hating its public, whereas the pop industry seems to be awake to the fact that letting people hear stuff online is a good way of letting them get enthused about it. Don’t be put off by the speed in the clip – it’s fine as opera, but you’d have to pump it up a bit for class.  I’ve done a kind of medley version of it, to stretch it out as long as possible. You don’t have to play all the tiny notes, but some of them help.

While we’re on the subject of polka mazurkas, my favourite clip of the week is this, just for the mis-spelling (but also, because a polka mazurka features in a detective story). Long live the Porka Mazurka!


A year of ballet playing cards #30: A useful Polka mazurka

Segment of the polka mazurka for ballet class

Click to download the free piano score of Ziehrer’s polka mazurka

“Such serviceable flowers” The polka mazurka as the chrysanthemum of the ballet class

You’ll probably look at this and think it’s a bit dull. I can live with that, because I know you’re going to thank me one day when you get some really awkward exercise that needs to be like doing a hill-start at traffic lights every bar. As Miss Brodie says of chrysanthemums in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie “Ah chrysanthemums. Such serviceable flowers.” A withering remark, but nonetheless, if serviceable is what you need, then a polka mazurka (or a bunch of chrysanthemums) is the thing.

Truly triple meter and the polka mazurka

I’m very glad that I made the distinction from the start in this series between 3s that were really more like 6/8s (hearts) and 3s that are really 3s, because this is a perfect example of truly triple meter, and why polka mazurkas, twee and 19th century as they are, are often much better for  pirouette exercises than waltzes. See previous posts on triple metre, and waltzes and mazurkas.

I’m making up all the articulations in this transcription, because I have no score to refer to, so I’m just writing down what I can hear. Listen to the recording, because everything about this piece is about articulation and tempo, rather than notes (and that’s why it looks a bit dull on the page).

Wurf-bouquet means a “throwing bouquet” (presumably like the one you throw at weddings), and my guess is that there’s some musical gesturing going on in the melody, where the three-note motif (and the way the anacrusis is held back in performance) is meant to represent the preparation and throw of a bouquet. It’s the kind of thing we get used to doing in music all the time if you play for class. I haven’t transcribed the ending of the piece – it goes back to the beginning, and then spends about a minute winding down, which is not much use to anyone in class.

There are some interesting similarities between this and the opening of the Grand pas classique in Paquita, which will tell you pretty much for certain that what we have in the ballet is a polka mazurka. That being the case, as lovely as the production below is, I’m guessing it’s probably a bit racier tempo-wise than the original might have been. I could be wrong – one of the useful things Zorn told us was that Russians waltzed faster than most of the rest of Europe at the end of the 19th century, so maybe that applies to the polka mazurka too. The long-short-short-long pattern in some of the bars is identical, and is worth keeping in your tool-box as a means of slowing down waltzes for pirouette exercises.

I’m a week behind, as I was at the 2nd Music and Consciousness conference in Oxford last week. Given that other people manage to con prisons into releasing them by setting up email accounts using an illicit mobile phone, you’d think I ought to be able to blog my way through a conference, but I needed a midi keyboard and more time and brains than I had at the end of the day. I’ll catch up soon.


A year of ballet playing cards #29: A Chaconne and a grand dance (3c)

Image of the chaconne by Purcell

Click to download the score of Purcell’s chaconne

Why is the chaconne so rare in ballet class culture?

I’ve no idea. Given that ballet’s history is supposed to have its roots in Italy and France, it’s odd that things like minuets, chaconnes, bourrées, sarabandes, gavottes and so on are some of the rarest things ever to be heard in a ballet class.  If there’s any cultural hegemony going on, it’s Austro-Hungarian: the waltz and the polka.  Of all the music that isn’t played in classes, it’s the chaconne that seems to miss out most. I don’t think there’s a reason why, except that the only kind of three people can think of in a hurry is the waltz and the mazurka, and those rhythms get embedded in the technique, I suppose. Can there really be something about ballet that requires the waltz? Or is it that chaconne requires learning a new rhythmic trick, and ballet habits are remarkably resilient?

Install a new chaconne instead of your old waltz

I discovered a while back that if you’re lucky, and the exercise isn’t too slow, you can replace the thick, porridge-like stir of a waltz played too slow for ronds de jambe with a Chaconne like this (albeit played rather too slow for a chaconne). It has a push on 1, but not the feeling of a wellington boot sinking into mud that the slow waltz has. The dotted rhythms and true triple metre (see earlier posts on the topic of triple meter) keep the music moving.

There’s something hypnotic yet interesting about the variations on the ground bass: it’s amazing how  much harmonic interest Purcell squeezes out of a single 8-bar bass line.  It’s also handy that there’s loads of it – 16 eight-bar phrases. I’ve put rehearsal marks on each one so you can pick and choose depending on the length of the exercise, but beware of – it’s the only time the phrase ends in a dominant.  There are some great recordings available, but I chose the one below because it has some baroque dance in it as well – which helps to give an idea of what a central tempo for this could be, even though it bears playing more slowly.

By chance, I started to input this just before going to a wonderful concert of the Shostakovich 1st violin concerto at the Barbican, and I was thinking of how the first of Shostakovich’s 24 preludes and fugues is a little chaconne, rather like the one in Purcell’s The Fairy Queen. Then In the violin concerto there’s also a kind of chaconne-like passacaglia in 3, which I felt peculiarly prepared for, as if inputting the Purcell had been a kind of mental warm-up.

On wikipedia there’s a wonderful list of other compositions that have used the chaconne as a basis. Well worth looking at for other ideas, if you liked this one.


The Lanner in the Stravinsky

The Steyrische Tänze Op. 165 by Lanner - source of one of the ballerina tunes in Petrushka

The Steyrische Tänze Op. 165 by Lanner – source of one of the ballerina tunes in Petrushka

It’s well known that Stravinsky borrowed tunes from Lanner for the ballerina in Petrushka. I knew about the Schönbrunner waltz Op. 200 [link to score], but I was pleased to find the other tune on page two of the Steyrische Tänze Op. 165 [link to score].   This is why I love IMSLP – it gives you a chance to recover sources like this. I can remember reading a book or programme note about  Petrushka that said in a supercilious tone Stravinsky was caricaturing the facile melodies of Lanner’s waltzes, and in a sentence like that, Lanner gets pushed further to the bottom of the heap of composers that one is not supposed to like, or even look at – you can just rely on some secondary source to tell you what to think. I’m not saying that when you look at it again, you realise that Lanner was a master composer and this is a wonderful piece – but I do like to have the opportunity to hear this music without the modernist composer’s, musicologist’s or critic’s sneer all over it (hear it for yourself here.) It opens with a waltz in 3 bar phrases (like the Glinka Valse Fantaisie), and is really rather nice.

The only reason I found it was because I’ve realised that the Steyrische (or “Styrian”) has got just the right degree of turgidness for a certain kind of ronds de jambe exercise, so I was hunting around IMSLP to see if there were any good ones to add to the repertoire. I’ve played the Schönbrunner waltz several times in class, and no-one’s ever said “That’s Petrushka!” so I wonder if they’d notice if you played this. Of course, if they did, the nice thing is that they’d think you were playing Stravinsky, so you could put on your Stravinsky face and make out that it was really hard.

I’ve also played “Po dikim stepyam Zabaikalya” which is also quoted in Petrushka, and no-one’s ever noticed either the folk song or thought it was from Petrushka (they’ve not noticed the other folk tune – Я вечор млада во пиру была –  that I play sometimes, either).


And finally: *that* Tarantella by Czerny is finally identified


For anyone who was following my posts about the sources for Czerny’s music in Etudes, I’m very happy to say that someone has finally filled in the last piece of the jigsaw: the tarantella is from  Op. 834 No. 27 (see comment here).  Thank you Gabri!

A year of ballet playing cards #28: Fächerpolonaise Op. 525 by Ziehrer (2c)

First line of sheet music for Ziehrer's polonaise

Click to download the score of the polonaise for free

In search of the serviceable polonaise for ballet class

A commenter on a previous post about polonaises asked me – since I’d said so many polonaises were unusable – which ones I would choose.  I realised I didn’t really have much of an answer, so it was clearly time to go on a polonaise hunt. I can’t pretend I’m that thrilled by this polonaise, but I’m no great fan of the polonaise to start with, and everyone needs a polonaise or three in their repertoire: so this one, which as Miss Brodie said of chrysanthemums (“such serviceable flowers”) is serviceable, so why not. “Serviceable” is no bad thing for class, for nothing is worse than music that draws attention to itself so much that it’s distracting.  If nothing else, the Fächerpolonaise is a good model of just how little one needs to do when improvising around a dance rhythm: as I’ve written before, less is usually more when it comes to harmony in dance rhythms.

Another reason I chose this music is because it has still has a  currency at Viennese balls. The clip below is from the Regenbogenball in Vienna (the “Rainbow Ball” for LGBT people and friends). If there’s a reason to hang on to these strangely antique traditions perhaps it’s to give people who were previously denied participation a chance to join in now. Dance and music might be a metaphor for this kind of thing: you keep the music going for long enough (i.e. over a century and a half) for the last couple in the room to get to the front.  There’s an essay to be written on that that would include a  reference to Elias’s Society of Individuals, but I haven’t got time. There’s also an essay to be written about the way the Habsburg Empire lives on (at least culturally) with extraordinary resilience – this also happens to be one of André Rieu’s greatest hits.

About Carl Ziehrer, composer of the Fächer polonaise

I ought to have heard of Carl Ziehrer before, but I hadn’t. The fact that this polonaise is Op. 525 will tell you something about his output – he actually wrote more dance music that Johann Strauss II. The more you listen to the music of Strauss’s contemporaries, the more that composers like Minkus and Pugni – and even Tchaikovsky – fall into context.  If, as Taruskin has said, leaving out ballet music from music history is a “scandalous omission”  then leaving out light music is a double scandal, because it conceals the extent to which composers like Tchaikovsky were surfing a much more popular wave.

You can add in or take away as many notes in the chords as you like – I’ve added a few from the piano transcription to thicken it up, but they’re not compulsory.