Monthly Archives: June 2015

A year of playing cards #19: A medley of (double) jigs (6h)

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Image of the double jig medley

A medley of double jigs: click to download the score

I’m a few weeks behind, not least because it’s that time of year when everyone has a show, or is preparing for one. I thought that while I had O’Neill’s 1001 open (see previous post), I’d fill another gap: jigs. Good job I did, because I ended playing for a lot of children’s classes recently, and boy, do you need jigs for that. Skips, galops, horses, they all need jigs (particularly the kind called the “double jig”). I hadn’t quite finished this set when I suddenly needed it for a skipathon, and – as has happened a few times already – I became one of the most grateful users of my own 52 cards project.

Make mine a double: the difference between a single and a double jig

If you need jigs at all in a class, double ones seem to be better than singles almost all of the time (double jigs are the one with the continuous 8th notes and slightly slower than single jigs, which—like Humpty Dumpty Sat on a Wall—alternate between long and short notes). I think it’s because they are (sorry about this) truly triple. By that I mean they’re not just 4/4 with a bit of a lilt, the melody actually moves in 3 (see an earlier post, And now for something completely sextuple for a fuller explanation). I can’t really identify what my criteria are for choosing these jigs rather than the many, many others in O’Neill’s 1001, except I like the ones that sound a bit like a The frost is all over that I heard on a friend’s album when I was a teenager – I think it was Planxty, but it might have been The Chieftains. I couldn’t resist including the jiggy version of Green Sleeves. The Vaughan Williams version is lovely, but it could do with a rest.

Harmonising these tunes for the piano is not as easy as it you’d think it ought to be, and I change my mind several times no sooner than I’ve put down a version. It helps to listen to some bands playing the tunes. Guitarists often use fewer chord changes than you’d be tempted to make on the piano, and bassists make particular shapes with their bass lines. Here’s a version of the first of the set The Joy of My Life. 

A year of ballet playing cards #49: A medley of Hornpipes

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Image of the piano score of a medley of hornpipes

Click to download the medley of hornpipes

I don’t think there’s any other book on my shelves that I’ve ransacked for tunes as much as Kerr’s Merry Melodies (see earlier post), and possibly nothing quite so useful to build a repertoire as hornpipes. They move a lot, so it always sounds like you’re doing something, and because the melodies are suited to the physical characteristics of the violin rather than the piano, there’s something that sounds instantly fresh and different about them. After nearly a decade, I’d got almost everything I could out of the book I bought, and moved on to O’Neill’s 1001 a collection of, you guessed it, 1001 Irish dance tunes.

Put that (lilt) in your hornpipes and rock them

Hornpipes are usually written as even quavers or semiquavers, but played with a lilt. I’ve written out a suggestion of the lilting by dotting all the tunes, but before anyone writes to complain, yes, I know lilting’s more subtle a practice than that, but it’s better than accidentally giving the impression that they’re not lilted. You can spend hours reading about lilting on the net, but for a brief overview of the topic, see this.

I’m not sure what it is that makes a good hornpipe tune, but I like the ones that have the occasional triplet in, that have a wide tessitura that give you the feeling of a fiddler using the whole of the violin rather than just twiddling about up the top end. Sometimes it’s the name that endears me to the tune (like O’Connor’s Favorite in this set), and the modal ones are a welcome change.

Sometimes, a tiny fragment of melody reminds me of another tune, like the beginning of Fair and Forty, which is just like “Here we go looby loo” which my dad used to sing to me and my sister as children, and I have seldom if ever  heard since.

Another example is Whiskey You’re the Devil (or the same tune under different names). The end of the first phrase is identical to the second half of the first line of Out of Town, the theme tune to a programme that I couldn’t stand as a child, but in the school playground we used to change the words to “Say what you will, school dinners make you ill…”

saywhatyouwill

The end of the first line of “Whiskey you’re the devil”

And here’s the song:


As it happens, me and my friend Johnny Dyer were suspended from my C of E junior school for three days, aged 10, for leading a protest march with a few others in Bournemouth with banners written in biro on the side of cardboard boxes saying “School dinners are only fit for pigs!”  I don’t think the school dinners really were that bad – we’d seen a group of kids in Southampton on the 6 o’clock news doing the same thing, and we wanted our 15 minutes of fame too.

 

A year of ballet playing cards #48: Three French petit allegros (9d)

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Image of sheet music for petit allegro by Auber

Click to download the score

Music for petit allegro: time to put that rag away for once

Several times since I started this “playing card” project, I’ve found myself looking for music that solves whatever problem turned up in class that week. Last week it was finding music for those twiddly allegros that need exactly the music that you don’t really want to play – the continuous semiquaver solos that seem to characterise a lot of French 19th century ballet music (see a related earlier post). Most of the time, I’ll try to play anything but that (rags, jazz standards, fiddle tunes and so on) but there are times when nothing else will do – in one class, the teacher made it clear she exactly wanted what she’d asked for, not some more entertaining alternative, and as it turned out, she was right – it did work better.

I’d already heard a couple of things that I rather liked while I was going through the Auber Gustave III score, so I decided to make a little medley of them. In fact, it’s only a medley on paper, you couldn’t play them in a row for class. In the third one, only the first 8 bars is even – you’d have to find a way of cutting/fiddling the last section. I started to do it myself, and then I remembered that other pianists often find much better ways than I do of finding cuts, so I’ve left the material there for you to make your own cuts in. You’ve been warned.

It’s easy to think that this music is so simple and lacking in harmonic/rhythm interest that you could just make it up as you go along. But actually, it’s not that easy to do, and you’ll find this isn’t that easy to play either. Maybe why this works so well as music for petit allegro – it’s tricky for the musician, as well as the dancer.

I picked the first one, which starts at 9’47” because it has a half-bar anacrusis, and that’s my new favourite trick for class, experimenting with what William Rothstein calls  “Franco-Italian hypermeter” (see earlier post).  You could start it on the beat if you wanted, but I’ve found that these half-bar anacruses things bring a lightness to duple meter things that works like magic. In this case, there’s also a forte-piano dynamic marking from the weak to the strong beat, which creates even more lightness. Little touches like this are counterintuitive but look perfect with the right exercise. Try it and see.

The second one starts at 5’19” and is the most usable of the three perhaps.

The third one starts at 12’18” and isn’t really a “running 4” at all, but I like it, and I seem to be short of things that go like this. Be warned about the second section (see above).

A year of ballet playing cards #18: Another 6/8 allegro – by Auber (5h)

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Music for allegro in six eight (6/8)

Click to download the score

This music for allegro in six eight is what I call an “assemblé 6/8” because it’s often in assemblé exercises that teachers ask for a 6/8, or what seems like a waltz. Once the exercise starts, you realise that it’s neither a waltz, nor the kind of 6/8 that grows on trees. I call it “one of those 6/8s” (see  recent post for another example), or an “assemblé 6/8” – you can also use it for some battements glissés exercises at the barre.

In music for ballet, less is often more

The longer I’ve played for ballet, the more I’ve come to appreciate pieces like this. On the surface they appear to do nothing – the bass line barely moves for the whole piece. But as a rule, taking stuff away rather than adding it seems to work well in ballet class. Structurally, too, the middle section with its upward motion and drama is all the more exciting for being set off by rather static stuff either side. What also looks like musical dullness – the same note in the bass for most of the piece, also acts like a drum, and a musical “floor” for the person doing the exercise. It’s easy to denigrate 19th century ballet music for being samey, but it works, and what the hell, Uptown Funk doesn’t suffer from having too many of the same notes in the tune either.

Well-designed music for allegro in six eight keeps you in time

This piece is a good example of music that has physical constraints in its design that prevent you from snatching a few milliseconds in the middle of the bar as you might in a waltz or jig-like rhythm. Those two semiquavers in the central beat (punctuated by horns in the orchestration) keep this in a genuine three, and make you hold your tempo. I borrowed the idea of physical constraints as a design feature  from Donald Norman’s The Design of Everyday Things .

The value of physical constraints is that they rely on properties of the physical world for their operation; no special training is necessary. With the proper use of physical constraints there should be only a limited number of possible actions – or, at least, desired actions can be made obvious, usually by being especially salient.  (Norman, 1989, p. 84)

An example of this in everday life would be a door that had a push-plate on one side, and a handle on the other. You simply couldn’t pull the door on the push side by accident because there’s nothing to grab, and you would naturally go to pull the door on the pull-side. In this music, those semiquavers are the physical constraints, they prevent you from squeezing the tempo in the middle of the bar. The same principle works like a dream when you use polka-mazurka types for a pirouette – it’s almost impossible to get out of time.

About the arrangement

Despite it’s simplicity, this piece was difficult to reduce for piano, and I’m still not happy with it, after several revisions.  It’s hard to capture the bouncy lightness of the orchestration on a piano with only two hands, so this would probably make a nice duet. In three places, I’ve missed out one beat, in order to drag the piece into a meter that works for class. The start of it comes from Act 1 (should start automatically start in the right place when you click, but if not, drag the slider to 6:11)

The A minor section comes from Act 5 (starts at 16:17, again, should start there automatically on click, but drag to the right time if not). Altogether, this week’s score has four variants of 6/8 for allegro, one of which will probably work for the exercise. It’s handy to have a piece that keeps changing rhythmic emphasis like this, because then you can see which particular variant works. You’ll notice that the final section also removes the constraint that I wrote about in the F major section – which will be either a good or a bad thing, depending on the exercise.

The Auber in the Tchaikovsky

I can’t say I was much of an Auber fan before this week, but the more I listen, the more I like it. There are some really bizarre, tender and wonderful moments of orchestration.  I also began to realise how much Tchaikovsky’s dance music resembles Auber at times (the Tchaikovsky pas de deux female variation could have been written by him, in places, and there’s a bit that sounds straight out of a march in Swan Lake.

There’s also a strong resemblance between this last A minor section from Act I, and Tchaikovsky’s “August” (Harvest song) from The Seasons which is used in the pas de trois after the duel in Onegin. There seems to be a worldwide competition to play this as fast as possible, until the rhythm just blurs into rabid prattle of notes, but I do rather like this orchestration, which makes the piece sound a lot better than it is:

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