You’d think that if ballet teachers have a mental model of how a polonaise goes, this would be a distillation of all the polonaises they’d ever heard, the top of the bell curve, just as when you go to buy a door, you expect that the shop will have a selection of them that resembles your idea of what a door is, even if the panelling and materials are different. Polonaises like the teacher’s model should be a dime a dozen in the repertoire, you’d think.
But they’re not. As I’ve written elsewhere there’s hardly a polonaise in the ballet repertoire that you can play for class straight out of the box. They have all kinds of little annoyances in them—2 bar fills, 10 bar phrases, four bar phrases, 5-phrase sections. They’re too slow, or too fast, too lyrical, or too complex rhythmically. So you hunt again, and find another breed of polonaise that, if it was a food product, would have the ominous word flavour on the label. Polonaise flavour. Contains polonaise flavouring. A teacher wrote to me recently, asking why it was that the grand battement on a polonaise she’d tried out for class didn’t work—she wanted to cross-phrase it so the leg went up on 1, 3 and 5 across a two-bar phrase (i.e. 1 2 3 4 5 6—a hemiola, in musical terms). She knew exactly what she was doing, but it didn’t work. I wasn’t there, but I would put money on the reason being that the pianist used a polonaise-flavoured room spray, rather than the eau de parfum.
Triple meter and the polonaise —(trigger warning: meter theory, including some hemiola)
Metrically speaking, the eau de parfum of the ballet teacher’s polonaise is one in which all the beats of the bar are equal, so that if you want to cross-phrase, hemiola fashion, you can. The classic case from the pianist’s repertoire is the opening section of Chopin’s A major “military polonaise” Op. 40 No. 1, or the final polonaise in Tchaikovsky’s Suite No. 3 (used in Balanchine’s Theme and Variations). But many polonaises aren’t like this. They tend, like the middle section of the Chopin polonaise I just mentioned, towards a kind of unequal meter, with the first part twice as long as the second (2+1). Even if you try to play with metronomic accuracy, there’s going to be a pull towards unevenness, either on the part of the performer or listener.
This is a much bigger issue than it might appear on the surface. In Beating Time & Measuring Music in the Early Modern Era , Roger Grant devotes a chapter to “a renewed account of unequal triple meter” which sets out the problem. Somewhere in the 16th century, triple meter became “grounded in a basic inequality.” Beating duple time consisted of an equal lowering and raising of the hand, whereas triple time involved a lowering (i.e. a downbeat) of double the length of the upbeat. In this form, “triple meter was an unequal meter, similar in nature to the unbalanced meters in five or seven with which we are familiar in the twenty-first century” .
Now get this:
In theoretical writings of the past forty years, however, triple meter no longer garners special treatment. It has become, for the most part, an equivalent of duple meter with different cardinality (that is, a different number of beats per measure). In these theories, triple meter is an isochronous meter—all of its parts are equal in length. This is the result of recent scholarship’s heavy theoretical investment in the properties of equal division and graduated hierarchy. .
Although Grant is here comparing theoretical perspectives, as a ballet pianist, you see this played out all the time in practice, and the polonaise problem I outlined above can be analysed in precisely these terms. The teacher has a conception of triple meter—in the polonaise, at least—in which the 3/4 bar is an isochronous meter, i.e. three equal beats. A lot of music in 3/4 isn’t like this. There is an unequal ebb and flow in the bar, a proportion of 2:1. Even if the pulse you’re playing to is even, the rhythm of the music draws you into this pattern, so that if you’re trying to cross-phrase your grands battements, the music pulls in another direction. Nonetheless, there are some polonaises which are examples of isochronous triple meter, and Tchaikovsky, when he’s polonaising, tends towards this pattern. The trouble is, most of them aren’t good for class for one reason or another (including overfamiliarity if you’re playing for a company).
Enter Nápravník, on an isochronous triple meter
This one by Nápravník is one of the rare pieces I’ve found in years of searching that comes close to the model of the ballet teacher’s polonaise without sounding like it’s been knocked together out of two-by-fours and MDF. Czech by birth, Eduard Nápravník was principal conductor at the Mariinsky Theatre, and conducted many of Tchaikovsky’s works, including the first performance of the 1st piano concerto, and the posthumous performance of the Pathètique. At the double bill premiere of Iolante and The Nutcracker, Nápravník conducted the opera, Drigo the ballet.
The date of Nápravník’s opera Dubrovsky, 1895, suggests that if there’s any influence, it must have been from Tchaikovsky to Nápravník. But with Tchaikovky’s documented respect for Czech composers—he “unreservedly praises Saint-Saëns, Delibes, Massenet, Grieg, Svendsen, Dvořák, and in the latter’s train Zdeněk Fibich, Karel Bendl, Karel Kovařovic, and Josef Bohuslav Foerster” and for Nápravník, it’s not inconceivable that perhaps some of the influence flowed in the other direction.
Like so many other polonaise composers, Nápravník doesn’t write in blocks of 4 x 8 bar phrases, so I’ve had to cut it in places, and double up a four-bar phrase in another to make it usable for class. It was very hard to decide how to do this without committing a crime against music, but I think it’s worth it. Some of the cuts and repeats feel criminal to me, but I think of all the times in real life productions where choreographers have cut or repeated, and once you’ve heard it a couple of times, you get used to it. Cuts, like murder, get easier after the first time.
I haven’t simplified the arrangement, as if the exercise is slow, you might be grateful of having something to play while you wait for the next beat to arrive. There’s no getting away from it, polonaises are just difficult to play, particularly this kind. There’s a rather lovely trio section in the middle which has echoes of one of the servant girls’ chorus (“Dyevitsy krasavitsy”) in Onegin. Given that Nápravník conducted the first performance of that opera, and would have known it well, the similarity is perhaps not surprising.