Advent 2009 – Musical Surprises

Another list-on-a-page post – this time, it’s a collection of my 2009 Advent Calendar posts which were ‘musical surprises’ from the world of ballet music. The ‘surprises’ are probably one of my favourite lists of all, this one, and there have been plenty more since, so I’ve added a few on the end that I discovered after 2009.

  • Advent Calendar 2009 It’s become something of a habit for me to do an ‘Advent Calendar’ of posts on music and dance topics, so this year, I’ve decided it’s going to be musical surprises from the ballet world or broadly related to it.  They’re things which surprised me, if they don’t surprise you, then I invite you to ...
  • Musical surprises #1: La cumparsita is not a tango Nope, you heard right. The tango that for most people defines the genre, the dance, the music, the rhythm and everything else about tango, was composed as a little march for marching band – in Uruguay. That’s right, Gerardo Matos Rodriguez, the composer of La Cumparsita (that’s a march, not a tango)  wasn’t from Argentina ...
  • Musical surprises #2: Chopin’s mazurkas aren’t mazurkas Or to be more precise, Chopin uses the term ‘mazurka’ as a blanket term for a family of dances which include the kujawiak, the mazur and the obertas. Maya Trochimczyk’s article on the mazurka spells it out nicely – or rather, unravels it and lays all the components on the table. The fact that Chopin’s ...
  • Musical suprises #3: Tico-Tico is not a rumba If you’re thinking ‘I never thought Tico Tico was a rhumba’, then don’t read on. But in the rather strange world I work in, it’s very common  for dance teachers to say ‘rumba’ and then  sing a bit of Zerquinha Abreu’s Tico-Tico  (made famous by Carmen Miranda). The  cruellest thing I ever witnessed in a class ...
  • Musical surprises #4: There’s a cuckoo in the Nutcracker Well, a toy one anyway. If you look at the instrumentation for The Nutcracker over at www.tchaikovsky-research.org  (possibly the best resource about any composer on the web), you’ll see that apart from the famous celesta in the Sugar Plum Fairy, Tchaikovsky also includes a toy trumpet, drums, cuckoo, quail and cymbals. Either I’ve been asleep ...
  • Musical surprises #5: Mirlitons are cakes OK, so I’ve posted about this before, but hey it’s Christmas, and it’s still one of the great mysteries of musical life: why in the Kingdom of the Sweets in The Nutcracker do you get chocolate, coffee, ginger, sugar plums, and er….reed pipes? Although the mirliton is some kind of instrument (the nearest thing to ...
  • Musical surprises #6: The ‘Theme slave’ in Coppélia is not by Delibes Friends from Coppélia: a borrowing from Moniuszko Friends from Coppélia, the set of dances in Act 1, usually danced to the Thème Slave varié, is not by Delibes at all. Or at least the main tune isn’t: it’s a song called Poleć, pieśni, z miasta by the Polish composer Moniuszko (1819-1872).  This is not just a snatch of ...
  • Musical surprises #7: Jingle Bells doesn’t go like you think it does Jingle Bells is  a song you’ve known ever since you were a child, and you hear every christmas. The chorus has a shape and a direction that is so simple and obvious, you think it could only go the way it does.  Well think again. James Lord Pierpont, who composed The One Horse Open Sleigh ...
  • Musical surprises #8: Petrushka’s not all by Stravinsky Well, not exactly, but the point is that one of the big tunes  in the Wet Nurses’ dance in Stravinsky’s Petrushka is a Russian folk song  (Я вечор млада во пиру была | I was a young maiden at the feast) which had already been published in piano duet form by Tchaikovsky between 1868-9.  In fact, if you play ...
  • Musical surprises #9: Hornpipes are in 3… …sometimes. For many people, especially dance teachers, ‘hornpipe’ is synonomous with 2/4 time. But there is another hornpipe in 3/2, particularly common in English baroque music, an example being Purcell’s Hole in the Wall (see below). Another example is the Scottish tune ‘Dance to your Daddy‘, the rondeau from Purcell’s Abdelazer that’s used in Britten’s Young ...
  • Musical surprises #10: Le Corsaire doesn’t go like you think it does Here’s a nice Christmas ‘spot the difference’ quiz: listen to the music of the two clips below and see how many differences (apart from tempo) you can identify.  Corella’s is the original, Nureyev’s is Lanchbery’s re-orchestration – and is it turns out, a bit more than orchestration.  Until last year, I had never heard the ...
  • Musical surprises #11: Listen long enough, and words become a melody We often talk about a language being ‘musical’, or a speaker having ‘sing-song’ tones when they talk. But we mean this only in a vague sense: we don’t mean that people are literally singing when they speak, just that their intonation has the quality of music. But music psychologist  Diana Deutsch has illustrated an extraordinary phenomenon: ...
  • Musical surprises #12: The ‘tango’ is a maxixe is a polka with a habañera rhythm The maxixe was a lower-class dance that caused outrage in upper and middle class society in late 19th century Brazil. Not only did partners hold each other by the buttocks, but – horror of horrors – white women danced with black partners. Nonetheless, the music became very popular in all levels of society. But you couldn’t, ...
  • Musical surprises #13: The male variation in Sugar Plum was originally in C minor Tchaikovsky has a reputation for  bringing high production values to the composition of ballet scores  by conceiving them architecturally and symphonically. But in practice, he’s as likely to borrow, copy and paste from himself as much as anyone else, if not more. He was perhaps a bit better at disguising the joins. For example, when the ...
  • Musical surprises #14: ‘Let it snow’ is not a Christmas song There is not a name for the precise mixture of rage and musical indigestion I feel when I have to put up with Sainsburys christmas music. When I was in Parma recently, I rejoiced when I realised that with the exception of two excellent buskers,  there was no music in cafés, bars, restaurants, hotels, lobbies; ...
  • Musical surprises #15: It’s musicians who count weirdly, not dancers The term ‘dancers counts’ is often used in a rather perjorative way – as if they’re incapable of seeing and hearing the world normally.  Even dancers use the term against themselves sometimes: teachers sometimes say ‘You’ll probably think I’m counting this all wrong but…’ Now there are times when a dancer’s choreographic map laid over ...
  • Musical surprises #16: The skating in Les Patineurs is nothing new I wasn’t going to post this since I thought it was no longer surprising, but then I overheard an announcer on Radio 3 only this morning give full credit to Ashton for the skating in Les Patineurs, and decided I should do it after all to set the record straight. Let’s start with the music. For ...
  • Musical surprises #17: Sometimes a strathspey is a reel is a jig It’s not just the tango that’s complicated or misleading: Scottish music is apparently prey to the same terminological confusion. Writing about naming conventions in collections of dance tunes dating back to the 18th century, Pat Ballantyne writes: What to us is clearly a strathspey, with its jerky, dotted rhythms, might be called a reel. What to ...
  • Musical surprises #18: 5/4 isn’t that odd in the 19th century There’s a fairly common belief  that until Stravinsky came along, everything was either in 4/4 or 3/4.  When I was at school in the 70s, I remember one music lesson in which we had to listen to the second movement of Tchaikovsky’s 6th symphony (which is in 5/4), and marvel at how avant garde he ...
  • Musical surprises #19: That Russian sound is Italian When you think of Russian folk music, what do you hear in your head? Probably the sound of someone playing a tune on a balalaika with that heart-rending tremolo on each note, as in the beginning of the Youtube clip on the left.  How much more Russian could you get? What other country could this ...
  • Musical surprises #20: The end of Sleeping Beauty is a French song That’s not the whole surprise, because it’s a fairly well-known fact that the big tune in the apotheosis of The Sleeping Beauty is an old French song, the pre-revolutionary national anthem, no less,  from the 16th century called Vive Henri IV . Gerard McBurney on “Vive Henri IV” in Discovering Music  The reasons for this are discussed by ...
  • Musical surprises #21: If you want to play for children’s ballet, study semiotics Thanks to the musical semiotician Raymond Monelle and his wonderful book The Sense of Music, I am happily aware that there is a concept in music of a horse which is unique to music – it’s not a representation of a horse, but a musical idea, a musical topic. Hear a certain kind of 6/8, ...
  • Musical surprises #22: There’s a psychopomp in my barcarole Next time you get to a slow bit of a ballet where there’s something a bit wafty and barcarole-ish in 6/8, look out for a psychopomp. A psychopomp, explains the scholar Rodney Edgecombe in a fascinating article ‘can be either a spiritual guide or a figure who conducts the soul from the zone of this life ...
  • Musical surprises #23: Vauxhall, Strauss & Tchaikovsky Although the light and popular dance rhythms of Johann Strauss II seem a sociocultural world away from the ‘classical’ Tchaikovsky, they’re not. It’s our own snobbery that obscures the connections in the music, for what is Tchaikovsky most famous for if not the Waltz of the Flowers, and the waltzes from Sleeping Beauty and Swan ...
  • Musical surprises #24: What Rumanian dances sound like without the Bartók I love Bartók’s Rumanian Dances, and indeed, I’ve just recorded them with the violinist Gillon Cameron on the album  After Class 2. But I was gobsmacked when I heard my favourite band, the Romanian Taraf de Haïdouks playing them as they might have been before they got turned into 20th century concert repertoire, or ‘re-gypsifying’ ...
  • Musical surprises #25: A bit of Tooting history Happy Christmas! Today’s revelation is not strictly a musical surprise, except that it vaguely concerns me and I’m a musician. But it’s quite surprising all the same, and I love it. I came across this old photograph of my paternal grandfather’s cornchandler’s shop at 759 Garratt Lane a couple of years ago.  The site doesn’t ...
  • Musical surprises #26: The Csárdás from Coppélia is not by Delibes A bit unseasonal this, since ‘musical surprises’ was the theme of my 2009 Advent Calendar. But I just couldn’t wait til next year to share my excitement at this one. It seems that not only is the theme of the “‘Friends” dance in Coppélia Act I  not by Delibes (called “Thème Slave varié in the score) , but ...
  • At last: a picture of a mirliton I can’t tell you how pleased I am about this: Here, on a site dedicated to the iconography of the bagpipe, are two pictures of mirlitons (scroll down to see them), placed as I have always suspected within the general category of kazoo-like instruments, in French termed “flûte eunuque, kazoo, mirliton ou bigophone”. ‘Danse des Bigophones’ has ...
  • On revolution in The Nutcracker and the limits of Google French revolutionary musical borrowings in The Nutcracker —wny? As I said in my last post, where I think I’ve discovered a French counter-revolutionary song as a source for one of Tchaikovsky’s musical borrowings in The Nutcracker, I had a vague recollection of having read about the theory of Nutcracker being an allegory of the French Revolution.  Eventually, ...
  • More on borrowings in the Nutcracker I think most people know that Tchaikovsky got the theme for the Arabian from somewhere – a Georgian folk song or something like that. But it’s only thanks to a post from Lawrence Sisk on the Tchaikovsky research site forum that I came to know about Ippolitov-Ivanov’s use of the same theme in his berceuse in the ...
  • Yet another source for the Nutcracker party scene tune It’s become something of a hobby, finding sources for the tunes in Tchaikovsky’s score for The Nutcracker. I thought I’d had all the surprises there were to be had when I discovered that the source for the tune of  the children’s galop in Act I was not only the French song Bon Voyage, Cher Dumollet, but also the New ...
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