Author Archives: Jonathan Still

The mysterious case of the Lyrical Waltz


I’ve just had an email from a fellow ballet pianist, asking me what I understand by the term “Lyrical Waltz.” Short answer, I don’t understand anything by it, but the long answer is that I’m rather fascinated by how a term like this can gain such currency over a long time, without apparently having much meaning. 

Lyrical waltz: a potted personal history

The first time I heard the term “lyrical waltz” was when I started work at the RAD back in 1986. I think it was something that teachers had been told was a meaningful musical term to use to pianists. I used to improvise waltzes that started with  a dotted quarter note + three eighth-note pattern (as in the Sleeping Beauty lilac fairy attendants example below). I soon ran out of ideas. I think the reason I associated this pattern with “lyrical” was because somewhere in a syllabus book there was an exercise that had “lyrical waltz” as a tempo indication, and that’s roughly how the music went. 

Screengrab of the piano score of Tchaikovsky's Sleeping Beauty, Lilac Fairy Attendants

Lilac fairy attendants from Sleeping Beauty (Tchaikovsky). When I hear “lyrical waltz” I think of this rhythmic pattern of dotted quarter note + three eighth notes. But I’m not convinced that’s good enough.

What—if anything—is a lyrical waltz? 

Over the years, I have tried to work out what, if anything, a “lyrical waltz” is in musical terms, but have only come up with more questions. 

  • Does it mean something that has the quality of a song? That doesn’t really work, because there are plenty of songs that have a bombastic quality.
  • Does it have a melody that is song-like, rather than being motif-based like the Act 1 waltz in Swan Lake, or the opening of waltz of the flowers in Nutcracker, where you can hear the composer at work, rather than the singer. However, as soon as you start singing these tunes, they have a song-like quality, they’re singable. Back to square one.
  • Does it mean something that has more eighth-note motion than 1-in-a-bar feel? Not an infallible criterion, because there are 1-in-a-bar waltzes which could be described as lyrical, and eighth-note ones which aren’t.
  • Does it just mean slow? I don’t think so, because teachers who have ever asked for this didn’t (I think) want something ponderous
  • Does it mean something where the melody takes precedence over the accompaniment, i.e. something like La plus que lente by Debussy? Up to a point, but if teachers use  the word “waltz” at all, I presume they’re expecting more rhythmic predictability than this.

Lyrical waltz—a pedagogical category only?

By “pedagogical category” I mean a term that has arisen from a teaching context, but has little relation to the world outside, but has somehow stuck. Whoever started using it may have had a particular waltz in mind, like the “Lyrical Waltz” of Shostakovich, from which they extrapolated a category, without giving it much thought. I think this happens a lot—where people like a single tune, not realising that what they like about it is particular, not generic. Take La cumparsita which people have sometimes used as a generic template for “tango” — when it’s about the only tango that goes like that, and in fact, was never a tango in the first place, but a march. As an illustration of this in practice, a colleague told me of a class where the teacher had sung a tune while she marked the exercise, and then said “But don’t play that. Play something similar.” You guessed it: after a few try-outs, she said “You know what, just play what I sang.” 

Incidentally, this is the opposite of that odd, ballet-only scenario where a teacher will ask for “The same thing” by which they don’t mean literally the same thing, but something that is in metre, tempo, style and feel the same, without being, you know, the same. This is where the everyday German distinction between das Gleiche and dasselbe is useful. 

Lyrical waltz—or little waltz?

One teacher I play for often asks for “A little waltz” and for some reason, I know exactly what she means, though it could also be the tone of voice and gesture that conveys the idea. “Little” to me here suggests something in moderate tempo, moderate volume, not bombastic, not grand, with a smooth melody line, perhaps like the Tchaikovsky E flat major waltz Op. 39 , or the Little Waltz by Teresa Carreño.  A piano piece, rather than an orchestral number reduced for piano. A miniature. Little is a more productive and meaningful term for me than lyrical, though I’m still not convinced it helps. I’m also referring mentally to particular pieces that have an overall quality elicited in performance more than composition. 

Lyrical—just a name, rather than a category?

I searched around for “lyrical waltz” on Google, and then for Valse Lyrique. Once you exclude Shostakovich or Sibelius, it’s not a huge list, so the idea that there was once a whole category of waltzes called “lyrical” is suspect (though you’ll find quite a few of them on ballet pianists’ albums, which supports my theory that it’s a pedagogical term, not a real-life one). 

In the US Library of Congress Catalog of Copyright Entries 1945 (Music) New Series Vol 40 Pt 3 No 10 there are more compositions in the index with the word “Valse” in the title than “waltz,” and only a handful with the term “lyric.” When you look at the list of adjectives associated with “valse,” (see below) apart from lyrique including erotic, beige, parfumée, you begin to wonder whether any of them have much meaning, except as a way of flogging a generic composition as if it might be particular. Perhaps lyrical is doing the work of organic, natural, new, advanced, healthy, free-from! in food-labelling. If we’re fooled by food labels, I’m sure we can be taken in by sheet music covers.

Picture of the index from the US Catalog of Copyright Entries for Music 1945, showing a list of compositions including the term "valse"

Extract from the Catalog of Copyright Entries (Music) 1945, compositions with the title “Valse”

Postscript: Is “a lyrical waltz” something to do with the body, not music? 

Once I’d written this, I began to wonder whether the term “lyrical” has some purchase with dance teachers because of the genre of lyrical dance, in which case maybe it means “the kind of music I can do emotionally charged slow bendy dance to.” That opens the field up more, without the need to get too metrical-technical about the music. 


Post-grad study for mature students : 15 tips


A while back, a friend and colleague who is about to start a PhD asked me if I had any advice. I said, don’t ask me, given that I had to interrupt for a year, and I’m living on borrowed time for my final draft even as I write this. But, he said, that’s exactly who he’d like to take advice from—a struggler. So, I started this list of things that I’m glad I did, wished I’d done earlier, and wished I hadn’t done as a birthday present. True to form, I missed the deadline, but I’m now publishing this for him, and for two former students of mine who asked me if I had any advice for them as they begin their part-time MAs as mature students.  The advice probably applies to young postgrads as well, except that I think balancing work and study, and the distractions and commitments of everyday life get harder as you get older. 

Here goes—and comments would be wonderful to help anyone else in the same boat. 

Five things I’m glad I did: 

  1. Used reference management software from day one, and  invested  time learning to use it well. I use Zotero (the standalone version), but you can compare others here. One of the best quick guides to Zotero in my view is this one from  the Old Bailey. The day that I discovered how to use the Library Look-up feature changed my life. I learned that from the IoE library pages. Zotero has too many cool features to mention. Put in the time early on learning to use it, and you’ll reap rewards ever after. 
  2. Decided who my heroes were  as writers and thinkers, and kept their work in mind as my inspiration. I hardly needed telling to do this, but it’s a good thing to remind yourself. My heroes were:  Howard Becker, Erving Goffman, Tia DeNora, Philip Tagg, Georgina Born, Lucy Green (who happens to be my supervisor, so I’m lucky). Very late, I discovered Jean Lave, Michael Billig, Leah Greenfield. I’d recommend Michael Billig’s Learn to Write Badly to anyone, whether they’re in the social sciences or not. 
  3. Turned off the internet to write/read. The internet, bad writing, social media, the phone, are all the enemies of any kind of work that you need to do as a researcher or writer. I think it’s Annie Dillard in The Writing Life who says that they pull you away, instead of drawing you in, and pulling away is exactly what distraction means. I used Freedom when it was free (and still have the free version installed). I’m sure there are other things available that don’t cost anything. But don’t trust yourself just to switch off the wifi. 
  4. Kept a research diary. Include all the bad stuff as well as the good. I keep mine in a local installation of WordPress on my computer, using MAMP. On depressing days when you get nothing done, you can at least write about how depressed you are. I wrote several days of entries when I tried to read Foucault. The fact that I still couldn’t cope with him several years later told me that it was a good thing I didn’t hitch my work to his particular wagon.
  5. Didn’t wait to write until I’d  done my research. “Memo writing”—ad hoc, on the fly, as-you-go writing about your research as you’re doing it— is a favoured feature of grounded theory approaches to research, and what the GT people say is correct: often, those memos end up being part of your final work. Howard Becker says in one of his excellent books on writing, that there’s nothing that says the stuff you write quickly is necessarily any worse than stuff you toiled over. E. H. Carr in What is History said something about not being able to read more than about three books before he had to start writing. It’s not a crime. 

Five things I wished I’d done earlier: 

  1. Used ONE application for all data. For a long time, I wavered between nVivo, MaxQDA, Scrivener, physical notebooks, bits of paper, Word documents, my blog, my private diary, putting things here and there. I’m clearer now: anything that is in any sense data —interviews, odd bits of information, articles, ad hoc conversations, notes written on the back of envelopes, notes on books and articles that I’ve read—goes into MaxQDA, loosely categorized, but finely separated (i.e. each event, book, topic, article, note or whatever has its own document). It’s not that I necessarily need MaxQDA to analyse it, but I need to know where all that stuff is. 
  2. Kept the equivalent of a commonplace book for everything else. Doing research makes you interested and ravenous for new things. You need to put them somewhere, and be able to find them one day. You can’t tell what might eventually go in your research after all. 
  3. Coded (i.e. categorized) my information more assiduously. I went to a lecture by music psychologist Andrea Halpern a couple of years back, who said in passing that if you don’t “code” stuff, you don’t memorize it. She said something like “it’s nice to colour sentences in with fluorescent markers, but don’t kid yourself that you’re doing anything useful. It’s just pretty. It doesn’t tell you anything about why you did it. To make it useful, you have to code it somehow.” People talk about “coding” as if it’s only something you do when you’ve got interview data. If you do it as you go with everything (like if you have a commonplace book, q.v. and you need to decide how to categorize something), it’s amazing what a difference it makes to your own comprehension of what you’re doing and reading. 
  4. Read challenging, well-written stuff first thing in the morning. Don’t take my word for it, try it and see. It’s like shutting the door and learning to hear again.  The advice came from either Dani Shapiro’s Still Writingor Annie DIllard’s The Writing Life, both of which I’d strongly recommend, alongside the practical but not so poetic The Psychology of Writing.  
  5. Sorted out details of punctuation. When I got my first article published, I had to finally commit to knowing whether the comma came inside the quotation marks or not, and a dozen other really annoying things. They’re like tripping over your shoelaces as you walk. You think early on “I’l deal with that later.” Knowing in advance means that you save yourself hours of editing later, and hours of daily annoyance now. 

Five things I wish I hadn’t done

  1. Taken on side work projects. Clear time in your schedule, and—having done it—don’t let anyone or anything in there. Vanity projects and things that are marginally related (but not useful) to your research are the worst. 
  2. Made incomplete notes. I’ve got dozens of instances in my notebooks and in files where I’ve quoted a large block of text, forgotten to say what page it was on, or in which book. At the time, because I was immersed in it, I thought I could never forget. You will. 
  3. Let other things slide. Daniel Levitin got me on to this one in The Organized MindThe temptation is to stop everything so that you can get your writing done. But all those other things (washing, tax returns, health checks, dentist, the garbage taking out etc.) need to be done. If you don’t do them, they add up in your mind as a mass of worrying distractions. It’s counter-productive to binge-write and let everything else go hang. 
  4. Started planning future projects. I’ve seen this referred to a lot: the temptation to start planning the next thing, while this one remains unfinished. You might as well do drugs. 
  5. Over-reflected. The downside to keeping a research diary is that I ended up sometimes writing more about thinking about writing than actually doing it. Treat writing like digging a road, or data entry. 


A year of playing cards #23: A fruity waltz by Tcherepnin / Cherepnin (10h)

Screen grab of the sheet music of Grande valse by Tcherepnin

Click on the link to download

What a difference an e makes: the difference between a grand waltz and a grande valse

Ballet teachers often ask for a “grande valse” or a “grande waltz” or a “big waltz” for grand allegro, probably as a result of someone telling them to do so on a teacher training course, but to be honest, it’s a misleading and much misunderstood term.  It’s clear from the way that many teachers make a kind of Popeye-flexing-his-biceps gesture as they say “grande valse” that by grande they mean something with oomph, or butch, or—to use a phrase I haven’t heard for years—to give it some welly. 

But the  grande in grande valse in compositional terms refers to the scale and nature of the work (i.e. long and discursive) rather than its dynamics or capacity to be used for big jumps. And there’s the problem, because when composers write large-scale works, they usually introduce contrast, interest, variation, symphonic-style development, the unexpected, including changes of speed, and the playful expansion of melodic material. For that reason, many of the pieces in the concert repertoire called grande valse won’t be that useful for  ballet class, given that what is needed is a succession of 16-count phrases of similar dynamics for each group of dancers as they come across the room. Composers of grandes valses don’t last long before the temptation kicks in to try some canonic imitation or rhythmic dissonance over a pedal point. If you’re trying to do grand allegro, or play for it, this is often more of an annoyance than an interesting feature. A notable exception is Chopin’s grande valse op. 18 No. 1, which has a lot of usable sections in it—but on the other hand, it’s not very “grande” in terms of tempo and oomph. 

Tcherepnin’s Grande valse: the best bits

Tcherepnin is unfortunately no exception to the general rule (incidentally, it should really be Cherepnin—the ‘T’ comes from French transliteration, where the T is needed to make the “ch” sound, otherwise it would be pronounced “Sherepnin”; Chaikovsky, a.k.a. Tchaikovsky is another example).  No sooner has he stated his big tune, than he begins to take it apart, like a dog pulling at a lead while you’re trying to head straight through the park. Depending on the exercise, there might be times when this can work, and in principle, If you’re going to have 10 minutes of grand allegro, much nicer to be able to play stuff that develops and changes than keep repeating yourself. For that reason, I originally intended to transcribe the whole waltz: it’s wonderful. However, I had to keep cutting and cutting until there were only two pages left.  In grand allegro, you can’t suddenly drop from fortissimo voluptuousness into the coy experiment in the example below. It’s an example of what Christopher Hampson once called being “musical” in a pejorative sense (see earlier post on “Being too musical“). The grande valse concert repertoire is littered with them, which is fine if you’re listening rather than dancing. 

Screen grab of a section of Cherepnin's Grande Valse from Le Pavillon d'Armide

Tcherepnin giving in to the temptation to be ‘too musical’

However, the first couple of pages of this is great for a certain kind of travelling (rather than jumpy) grand allegro, and it’s wonderfully dramatic, wistful and film-scoreish in a similar vein to Geoffrey Toye’s 1934  Haunted Ballroom waltz . 

Listen to Tcherepnin’s Grande Valse from Le Pavillon d’Armide

Many of the Youtube classical music links I post eventually disappear for copyright reasons, so listen while you can. 



Walk to Canterbury in Aid of the Connection

Walk to Canterbury 2016: picture of the walkers outside Canterbury Cathedral

At Canterbury Catherdral at the end of the walk to Canterbury last year. This year, I’m doing it for the first time: click to donate!

This year, I’m walking to Canterbury in aid of The Connection at St Martin-in-the-Fields, a charity that helps homeless people in direct, practical ways.  I’d be thrilled if you can contribute, however little, via our donation page here.  It’s a great way to do something to help the homeless; or maybe If you enjoy the resources on this site, which will always be free, and free of adverts because I pay for my own hosting, why not show your appreciation in a donation to The Connection? 


More on the joys of live music


Barely a week after feeling unusually compelled to write something on the joys of live music after hearing the choir at St Martin-in-the-Fields, I found myself in a similar position after watching (and listening to) Hans van Manen’s Adagio Hammerklavier performed by English National Ballet at the Sadler’s Wells (Thursday 30th March performance). 

I was interested to see what I would think of it now, 20 years after we did it at the Deutsche Oper Berlin, where I was a company pianist. I say we did it, but it’s truer to say they did it, because I was just a tape-op in rehearsals, pausing and playing a reel-to-reel tape of Christoph Eschenbach’s 1970 recording of the adagio of Beethoven’s  Hammerklavier Sonata.  Given that I’m not a fan of Beethoven, slow music, pas de deux, or operating a tape machine. It was like watching paint dry, though I did not, to be honest, watch the paint much. I took a book, and listened with half my attention for instructions from the front of the studio. 

It’s a commonplace now to talk about the way that we listen through things like surface noise on discs, distortion on tape recordings, hum, interference on telephones and so on, to the voices or music beyond ; , but in this case, however good those Berlin dancers were (and I’m sure they were brilliant) I couldn’t get beyond the noisy facts of that recording to either the music or the dance. It was like listening underwater, or gazing through the side of a grubby fish-tank. All I remember of it in performance was the vast stage of the Deutsche Oper, and that interminable Beethoven. Although the sound booth was behind soundproof glass and several metres away, as soon as the music started, I began to mentally hear the click, hum and whirr of the tape machine. 

The reason we did it to tape, despite the availability of several pianists who could have played it live, was apparently historical, aesthetic, choreographic: van Manen had choreographed to that recording precisely because it was so slow: Adagio Hammerklavier was a study in balletic adagio, and Eschenbach’s Beethoven had the right quality. Clive Barnes said that the work was “set to” this specific recording , and as I understood it in Berlin back in the early 1990s, we weren’t allowed to do it anything else; the recording was integral to the piece. I say “apparently,” because re-reading Stephanie Jordan’s Moving Music, I realise this can’t have been entirely true. Antony Twiner explains in an interview that he’d had to copy the Eschenbach performance when he played for the piece: 

I took the record home, and I listened to it, and I played along with it, memo­rized it, and marked my own copy as to how long this or that note was held by this man . . . I said, ‘Well, it’s not impossible. It may not be my personal inter­pretation but if that’s the way you want it played, it can be done.

When ENB did it last week, they didn’t use the recording, it was played (beautifully) by Olga Khoziainova, perhaps under similar preparatory conditions. I was astonished at what a difference it made. It helped that Tamara Rojo’s pas de deux with Emilio Pavan that night happened to be, in my view, one of the most breathtaking ballet performances I’ve ever seen, but even without that, I could have watched Adagio Hammerklavier for another 30 minutes and not been bored.  I had never noticed that gently rippling backcloth before, but I could have watched that alone and been entranced. One of the biggest differences is the feel of the sound in the air. You can sense the upper notes bouncing off the roof of the theatre, whereas the recording makes you feel like you’re listening to a room, not a piano; hearing the atmosphere, rather than living in it.

With the music played live, time seemed to unfold only in the present moment, the movement and music together drawing you into some tiny point of light on the stage, like following the tip of a pen as it writes. This brought together in my mind both Ingold’s thoughts about lines  and Stern’s on the present moment  .  A recording, by comparison, is already dead in the water, a hard-edged lump of music whose outcome is known in advance.

I usually spend a lot of time defending recorded music in ballet: live music for the sake of it is not intrinsically a good thing, recorded music not universally a bad one.  If you make extravagant claims for live music based on ideology dressed up as transcendent values, someone will eventually call your bluff. and all live music, however legitimate the claims for it, may suffer as a result.  Ironically, considering that Adagio Hammerklavier was inspired by a recording, it is that recording that kills it in my view. Played live, the thing that van Manen was after seems to shine from the stage from moment to glorious moment.

Once again, I find myself taking issue with Liveness. On the surface, this anecdote about the Eschenbach recording illustrates Auslander’s point that live performances are mediated by,  predicated on, or constrained by recordings, and thus liveness isn’t a simple condition: it’s all mixed up with mediatizations as well.  Perhaps it is the inclusion of ballet, so precarious, so much hostage to the present moment that makes the particular difference here. In an interview with the critic Edmund Lee, van Manen differentiated between slow motion, which he said is based on “total balance,” and adagio, which for him is “like a wheel that you push—and that moment where the wheel is still moving, just before it falls.” . Watching Adagio Hammerklavier with live music retains that sense of danger on another plane, whereas with a recording, the wheel is not only not falling, it isn’t even moving. 

A fascinating side issue here dealt with by Auslander in Liveness, is that performances (in the sense of the characteristics of a particular interpretation) aren’t subject to copyright. It would be a breach of copyright to copy the actual recording, but not to mimic the details of Eschenbach’s performance in your own playing (and then record it, if you wanted to). Given that, as in this example, a particular performance can be a person’s trademark in the metaphorical sense, it is strange that it can’t be in a literal one. 

References [just because I love generating them automatically with Zotero and  Zotpress] 

Diamond fairy variation: new piano arrangement


My new version of the Diamond Fairy from Sleeping Beauty. Click to download free piano reduction.

I had to play this yesterday at a competition, and surprisingly, it’s the first time I’ve had to do it in public. It’s vile to play. Nowadays, if I’m faced with something like this, I go back to the orchestral score to see if there’s anyway I can make the job easier for myself, or better for the audience. Click here for my new version

Siloti’s pianistic homage versus a workable ballet reduction

The first thing I noticed about the difference between the orchestration and Siloti’s arrangement is that while Siloti’s hovers up the top end of the piano within the span of two hands, in the orchestra, those left hand Gs are in fact octaves, an octave lower: forte bassoons, arco bass and celloThe cost of his accurate representation of detail in the flutes and clarinets is the loss of the off-beat chords played by oboes, cor anglais and three, sometimes four, horns. 

Siloti's arrangement of the Diamond Fairy

Siloti’s arrangement of the Diamond Fairy from Sleeping Beauty (Act 3 No. 23, Var. 4)

Siloti’s transcription works both as a piano piece, and as a credit to what is most compositionally interesting about Tchaikovsky’s work here. But as the accompaniment to a variation, and for the dance accompanist, so help me God, it doesn’t work at all. You feel so utterly ungrounded, and so focused on the wrong things: to accompany a variation you first of all need a beat that is so strongly and safely grasped that if you need to change it, you can. Without it, it’s like trying to throw a pot with one hand; trying to steer your way out of a skid with only one hand on the wheel. 

The flutes and clarinet figure in the Diamond Fairy reduced to a manageable handful.

When I make arrangements like this, I do a constant accounting exercise: how much is lost if I take this out, how much gained? What’s the trade off between having a bass at the right pitch, and hearing the clarinet? I’m fairly convinced that you could get away with reducing it right down to the example on the left, and no-one would be any the wiser. Then it’s literally safe in your hands, rather than your hands being preoccupied with precarious detail, and you can use the other hand to play the bass at the right pitch, or give an impression of the horn chords; give it some weight, some “floor” in the music. 

Forget the clarinets: that’s a pretty thumping offbeat accompaniment in the oboes, cor anglais, bassoons and horns.

Less is more—except when it’s not

Considering how many times pianists around the world have to play the Tchaikovsky ballets in rehearsals and at vocational schools, it’s astonishing that we are still stuck with the first piano reductions, with all their inadequacies and problems and unsuitabilities. To my knowledge, my version of the Black Swan variation is the first publicly available reduction of one of the most famous solos in the repertoire. We all struggle along in our corners, doing our own ill-informed thing, assuming the score is right or the best possible, and only thinking about alternatives when problems occur.

Galina Bezuglaya, head of the Vaganova Academy music department is one of the few people to have committed anything to print about this   Amongst other things, she points out that it’s mainly other pianists rather than composers (or ballet accompanists) who make arrangements, which will bring a particular perspective to the reduction; Glazunov piano reductions are difficult because he tends think orchestrally, not pianistically (on the other hand, sometimes less is less: in the Raymonda Act 3 Hungarian coda, you really want to hear a good thumping bassline in the correct (low) octave); Tchaikovsky spent half a summer simplifying Taneev’s piano reduction of The Nutcracker, because—as he said in a letter to Ippolitov-Ivanov—”Taneev’s is so difficult that it’s impossible to play” [сделал облегченное полное переложение балета, ибо С. И. Танеев настоящее сделал до того трудно, что нельзя играть]. I’ve been typesetting a lot of Nutcracker recently for a job, and every time I go to put back in something that Tchaikovsky took out of Taneev’s arrangement, I end up taking it out again when I try it out on the piano.  Piotr Ilich knew what he was doing. 

Tchaikovsky and Franco-Italian hypermeter once again

On a different point, what continues to flummox me (which I can do nothing about) is trying to find the harmonic, melodic shape of the opening phrase. If you place the centre of it in the wrong place, you can wrong-foot yourself badly, and be tempted to miss out a beat. I am increasingly convinced that what’s happening here is a factor of Tchaikovsky’s tendency to write in what Rothstein calls Franco-Italian hypermeter . There is a very subtle interplay here of meter and grouping that will fall apart if you try to think only of a single metrical accent. There are (at least) two, and they are in counterpoint with each other (see also this post and the one’s branching out from it). I still haven’t worked out a fail-safe way to think of this phrase, I can only get through it safely by not thinking about it. All offers of advice gratefully received. 


If you’ve suffered at the hands of the Diamond Fairy variation before, I’d be interested to know what you think of my arrangement. I deliberately didn’t post this until I’d actually done it in performance. It seemed to work for me, the best proof being that I felt able to adjust the tempo from the corner of my eye, something that I’d not been able to do with Siloti’s. Don’t take the notes in the right hand too literally: anything that approximates the harmony will do. You can steal and copy some notes from the harmony in the left hand, leave things out. I have no idea what I really played in the heat of the moment. 







Turning up and the joys of live music

St Martin-in-the-Fields

St Martin-in-the-Fields, taken last week.

It’s not often that I write much about my PhD research on my blog. Part of that is a nervousness of opening the oven door before the cake is cooked, part of it a feeling of responsibility to hone my AHRC-funded research into well-formed work before letting it loose. But last night I experienced something as a punter, so to speak, that changed all that, and caused me to think about my research in a different way. It also made me realise why I have quickly grown to love St Martin-in-the-Fields so much. 

It was the day of the terror attack in Westminster, and I was due to go to St Martin’s for the 6.30 service, and then to a Lent group that I’d joined as something positive to do in addition to my self-imposed 40-day exile from Facebook. I was having a frustrating day working on my thesis: I just looked at the last draft that I’d cut and pasted together months ago, and despaired. The enthusiasm I’d felt for going to the Lent group when it first started was waning, because I was having a bad day—maybe I’d be better off staying at home and working. St Martin’s is only walking distance away from Westminster. Maybe I shouldn’t go. Maybe there’ll be chaos. Maybe it’ll be dangerous. I’m not so gung-ho about going out when danger is imminent; you won’t find me saying I’m not scared. But I’d committed to the Lent group, that was the whole point. Turning up was important.

So I turned up. And during the distributing of the bread and wine, the pianist started playing, and I recognised within a few beats that it was Fauré’s Cantique de Jean Racine. Or rather, I recognised that the music was Fauré before I realised that it was the Cantique, because the introduction does what Fauré does so characteristically—to insert tiny melodic detours into an otherwise normal accompaniment, tiny burrs in the harmonic texture. You don’t notice the detail itself (unless you have to play it; then you notice it because it takes care and expert attention), you only notice its effect, like those pictures made up of thousands of smaller pictures that you cannot see unless you go up close.

The introduction to Fauré’s Cantique de Jean Racine. Those little passing minor seconds make Fauré Fauré.

I could hardly believe my ears. Surely they weren’t going to sing that, here, now, for us? But they did. I know every bar of that music, not as a performer, but as an enraptured listener. I first heard it when I was about 17, playing bass in the Hampshire County Youth Orchestra. We were going to accompany a choral society, and Gary Holmes, the conductor, told us a bit about the music: it was a lovely piece that people often chose for weddings. When you’re seventeen, and you’re playing this music in a full orchestra, with a large choir, it envelops and enthrals you in a way that rarely comes again, but the effect is lifelong. I have loved this music ever since then, and last night. I gave thanks inwardly for all the chances that made that happen, including the casual remark of a conductor that shaped the way I greeted the music then and forever after.

The Choral Scholars of St Martin’s in the Fields, barely more than a handful of singers, performed this with such warmth, breadth, commitment and unmannered beauty, I could hardly contain the joy it gave me. At those Bread for the World services on Wednesdays, you gather for the eucharist  in a circle near to the altar. I was standing just a few feet away from them, amazed that people just like you and me, dressed in normal day clothes (no choir robes, no ceremony, no fancy outfits) can stand there and produce this miracle of sound. I’m a musician myself, and maybe for that reason  it’s actually very rare that I perceive it as extraordinary, or can enjoy it.

But last night was different, and I suddenly wondered whether I understood, after all, one of the things that has mystified me about the people I’m writing about in my research. I have interviewed many dancers and teachers, and had many ad hoc conversations about music. There is something a bit strange about the ballet world: she shall have music wherever she goes, I often think to myself. In a world where it would be so easy to use recorded music like everyone else, you still find pianists used for class. It’s expensive. It’s difficult, and yet they still do it. Sometimes teachers nearly bankrupt themselves by paying for pianists when there are only a few people in the class, and as you walk past the studios, you think, why don’t they just use a CD? And when I ask them why, they say things like I don’t know. It’s  nice to have a pianist. I don’t know why. It’s just nice.  One of the things I’ve had to consider is whether to elevate this remark into something meaningful like Dora’s “it depends” in Antoine Hennion’s  article on taste , or to wonder whether pianists are a kind of luxury that doesn’t bear scrutiny easily, like having a butler.

Last night, however, as I looked across at the singers, I found myself thinking the same: This is nice. I thought of all the things that made this experience difficult: they need to rehearse, they need to turn up, they need to be present for other people not just as musicians, distanced from their audience, but participating with them in these rituals. I thought of all the organising, the structures, the planning, that had to be in place for this to happen, right down to getting the scores to sing from, and putting them away afterwards. There are multiple performances going on, and they have to do all of them well. In that sense, there is something about being there and singing that is caring. It’s being there for someone else, doing your thing, and doing it well, and perhaps not even being appreciated properly (though in fact, the vicar did thank them at the end, and you could see that they were delighted to have been acknowledged). I’ve also been quietly in awe from week to week, as another musician, of the improvisations of the pianist as he closely watches the progress of the eucharist, playing appropriate, thoughtful music to ease the transitions and cover the gaps. It’s familiar territory for me, however different the context.

I wondered to myself whether this is something of why live music in ballet classes means so much to people. It’s not even about what the pianist plays, though that can be part of it. It’s about the fact that they’re there, they turned up, and they did something for you. It might in truth be not that difficult for them, but for you it was magic. Or they may have struggled against lethargy or competing demands to get there, but you have no idea of that; it made your evening. You can’t explain these things in terms of music, or Philip Auslander’s  “liveness” , much as I admire and refer to his work. Why you can’t is what I’m grappling with in my thesis, as I discuss the way that dancers and teachers think about these things, and now I find that I am no more able to explain my own joy than anyone else’s, but I don’t want it taken away from me. 

As the service ended, they sang Verily, verily I say unto you by Tallis, like an afterthought, as if it was nothing at all,  though of course, it was everything. There was a brief pause, and then they left, and the congregation began to disperse and talk. I looked over, and noticed one of the singers adjust her brightly coloured trainers, smile, turn and go. Just another Wednesday in London. It was the kind of moment that Daniel Stern describes in Forms of Vitality ,  where a whole world is contained in a moment that we know in all its complexity, instinctively, immediately, but could spend a lifetime trying to put into words. I guess I should know by now, considering how long I have been trying to write about music in everyday life that it might be the everydayness of some musical experiences that makes them special, but it took Fauré and those trainers to make me realise it. And as it happens, that moment also captures just something of what  I love so much about St Martin’s.