Author Archives: Jonathan Still

Music theory for (ballet) dancers, the last word for now? Grant’s “Beating Time and Measuring Music in the Early Modern Era”


I’ve just added Roger Grant’s Beating Time and Measuring Music in the Early Modern Era as my top choice for books on music theory for those interested in music-dance relationships (see my metre and rhythm page for a brief bibliography on  that topic). I don’t want to say too much, because it figures largely in a chapter in my PhD, and it’s too detailed and scholarly a book for me to summarize hastily. Suffice it to say, if you want to know what think about time signature and meter and movement, it’s all in this book. I’m glad I hadn’t read it when I was writing How Down is a Downbeat?, a journal article on music, ballet teaching and time signature that I wrote a few years ago; it would have tempted me to rewrite the whole thing. On the other hand, I wish I had read it when I first started teaching music for dance teachers back in 2000. However, some of the significant books and articles that Grant refers to in building his theory were published some years later than that. Is theory even the right word? I’m not sure: it’s history, but in order to understand the history, you have to change your ideas about what you thought was music theory. It’s amazing that in the 21st century, we’re still solving the problems unexamined or hidden by “rudimentary” music theory, e.g.—to name but one— why is a 6/8 called a compound time signature? What’s compound about it? 

The biggest problem with what is conventionally called “music theory” is that it presents as simple and straightforward (a matter of counting two or three) something which is exasperating in its complexity, not least because “time signature” as a subject leaves out the people who use it and the way they interpret it, but it is virtually meaningless without the (changing) practice in which it is embedded. I’ve hinted at this in many of my more recent postings on triple meter and Rothstein’s theory of  “Franco-Italian hypermeter.”   Grant discussed the way that the meaning of beat as movement has gradually disappeared, morphing into the concept of time as a endless stream of motionless, durationless ticks. This in fact was exactly how I used to teach music theory and meter, without realising the entailments or history of my own beliefs about what meter or musical time was. 

I am in awe of the way that Grant makes sense of such a complex assemblage of notation, musicians, practice, ideas, primers, teachers, and so on. It’s only when you’ve struggled to sort out some of these problems yourself that you realise how courageous and hard-working someone else has been at grappling with similar issues.  


What is a mirliton? The best link so far


The mystery of Tchaikovsky’s mirlitons

If you know my site, you’ll be aware that I’ve been trying to find pictures of and information about “mirlitons” the title of one of the divertissements in Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker (see earlier posts). 

Now today I’ve found a great page on the mirliton on the “Bard of Cheshire” site that is one of the best so far. It brings together pictures and reliable information about the instrument called the mirliton.  I still like the possibility that Tchaikovsky was referring to the cake, the Mirliton de Pont-Audemer, rather than the reed-pipe as an instrument, given that the divertissements are supposed to represent sweets (and that was always the biggest mystery—why are these reed-pipes in a bag of sweets? (see also this page on the topic from a recipe book) And “candy canes” make even less sense, until you’ve seen a picture of a 19th century mirliton that’s decorated like a barber’s pole). 

On that subject, there is also a postcard of an artiste at Les Mirlitons, the cabaret opened in Paris by Aristide Bruant, which has a woman in candy-cane stripes with what look like mirliton pipes in her hair. Probably just a coincidence, but it adds a lovely confusion to the story. 

A year of playing cards #5: An operatic adage by Dvořák

"Song to the Moon" by Dvorak

Click to download

The curse of the operatic adage 

I think I only have about three of these in my repertoire, which is why it was high time I got another. The way that some ballet teachers mark adages, you’d think the world was just full of voluptuous music that went “and one and a two and a.” I guess my worst fear is when you’re thinking of what to play, you settle on something fairly plain that will work, and then the  teacher does that inclined head thing, gives you a knowing smile, and says “Something inspiring.”  You have to hope they don’t add “…for a change”. This is the stuff of nightmares, because it usually wipes out what you’d decided to play (which is another reason not to decide what to play until the last minute. You never know what tempo or adjective is going to hit you in the few nanoseconds before you play the first note of the introduction).

This aria from Rusalka is just about perfect. The tune really does go “one and a two and a” so there’ll be no fumbling about while the class finds the beat, and half way through, it goes all Maria Callas. I’m afraid I’ve had to do inexcusable metrical surgery on the first part, leaving out a whole 8 bar phrase in order to make it regular, but it’s hard to hear the joins unless you know the aria really well.

Playing tips

You have to have heard this before trying to translate it into piano music. The opening muted strings are hard to reproduce on a piano, and you have to do a lot of work to get the tune out on top, but If you’re lucky, you won’t have to fill it out with semiquavers, though that’s a possibility if you don’t have a very good piano or nice acoustics.

Watching this video is a rather fascinating lesson in how to play for adage well. Listen to the elastic, free, fluid vocal line in the “chorus” bit, and look how the harp accompanies it with almost metronomic rhythmic precision. It must be really precise, because in fact, the last semiquaver that you hear in the bar (part of a single group in my piano reduction) is not the harp (which is silent on the last semiquaver of the bar), but the last note of the pizzicato string figure (quaver, quaver, semiquaver semiquaver) that accompanies the harp.

Pianists tend to be “expressive” and pull the timing around in the bar, but for adage you need to choose your moments very carefully. To provide the right kind of support for a dancer who is doing the equivalent of the vocal line, you have to be as rhythmically solid as that harp and those strings, but at the same time hint at the elasticity of the vocal line. It’s something like the Chopinesque rubato where the accompaniment remains steady while the right hand floats free, but somehow conceptually different. Hard to put into words, but easy to see in this clip.

Metre issues

I’ve put this in “Spades” (Adage) because it’s quite definitely an Adage (see here for an explanation), but on the other hand, it’s about as truly triple metre as metre gets, which is common in some Czech music. Yet more proof that “three” is a big subject in music: so many ways to be triple.


A year of ballet playing cards #36: A triple meter ballad by Tárrega

Tárrega's song "Lagrima" arranged for piano

Click image  to download the score of Lagrima and ¡Adelita! by Tárrega

A Tárrega ballad, the perfect plié music?

When I say “perfect” what I mean is that this music somehow meets precisely the expressive, metrical model that you often need for pliés: something in 3, that has precise demarcations of the beat and sub-beats (so that the movement can be carefully measured) yet avoids being metronomic. It is also in the 2+2+4 phrase pattern (demi-demi-full) that so many plié exercises require. It has breath and space at the end of the phrases for changes of position, or what I like to call forgiveness in the design.  It’s simple and “quiet” rather than complex and bombastic. For the first exercise of the day, it opens the door softly and whispers “come in!” Although the dynamic markings are mine, they indicate how the pitch contour and the dynamics can contribute to the gentle up-down-squeeze movement  of the exercise.

When I say the perfect plié music, I don’t mean that this is what all plié music should sound like (and I like to go all out sometimes, with a big song like Tonight from West Side Story) but that it’s the proof in musical form that somewhere in the musical universe, there is something that sounds like the thing the teacher marked. It’s taken me about 30 years to find it. The song from Jeux Interdits used to do it for me, but I can’t play that anymore, ever since I put it in a syllabus, and ever since I heard someone say “And she played that song for god’s sake!”

I’m calling this a “triple meter ballad” because I have no idea what else to call it, but I hope it makes sense as a category.

Guitar playing as a model for piano playing

I could have walked straight past this music, had I not heard Per-Olov Kindgren play it in this Youtube video.

Listen to this, and see if you ever dare play a single note on the piano without thinking about how you’re going to place and time it. The trouble with the piano is that it’s so easy to play. What makes music sound like music is often the sense of effort or skill that it takes to do something difficult like play a high note. On a piano, it makes no difference whether the note is high or low, it takes the same effort. Likewise, when notes fall easily under your fingers, they can come out with no more expressivity than typing. It’s a keyboard, after all. But on a guitar, you can’t do this. There are ergonomic challenges, affordances that lie between the human hand and the construction of the guitar, that give rise to nuances of timing and expression.

The trick with playing this piece on the piano is to hold back, to place the notes with the same care and precision as if you were having to pick them individually by a combination of movements in both hands, even when there is only a single line to play. I’ve found that Lagrima enables you to find moments in plié exercises where you can be very free with timing in a way that feels totally right. Teachers don’t have to hold you back, or tell you not to hold back when you do. The more you can keep the teacher quiet, the better, so it’s perfect in that sense too.

The second piece, ¡Adelita! is a little mazurka. You have to be even more careful to keep the slow three going in this. If you maintain the same tempo as you set up in Lagrima, you can use it to extend and vary the music during the plié. Of course, it would also work for port de bras, ronds de jambe etc.

About the arrangement

I’ve changed the bass line in a couple of places because otherwise it would sound a bit exposed on the piano. I’ve added in some notes that maybe Tárrega would have done, had they been easier to play on the guitar. Sometimes when I’m playing this, I also go down an octave. Once you’ve got the general idea, you can play around with dynamics and pitch to add interest. With ¡Adelita! I meant to add some octaves in the bass, and maybe bring the melody of the first half down an octave, but I forgot. I’ll play around, and maybe upload a new version.

I’ve over-notated the score with dynamics, phrasing and articulation, just as a kind of warning not to let the notes fall out of your fingers too easily. What I was aspiring to was the kind of finger-by-finger dynamics that Percy Grainger does in some of his arrangements, that informed much of the way I play now. There’s almost nothing to this piece at all – it’s all in the articulation and dynamics, but there’s no need to take them as directions, more as an idea for how to approach it.

Where have I and my 52 cards been? 

It’s over six months since the last update. It’s been a hell of a year, most of it entirely good, but everything (including my PhD which I had to interrupt for 6 months) had to take a back seat. I’m hoping to resume better (if not normal) service from now on!