Category Archives: A Year of Ballet Playing Cards

A year of music for ballet classes, categorized like a deck of cards. This free sheet music for ballet class will not be everything you need, but it’s a like a cupboard full of staples for everyday cooking, and a drawer full of tools for particular musical problems in ballet class.

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

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"Song to the Moon" by Dvorak

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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

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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!

 

 

A year of ballet playing cards #50: A chameleon-like march by Granados (DJ)

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Screen-grab of the Marcha Militar by Granados. Free piano music for ballet class

Click to download the score of this chameleon-like music

The march that isn’t a march: one of the perennial problems of music for ballet class

Another problem that I could have added to my “Confessions of an anxious ballet pianist” series is the search for something march-like  that can nonetheless immediately adapt to its surroundings without losing its identity:  a musical chameleon that can be staccato and legato, slow and  fast, up and  down on the beat, but not too much; loud and  soft, rhythmed and even; even but not mechanical, strict but not rigid. You need this for a certain kind of battement jeté exercise that tries to be all things to all women, and is neither fish nor fowl, musically. Enter the Military March by Granados (Marcha Militar).

Originally for piano duet, this little march is great for those occasions when you start playing and then realise, horrified, that you misread the exercise in the marking: it turns out to be slower/faster, louder/softer, more down on the beat, more up on the beat than you thought, and so on. With the Military March by Granados, you can pick various levels of the meter and emphasise them. There are different sections that vary from soft and fluid to sharp and detached, but within those sections, you can also alter your articulation and dynamics without causing any life-threatening injuries to the music.  I found it thanks to Susie Cooper, who recommended as something for a children’s piece in a school on a Facebook thread. I heard two bars, and fell in love with it. Thanks, Susie.

How fast is a march in music for ballet class?

The published score is marked allegretto: poco lento which would give this a warm, demure, leisurely, slightly pastoral feel: a parade in a country town after lunch, not the Red Army Choir or The Dambusters.  In fact, it’s more of a literary march than a military one, to borrow a concept from Raymond Monelle, who talks about the “cheval écrit” — the literary horse.  If there’s anyone marching here, it’s not an army, it’s  the pianists, dressed up in toy soldier uniforms. It was written in 1904, and  dedicated to King Alfonso XIII of Spain.  However indirectly, the favour was returned later: when Granados and his wife died in 1916 as a result of the torpedoing of the SS Sussex , King Alfonso set up a collection to raise money for the orphaned Granados children.

There’s a nice performance of it here, (as the original piano duet) and another one in the clip below, for brass band. Both are faster (at least to my mind) than necessary, and lose some of the potential for elegance and subtlety —but they demonstrate how it could be played fast, as well as slow.


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The arrangement

In making the arrangement, I’ve tried to keep almost everything in, so you can see what the chord voicings should be, but it would be impossible to keep that up all the way through. I’ve shown an ossia at the beginning to give an idea for what it could be, when simplified.  I find myself that even when I know that an orchestra would double the bass at the octave, I’m nervous to actually do it unless I see it written down, so my principle in reductions is to put it all in and let the player decide.

The manuscript of the Military March by Granados

For some details about the composition/publication history (in Spanish) see this short article.

 

A year of ballet playing cards #35: A mazurka by Hubay

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9ccard35

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Slow, mazurka-like exercises from the corner for multiple pirouettes are a staple of all the company classes I play for, and if you haven’t got the right kind of music, it’s the longest 10 minutes of your life (see earlier posts on the “dreaded slow mazurka and “think mazurka, not waltz for pirouettes“). This has been a problem for me for 30 years, and it’s only recently that I’ve come close to solving it. Once you’ve experienced playing the right kind of music for this, you realise just how wrong a waltz is.  An eminent teacher recently said in company class that it wasn’t until he was 50 that he realised that the difference between a waltz and a balancé is that a waltz goes down-up-up, and a balancé goes down-up-down. When he said that, a light went on for me: I realised that this probably explains why waltzes tend to be wrong for an exercise with a balancé in it—the third beat of the bar will have the wrong gravitational feel (see my article on meter, ballet, and gravity if you haven’t already).

By who? By Hubay, that’s who

I first heard of Hubay when I was researching music for another project, and came across Hullàmzò Balaton, which was remarkable in that it contained one of my favourite bits of the Grand pas Hongrois in Act 3 of Raymonda (see earlier post), that I had always believed to be by Glazunov. I guessed from this that Hubay probably wrote some other good dance tunes. What I wanted most was something polka-mazurka-ish, but with oomph. Of all the “playing cards” I’ve created so far, the most useful one for me has been the polka mazurka by Verdi.

Mazurka or polka mazurka?

Hubay calls this a mazurka, but rhythmically it’s got that characteristic rumpty-tumpty-tumpty of a polka mazurka, yet has none of the tweeness. It’s the same rhythm as the middle section of the Coppélia mazurka, which is also useful (as long as you’re not playing for a company class, where you may get shot for playing it). Incidentally, the original of the Hubay is remarkably similar to this, with the change of rhythm prefaced by four bars of fifths on the violin, as here. It’s interesting to note, however, how subtly different they are below the surface: Delibes’ appears to be more markedly in 4-bar phrases compared to the 2-bar units of Hubay. But harmonically, Delibes’ change of chord on every bar makes it more markedly more truly triple meter than Hubay, who moves from G major only after the fourth bar: those two-bar units are beginning to look suspiciously like 6/8 in disguise. The longer you play for ballet, the more you appreciate how details like this can be a tipping point for choosing one piece rather than another for an exercise.

coppelia-burgermeister

Extract from the mazurka in Coppélia

hubay-fifths

From Hubay’s mazurka – same key, same fifths, similar rhythmic patterns

Hubay’s mazurka works well for pirouettes if you play it slow and large. At a faster speed (the crotchet = 172 that I’ve marked) it also works for a certain kind of grand battement. Once you’ve played it a few times and the rhythmic patterns and conventions are in your fingers, you can use it as a basis for improvisation. Another convention that is good to bring in is the huge leaps across two octaves, which would be out of place in vocal music and counterintuitive when you’re thinking pianistically.

I’ve done a lot of messing around with this to get it into a format that will work for class. In the original—though I didn’t notice until long after I’d input it—there are several 12 bar phrases (or rather an 8-bar antecedent followed by a 4-bar consequent), and 8 bar interludes. Better to work on the assumption that there will be 32 counts per dancer, and then you don’t get left hanging mid-phrase.  However, the original is lovely to listen to, so here it is without the straightening out and the cuts:

Because it’s a concert piece for violin, there isn’t a recording of this that gives a sense of what it could be like when it’s butched up on the piano for a ballet class, so I’ve quickly recorded a rough version to give an idea of what I think it can do. It could go slower than this, and there’s plenty of room for rubato and pauses and stretches to allow for multiple pirouettes and other contingencies. Forgive my mistakes, but it’s better than nothing.

PS: There’s a small octave mistake that I’ll correct when I have the will to live — it’s in the repeat of the G minor section near the end on page 3. The D-Eflat-D motifs should be up the octave, as they are the first time around on page one.

See also: 

A year of ballet playing cards #53 (Black Joker): Reel from La Sylphide

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Image of piano score of The reel from La Sylphide, Bournonville's ballet with music by Løvenskiold

Click to download the score

I promised that I’d be posting a couple of “jokers” in the pack of ballet playing cards, and here’s one of them: the Reel from La Sylphide.  It’s a joker, because you should only play this one with care: I’d advise against playing it for class anywhere where La Sylphide has recently been in the company repertoire, but it’s such great music for little jumps, and such fun, that it almost always raises a smile, or gets people trying to remember the steps while they wait for the next group.  A crotchet/quarter-note beat of 108 is only a guide, but it’s not worth playing if it’s slower than that, frankly – the whole point is that it’s fast, furious, and jolly, as a reel should be. To talk shop for a moment, it’s also great for little jumps because it has a proper four-on-the-floor feel, rather than falling into a see-saw pattern of oom-pahs. Also rather interesting how often it has a strong beat at the end of the bar. Explain that one to your music teacher.

It’s handy because it goes on for pages and pages (I’ve included everything, but the most useful part stops at the end of page 3 – after that, go carefully, although it’s in 8 bar phrases almost right up to the end. There’s something really exhilarating about playing for an exercise that goes on for a long time and not running out of material – because people keep think you’re going to, and then you don’t. I’ve done this joker as a favour to myself, so I can remind myself of how it all goes. I’m also rather fond of a post I wrote about it when I had to play it after slicing the end of the fourth finger of my RH with a food processor blade, and discovered interesting new fingering methods.

A reel life experience

This piece brings back so many memories too – one of my earliest jobs was sight-reading it from a terrible hand written score for Peter Schaufuss and Festival Ballet (ENB) at a stage rehearsal back in the 80s. It was then that I realised how much more fun Bournonville ballets were than the turgid Tchaikovsky ones.  Probably the two best ballet nights out I’ve ever had were watching Matthew Bourne’s reworking of La Sylphide (Highland Fling!) in London when it first came out, and then in 2013 when it was restaged for Scottish Ballet.

 

A year of ballet playing cards #22: A schmaltzy waltz by Kéler (9h)

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keler

Click to download the score

Elastic or expressive timing is a feature of music in ballet classes that I’m rather nostalgic for. When I meet teachers who still do it, I feel as if I’m back home again.  Recently, I’ve found that I need a particular category of waltz for company classes with multiple pirouettes, where the tempo needs to be forgiving, accommodating, like stretch fabric jeans that can be a couple of sizes larger than the label suggests. Schmaltzy is what we would have called it a few decades ago, but it’s a long time since I heard that word.

How I learned to love the schmaltzy waltz again

When I first started working in ballet, I’d be slightly appalled if a teacher wanted part of an exercise slower than the beginning, to make space for a different kind of step or more pirouettes. Now I enjoy the interaction with the teacher, enjoy the challenge to get the tempo change right and still make it sound musical.

You can’t do this with any old waltz, and particularly not with the kind that has an overwhelming metrical level, rather than switching between several through the course of the tune. I’ve put Deutsches Gemüthsleben in the “hearts” section because it has places where it’s in six (see various posts on triple meter), but the opening is very definitely in three. Sections E and F do what the Swan Lake Act 1 waltz does, which is to drive the accent to the second bar and fourth bars. At the ends of sections, the three-in-a-bar is suddenly more marked. In other words, what appears to be simply “3/4” has several different kinds of metre both internally (within a single phrase) and from section to section.

I’d never heard of Kéler until I read that he was the source of the Hungarian dance that made Brahms famous when he plagiarized it in its entirety, believing it to be a folk tune (like folk tunes just precipitate in the ether like ectoplasm, huh?), but I’m glad I found him. See more in Nancy Handrigan’s wonderful thesis On the Hungarian in Brahmsespecially pages 55-56, and for the proof, listen to the original Kéler below (scroll to 2:56″ if it doesn’t start there automatically).

I haven’t found a performance of this Deutsches Gemüthsleben Walzer that I like, or that does justice to its potential for elastic timing (some of which Kéler writes into the score), but it’s remarkably similar to the waltz in Der Rosenkavalier, which is the feel I’m looking for (see below – scroll to 5:40 if the technology doesn’t make it start there automatically).


It might also not escape your notice that both Kéler’s melody and Richard Strauss’s have a lot in common with The Lonely Goatherd from The Sound of Music, and also — i noticed much longer aftewards — with the “Waltz of the Flowers” from The Nutcracker.   Perhaps these falling thirds against an unchanging major floor is music’s answer to Gemüt, and perhaps Gemütlichkeit is the best way to describe character of the schmaltzy waltz that you need for a certain kind of pirouette: music that’s warm, roomy, comfortable, supple, supportive, like an armchair by the fire in an old pub.

A year of ballet playing cards #34: A triple jig medley (8c)

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Image of the free downloadable piano score of triple jigs for ballet class

Click to download the score

You may never need this playing card at all. I can’t remember the last time I was asked for a triple jig, but it was perhaps only once in the last 12 months.  I suspect that it’s one of those dance forms (like the gavotte, or the sarabande) that’s part of the didactic furniture of dance teacher training courses. No-one quite knew what it was for, or why it was there, but it had been in the family for years, and might have belonged to someone’s grandmother, and no-one liked to throw it away. If a teacher asks you for one, you could probably guess within a couple of decades and degrees of latitude and longitude when and where they trained.

For all that, I rather like a triple jig for the sake of variety, but I get hopelessly lost if I try to improvise one. This isn’t the most interesting music around, but you have to understand that there’s so much going on in Irish slip-jigging that you tend not to listen the music (see below). Triple jigs are a good replacement for those quick polonaises/boleros which are too fast for the polonaise that the teacher asked for. However, as a colleague and I were discussing recently, you can’t get away with it: if they asked for a polonaise, they’re going to demand to get what they asked for, like a grumpy diner in a restaurant, even though you’re offering them something just as nice.

Triple jig: the worst of all possible time signatures?

The triple jig is usually in 9/8, which is confusing as a time signature, because you tend to hear 6  beats, not 9, and to confuse matters more, the “triple” suggests (rightly) a kind of 3.  But even more confusingly, they often feel like a kind of additive time signature, 2+1. I can’t remember who pointed this out in an article or book, but I think they’re right.  Another problem is that teachers often remember a particular 9/8, and then ask for “a 9/” as if everything in 9/8 sounded the same. Not so. Here’s one of the most famous 9/8s in the repertoire, the sylph solo from the pas de  from La Syphide – but there’s very little else like it. If you can prove me wrong and find another piece like this, let me know, and I’ll put it in as a joker in the pack.

The “Western” 9/8 is a pretty dull affair, compared to all the things you might do if you have 9 bits of beat  your disposal. Nice as it is, I don’t think Dave Brubeck’s Blue Rondo à la Turk counts as a 9/8 – it’s kind of a four with an extended last beat, or a 3/4 + 3/8. This Armenian piece, by contrast, is another matter:

However, the more I listen to the two pieces side by side, the more possible it seems to hear the sylph differently. If I had more time, I’d strip the audio from the sylph solo, and replace it, perfectly synchronized, with the Armenian music. Both pieces have a gravitational pull to the end of the bar, not the beginning. The Armenian one has a metrical pattern of 4+3+2, but the effect of that last note feels the same to me in both pieces. Here’s my attempt at a mash-up of the two (with the percussion line just indicating the metric groups).

armeniansylph_0001