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

Share
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

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

A year of ballet playing cards #21: A gigue by Grétry (8h)

Share

 

Image of the piano score of a gigue by Grétry

Click to download the file

I can’t remember why I started listening to Grétry’s music after neglecting him for so long. In the years I’ve hunted for music for class, syllabi, other people’s ballet shows and so on, I’ve stopped at nothing as far as search routines are concerned, sometimes chucking any old search term into iTunes, like “carrot” or “milk” and seeing what comes up – so heaven knows how I might have found Grétry (random search terms can be very productive – give it a try if you haven’t already). Or perhaps it was reading about him in a music history book that led me to discover his catchy music for “Turks” in the Cairo Caravan, and to wonder whether there was more where this came from.

Meter and the gigue

Gigues that have real triple movement in them (as opposed to being marches with a bit of a triplet-y lilt)  as well as being in 8-bar phrases are quite hard to find. Pieces like this are useful for those teachers that set petit allegros which need this continuous, filigree surface. It’s interesting how much you find gigue-like  texture and movement in Tchaikovsky (think of the party scene, see below) which supports Taruskin’s thesis (I’m paraphrasing) that Tchaikovsky was more of a French composer than a Russian one.

party-scene

Extract from Act 1 of Tchaikovsky’s “Nutcracker,” party scene

I was all excited at how much more interesting Grétry’s music was than I had thought it would be when I heard the clip below. Later, I realised that what I was listening to had been arranged and added to by Felix Mottl, as you’ll find out if you compare the two scores at IMSLP (i.e. the orchestral ballet suite, and the vocal score of the opera from which the ballet music is taken).

Rejigging the gigue: arranging as renovation

I happen to love Mottl’s re-hearing of the gigue (sadly, I’ve had to cut some of the best bits for the sake of making it work for class. When you look at Grétry’s original, you realise that Mottl had heard something in the music that needed polishing to summon the genie in the lamp. Perhaps I would not have been so ready to admire Mottl’s arrangement, had I not just re-read one of my favourite passages about arrangement from Peter Szendy’s Listen: A history of our ears. 

As ballet musicians, we are used to arranging (it fascinates me, incidentally, the  sociological implications behind the two terms dance arranger and “composer”) but it is Szendy who dignifies the practice with what you might call a poetics of arrangement:

amazon-szendyI love them more than all the others, the arrangers. The ones who sign their names inside the work, and don’t hesitate to set their name down next to the author’s. Bluntly adding their surname by means of a hyphen: Beethoven-Liszt (for a piano version of the nine symphonies), Bach-Webern (for an orchestration of the ricercar in the  Musical Offering), Brahms-Schoenberg, Schubert-Berio, who else—in short, a whole mass of double-barrel signatures.

Now it seems to me that what arrangers are signing is above all a listening. Their hearing of a work. They may even be the only listeners in the history of music to write down their listenings, rather than describe them (as critics do). And that is why I love them, I who so love to listen to someone listening. I love hearing them hear.

(Peter Szendy Listen: A history of our ears, Fordham University Press, 2008, pp. 35-36)

There’s enough material in this gigue to make your own version – you might not want to begin the exercise in octaves in the bass, but that might be fun half way through, for example. Arrange away, add a fourth or fifth name to the credits.

 

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

A year of ballet playing cards #20: A luscious big waltz (Talisman coda)

Share
Piano score for the Talisman pas de deux coda (waltz)

Click to download the score

This is probably the nicest and most useful waltz for grand allegro I’ve found in a long time. It just sounds like ballet. You can use it straight off the shelf, and it’ll work instantly, and I love it.

The same goes for the adage from the Talisman pas de deux (my last entry) which I tried out in class today. It sounds just like all the things teachers seem to have in their heads when they mark adages, yet so few pieces actually deliver.

It also has within it a brilliant example of the difference between “normal” waltz metre and truly triple metre. The first and last sections are in “normal” waltz metre, i.e. in what we could otherwise notate as 6/8, with a weaker second main beat of the bar, whereas the middle section is truly triple, with accents every three. It’s hard to think of a better example to make the point with.

It’s not the cleanest score I’ve produced, but I’m trying out my little Akai LPK25 for the first time, and getting used to using laptop commands (i.e. without a numerical keypad)  for a big editing job in Sibelius. It’s hard work, but I’m so glad to have finally done what I’ve been meaning to for years, and buy a little touring keyboard for inputting scores. I remember reading once that Czerny had so many projects on the go that he’d have a room full of desks with a project on each, and go round each one for an hour each, and then move on to the next one. It hasn’t got to that yet, but I found myself rather naturally using one side of the table for PhD work, and the other side for playing work. It makes it so much easier to put things down when I get in.

Image of laptop and mini MIDI keyboard

My desk in the apartment in Prague where I input the Talisman pas de deux coda

 

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

A year of playing cards #4: *THE* Talisman Pas de Deux

Share
talisman

Click to download the score

After my recent anxiety that I might never find any more suitable adage-y music for my card collection, The Talisman came to the rescue again.  At the time I did this, I hadn’t seen a piano score, but got hold of one just as I’d uploaded it.  Here’s my transcription of the Talisman adagio section, with a few bits of guesswork.

It’s not quite even, unfortunately, but you could make a version of it by returning to the second half of A once you get to the end of B, or do a really cheeky cut from halfway through the end of the 16th bar of the tune, into the C7 that goes into the reprise of the tune in F major (the last section is also 16 bars, although it doesn’t seem regular).  At the time I did this in August 2015, The Talisman was not particularly well known except among people who do it at galas. For some reason, that’s changed in the last year, and now I keep hearing about people doing it:  Isabelle Brouwers and Erik Woolhouse will dance it at ENB’s Emerging Dancer performance 2016, for example.

I’m a bit behind with the 52 cards project, but hoping to catch up in the next couple of weeks. Meanwhile, treat yourself to a bit Anastasia Stashkevich and Yonah Acosta in Talisman Pas de Deux. I’ve got a recording that I prefer over this one in musical terms, where the orchestra takes more time over the juicy moments, but this is one of the nicest videos.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

A year of playing cards #3: Talisman pas de deux (3h)

Share

This page is about one of the lesser known Talisman pas de deux. For the famous Talisman pas de deux, see this page.

Talisman pas de deux, piano solo

Click to download

Talisman pas de deux: at last another adage

I was beginning to worry that I’d got past the summer equinox of my year of ballet playing cards, and still only had two adage-like things, and that I’d spend the last three months of the year having to try to find slow music. which would be a real pain. Then, out of the sky dropped the Talisman pas de deux, something I’d been meaning to transcribe for years, ever since Adam Lopez told me about it.  It’s apparently by Drigo, though – see what you think – it’s either not by Drigo, or it’s Drigo with a hangover. Whatever it is, it’s gorgeous, and one to pull out when you have real ballet fans in class. It’s a kind of Ballet World Citizenship Test, if you recognise this tune, then you can have indefinite leave to remain.

Now when I say it’s the Talisman pas de deux, I don’t mean it’s THEEEEE Talisman Pas de deux, but the one danced by Damayanti & Noureddin from the second act of the full-length ballet. The other (“real”) Talisman pas de deux by Gusev c. 1955 is by Drigo, but it’s a pot-pourri of Drigo (and a bit of Pugni thrown in). As always, I would know none of this without Adam Lopez, who deserves some kind of international medal for his work on all this Russian stuff.

The canonical ballet class adage style

After all this time playing for class, I’ve come to the conclusion that this piece is what “adage” means when teachers don’t specify anything at all: 12/8 at this speed, with the tune moving mostly at the 8th note/quaver level. If in doubt, play this kind of thing, and it’s Get Out of Adage Jail free.

I can’t promise that all the notes are absolutely correct: I’m taking it down by dictation, and the accompaniment is just a bit of chord-y wash. If you can get harp into the right hand rather than the bass register, it will sound nicer, but it would have been a week’s work to make an arrangement like that, and I probably wouldn’t end up playing it anyway. Amazingly (for Drigo) it’s actually in 8 bar phrases, and if you repeat C-D, you’ll have four sets of something.

For the “real” Talisman pas de deux, see this page.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

A year of playing cards #19: A medley of (double) jigs (6h)

Share
Image of the double jig medley

A medley of double jigs: click to download the score

I’m a few weeks behind, not least because it’s that time of year when everyone has a show, or is preparing for one. I thought that while I had O’Neill’s 1001 open (see previous post), I’d fill another gap: jigs. Good job I did, because I ended playing for a lot of children’s classes recently, and boy, do you need jigs for that. Skips, galops, horses, they all need jigs (particularly the kind called the “double jig”). I hadn’t quite finished this set when I suddenly needed it for a skipathon, and – as has happened a few times already – I became one of the most grateful users of my own 52 cards project.

Make mine a double: the difference between a single and a double jig

If you need jigs at all in a class, double ones seem to be better than singles almost all of the time (double jigs are the one with the continuous 8th notes and slightly slower than single jigs, which—like Humpty Dumpty Sat on a Wall—alternate between long and short notes). I think it’s because they are (sorry about this) truly triple. By that I mean they’re not just 4/4 with a bit of a lilt, the melody actually moves in 3 (see an earlier post, And now for something completely sextuple for a fuller explanation). I can’t really identify what my criteria are for choosing these jigs rather than the many, many others in O’Neill’s 1001, except I like the ones that sound a bit like a The frost is all over that I heard on a friend’s album when I was a teenager – I think it was Planxty, but it might have been The Chieftains. I couldn’t resist including the jiggy version of Green Sleeves. The Vaughan Williams version is lovely, but it could do with a rest.

Harmonising these tunes for the piano is not as easy as it you’d think it ought to be, and I change my mind several times no sooner than I’ve put down a version. It helps to listen to some bands playing the tunes. Guitarists often use fewer chord changes than you’d be tempted to make on the piano, and bassists make particular shapes with their bass lines. Here’s a version of the first of the set The Joy of My Life. 

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

A year of ballet playing cards #49: A medley of Hornpipes

Share
Image of the piano score of a medley of hornpipes

Click to download the medley of hornpipes

I don’t think there’s any other book on my shelves that I’ve ransacked for tunes as much as Kerr’s Merry Melodies (see earlier post), and possibly nothing quite so useful to build a repertoire as hornpipes. They move a lot, so it always sounds like you’re doing something, and because the melodies are suited to the physical characteristics of the violin rather than the piano, there’s something that sounds instantly fresh and different about them. After nearly a decade, I’d got almost everything I could out of the book I bought, and moved on to O’Neill’s 1001 a collection of, you guessed it, 1001 Irish dance tunes.

Put that (lilt) in your hornpipes and rock them

Hornpipes are usually written as even quavers or semiquavers, but played with a lilt. I’ve written out a suggestion of the lilting by dotting all the tunes, but before anyone writes to complain, yes, I know lilting’s more subtle a practice than that, but it’s better than accidentally giving the impression that they’re not lilted. You can spend hours reading about lilting on the net, but for a brief overview of the topic, see this.

I’m not sure what it is that makes a good hornpipe tune, but I like the ones that have the occasional triplet in, that have a wide tessitura that give you the feeling of a fiddler using the whole of the violin rather than just twiddling about up the top end. Sometimes it’s the name that endears me to the tune (like O’Connor’s Favorite in this set), and the modal ones are a welcome change.

Sometimes, a tiny fragment of melody reminds me of another tune, like the beginning of Fair and Forty, which is just like “Here we go looby loo” which my dad used to sing to me and my sister as children, and I have seldom if ever  heard since.

Another example is Whiskey You’re the Devil (or the same tune under different names). The end of the first phrase is identical to the second half of the first line of Out of Town, the theme tune to a programme that I couldn’t stand as a child, but in the school playground we used to change the words to “Say what you will, school dinners make you ill…”

saywhatyouwill

The end of the first line of “Whiskey you’re the devil”

And here’s the song:


As it happens, me and my friend Johnny Dyer were suspended from my C of E junior school for three days, aged 10, for leading a protest march with a few others in Bournemouth with banners written in biro on the side of cardboard boxes saying “School dinners are only fit for pigs!”  I don’t think the school dinners really were that bad – we’d seen a group of kids in Southampton on the 6 o’clock news doing the same thing, and we wanted our 15 minutes of fame too.

 

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

A year of ballet playing cards #48: Three French petit allegros (9d)

Share
Image of sheet music for petit allegro by Auber

Click to download the score

Music for petit allegro: time to put that rag away for once

Several times since I started this “playing card” project, I’ve found myself looking for music that solves whatever problem turned up in class that week. Last week it was finding music for those twiddly allegros that need exactly the music that you don’t really want to play – the continuous semiquaver solos that seem to characterise a lot of French 19th century ballet music (see a related earlier post). Most of the time, I’ll try to play anything but that (rags, jazz standards, fiddle tunes and so on) but there are times when nothing else will do – in one class, the teacher made it clear she exactly wanted what she’d asked for, not some more entertaining alternative, and as it turned out, she was right – it did work better.

I’d already heard a couple of things that I rather liked while I was going through the Auber Gustave III score, so I decided to make a little medley of them. In fact, it’s only a medley on paper, you couldn’t play them in a row for class. In the third one, only the first 8 bars is even – you’d have to find a way of cutting/fiddling the last section. I started to do it myself, and then I remembered that other pianists often find much better ways than I do of finding cuts, so I’ve left the material there for you to make your own cuts in. You’ve been warned.

It’s easy to think that this music is so simple and lacking in harmonic/rhythm interest that you could just make it up as you go along. But actually, it’s not that easy to do, and you’ll find this isn’t that easy to play either. Maybe why this works so well as music for petit allegro – it’s tricky for the musician, as well as the dancer.

I picked the first one, which starts at 9’47” because it has a half-bar anacrusis, and that’s my new favourite trick for class, experimenting with what William Rothstein calls  “Franco-Italian hypermeter” (see earlier post).  You could start it on the beat if you wanted, but I’ve found that these half-bar anacruses things bring a lightness to duple meter things that works like magic. In this case, there’s also a forte-piano dynamic marking from the weak to the strong beat, which creates even more lightness. Little touches like this are counterintuitive but look perfect with the right exercise. Try it and see.

The second one starts at 5’19” and is the most usable of the three perhaps.

The third one starts at 12’18” and isn’t really a “running 4” at all, but I like it, and I seem to be short of things that go like this. Be warned about the second section (see above).

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

A year of ballet playing cards #18: Another 6/8 allegro – by Auber (5h)

Share
Music for allegro in six eight (6/8)

Click to download the score

This music for allegro in six eight is what I call an “assemblé 6/8” because it’s often in assemblé exercises that teachers ask for a 6/8, or what seems like a waltz. Once the exercise starts, you realise that it’s neither a waltz, nor the kind of 6/8 that grows on trees. I call it “one of those 6/8s” (see  recent post for another example), or an “assemblé 6/8” – you can also use it for some battements glissés exercises at the barre.

In music for ballet, less is often more

The longer I’ve played for ballet, the more I’ve come to appreciate pieces like this. On the surface they appear to do nothing – the bass line barely moves for the whole piece. But as a rule, taking stuff away rather than adding it seems to work well in ballet class. Structurally, too, the middle section with its upward motion and drama is all the more exciting for being set off by rather static stuff either side. What also looks like musical dullness – the same note in the bass for most of the piece, also acts like a drum, and a musical “floor” for the person doing the exercise. It’s easy to denigrate 19th century ballet music for being samey, but it works, and what the hell, Uptown Funk doesn’t suffer from having too many of the same notes in the tune either.

Well-designed music for allegro in six eight keeps you in time

This piece is a good example of music that has physical constraints in its design that prevent you from snatching a few milliseconds in the middle of the bar as you might in a waltz or jig-like rhythm. Those two semiquavers in the central beat (punctuated by horns in the orchestration) keep this in a genuine three, and make you hold your tempo. I borrowed the idea of physical constraints as a design feature  from Donald Norman’s The Design of Everyday Things .

The value of physical constraints is that they rely on properties of the physical world for their operation; no special training is necessary. With the proper use of physical constraints there should be only a limited number of possible actions – or, at least, desired actions can be made obvious, usually by being especially salient.  (Norman, 1989, p. 84)

An example of this in everday life would be a door that had a push-plate on one side, and a handle on the other. You simply couldn’t pull the door on the push side by accident because there’s nothing to grab, and you would naturally go to pull the door on the pull-side. In this music, those semiquavers are the physical constraints, they prevent you from squeezing the tempo in the middle of the bar. The same principle works like a dream when you use polka-mazurka types for a pirouette – it’s almost impossible to get out of time.

About the arrangement

Despite it’s simplicity, this piece was difficult to reduce for piano, and I’m still not happy with it, after several revisions.  It’s hard to capture the bouncy lightness of the orchestration on a piano with only two hands, so this would probably make a nice duet. In three places, I’ve missed out one beat, in order to drag the piece into a meter that works for class. The start of it comes from Act 1 (should start automatically start in the right place when you click, but if not, drag the slider to 6:11)

The A minor section comes from Act 5 (starts at 16:17, again, should start there automatically on click, but drag to the right time if not). Altogether, this week’s score has four variants of 6/8 for allegro, one of which will probably work for the exercise. It’s handy to have a piece that keeps changing rhythmic emphasis like this, because then you can see which particular variant works. You’ll notice that the final section also removes the constraint that I wrote about in the F major section – which will be either a good or a bad thing, depending on the exercise.

The Auber in the Tchaikovsky

I can’t say I was much of an Auber fan before this week, but the more I listen, the more I like it. There are some really bizarre, tender and wonderful moments of orchestration.  I also began to realise how much Tchaikovsky’s dance music resembles Auber at times (the Tchaikovsky pas de deux female variation could have been written by him, in places, and there’s a bit that sounds straight out of a march in Swan Lake.

There’s also a strong resemblance between this last A minor section from Act I, and Tchaikovsky’s “August” (Harvest song) from The Seasons which is used in the pas de trois after the duel in Onegin. There seems to be a worldwide competition to play this as fast as possible, until the rhythm just blurs into rabid prattle of notes, but I do rather like this orchestration, which makes the piece sound a lot better than it is:

Bibliography

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

A year of ballet playing cards #47: A tango by Tárrega

Share
Tango by Tárrega: image of the sheet music

The tango by Tárrega: click to download the sheet music

Short and sweet today, a little tango by Tárrega that is barely arranged at all from the original guitar piece. It’s tempting to fill it out (and I probably would a little in class, by doubling the bass occasionally, and doubling the thirds of the tune in the left hand where possible). On the other hand, part of the appeal of the piece is its simplicity. I kept changing my mind about whether the first tune would sound better an octave lower or not. I think you could probably experiment with playing the first half an octave lower, and the second half an octave higher.

The cool and restrained tango, for a change

It was also tempting to cover the piece with Grainger-esque articulations and dynamics to try and mimic the touch of the guitar, but thought it might look a bit presumptuous. It was also tempting to pimp it up Godowsky-style. To play a piece like this, which has so little in it, is hard to do well, whereas the Godowsky arrangement of the Albéniz Tango has voluptuousness built into it, so it sounds pretty good even if you don’t play it well. To make the original, much thinner piece sound like something, you have to work much harder, and so it is with this. I figured that you can fill it out yourself, if you want.

The reason for choosing this unassuming piece is because the holy grail for the ballet pianist searching for new repertoire is the “tango”-that-isn’t-a-tango, the kind that teachers request for battements fondus, and which also work well for slow tendus, because they have a perpetual feeling of in-and-out in their rhythm.  This piece is in the right area, I think. If nothing else, it’s a lesson in less-is-more. The reason improvised tangos often don’t sound effective is because there’s a temptation to throw every harmonic trick going at them, or fill them out with masses of chords, forgetting that the real thing tends to just toggle between dominant and tonic a lot of the time – the interest is in the rhythm, and the way it’s played.  It’s interesting that in the second half, the G major section, the peak of the phrase is every second bar, which creates an interesting tension between the metre and phrasing. So far, my favourite performance is the one in the clip below:

Tárrega: the bloke that composed that Nokia ringtone

I came across this  because I was going to upload a piano version of the Gran Vals by Tárrega, better know as the Nokia tune/Nokia waltz/Nokia ringtone  as this week’s card. (My thanks to the student who told me it was originally by Tárrega). It would have been fun, but the more I looked at it, the less I could see how it could be useful in class, except for the fact that the last four bars (the ringtone) happen to be in truly triple metre, whereas the rest isn’t, so it would be great for an exercise that needed detail at the end of the phrase, or to slow down as you turned around on the barre or something. But the truth is, there is little use for the bog-standard waltz in class, because it’s essentially duple metre with triple subdivision. So apart from the increasingly rare occasion where a teacher actually asks you for a “little waltz” during tendus, say, there’s no reason to fill your toolbox with them (it’s probably full of them anyway).

Print Friendly, PDF & Email