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.

 

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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.

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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

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

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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.

 

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

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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

 

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