Category Archives: Personal

Conference on music and movement as process and experience


If you’re wondering why there’s been a long silence in the 52 cards project, it’s because I’ve been just too busy with other stuff, such as organizing the Conference on Music and Movement as Process and Experience that takes place tomorrow, 23rd October under the banner of the Institute of Education’s Music Special Interest Group. It takes place tomorrow at the Royal Academy of Dance  who’ve very kindly agreed to host it.

In  a way, this conference is another step along the path that I had in my mind over 15 years ago that, and blogged about in 2005. My thinking’s moved on a bit in various directions since that post, but that’s roughly where it started.

Evenings on Žofin

Zofin - 01

Žofin island (now called Slovanský Ostrov/Slovansky Island). The building is the Žofin Palace.

One of the most complicated music references I’ve ever had to research was for a piece that I found on an album called Little Pearls of Czech Classics. The piece was called “Poem” by Zděnek Fibich, and we used it for an adage at the barre in the RAD’s new Advanced 1 in 2013. When I tried to find a piano version of the piece (it was in fact originally a piano piece), it seemed that every time I looked, a new reference would turn up. In the end, I settled for this:

“Večery na Žofině” (Evenings on Žofin) from Moods, Impressions, and Souvenirs Op. 41 No. 139 (originally Op 41 No. 6). Also known as Na Podvečer Op. 39, or Poem [Poème] Op. 39a.

To that, you can now add Op. 41 No. 4, which is the title given to it at AllMusic, where you’ll find a concise history of the piece.  For all this numbering, I can’t even remember where I eventually found it – IMSLP have a good selection of FIbich’s works, but not the original piano work (presumably it’s in Volume 4, they only have 1-3).  I’d like to think that the memoral slab on the side of the  Žofin palace puts one strand of the story literally in stone, which is that it was the Czech violinist Jan Kubelik who made Večery na Žofině (Evenings on Žofin) famous by arranging it for violin, but even that isn’t quite right: to be more precise, Fibich arranged and extended Evenings on Žofin  into an orchestral work that he called V podvečer (At Twighlight, Op. 39), from which Kubelik then extracted a bit, arranged it for piano and violin, and called it Poème, whereafter it was catalogued – understandably – as  Op. 39a in the list of Fibich’s works.

Zofin - 03

It was a lovely moment when I realised that this complex history referred to a place that I’d walked past (and on) for so many years on my annual visits to Prague for the International Ballet Masterclasses in Prague. As the Allmusic article tells you, many of the hundreds of piano miniatures in Fibich’s Nálady, dojmy a upomínky (Moods, Impressions and Reminiscences) apparently document the history of Fibich’s late-life love for his one-time pupil Anežka Schulzová (she was 24, he was 42, he was still married to his second wife). There’s barely a part of Schulzovà’s body, or an aspect of their relationship that doesn’t get a musical mention (“Nos. 303-313, however, return to the theme of Anežka’s toes”). As anatomy lessons go, I still think diagrams are probably more reliable.

The more you read about Fibich and Anežka in brief biographies, the greater the sense of misleading moralizing whitewash. Fibich’s first wife died very soon after they married. They had twin children, one of whom died at birth, the other only a few years later. On her death bed, the first wife made her sister Betty promise to marry Fibich, which she dutifully did (or perhaps it was Fibich on whose side the sense of duty lay).  It’s hard to imagine how this could last, and hard to begrudge Fibich the unexpected love he found with the much younger Schulzová, an educated woman, expert in Nordic literature, and eventually librettist for Fibich’s later operas. A site about Fibich refers to these years of his life as “fateful love.” The ABRSM, advertising their collection of pieces from Nálady, dojmy a upomínky describe the works as “highly individual miniatures…dedicated to his mistress.” Anežka surely deserves more than this.

Here’s the original orchestral Poème, and further down, a little gallery of pictures from Žofin island, including a view of the National Theatre which you can see from the island. Built between 1868-1881, both Fibich and Schulzová must have spent a long time looking at the building site, and admiring it once it was built from their vantage point on Žofin. The row of impressive buildings on the river bank directly opposite post-dates Fibich’s death I think.

A year of Ballet playing cards: new score published


If you’ve been following the Year of Ballet Playing Cards, you might have missed a couple of updates, as I’m setting the “published” dates as when they should have been published, rather than the date when I publish them. It’s just easier to keep track of that way. The best thing to do is to either follow the blog, or to bookmark this automatically page of links to the playing cards in date order. If you can’t be bothered to scroll down the page, click here to get today’s update, the coda from the Talisman pas de deux, a nice big waltzy thing.


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



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.


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.


Supermarkets: will we (or they) ever learn?

Picture of courgettes and price tickets in Sainsburys in 2010.

Misleading? Courgette pricing in Sainsburys in 2010. Have they got any better? Check at your local store!

For those who enjoyed my 30 days without a supermarket challenge, you might be interested in this news in today’s Guardian – UK supermarkets criticised over misleading pricing tactics. Which? have lodged a “super-complaint” about dodgy dealing by supermarkets – including the kind of misleading or confusing pricing that I’ve banged on about in the past about courgettes and digestive biscuits.


How powerful is satire? Hollaender, Hitler, “The Book of Mormon,” and Nigel Farage


I finally got to see The Book of Mormon yesterday, and it was everything I’d expect a Matt Stone and Trey Parker production to be. Orgazmo – their 1997 film a similarly outrageous Mormon reference- is one of my all time favourite films.

It’s only a couple of minutes into the musical that you realise that the real outrageousness in this musical has nothing whatsoever to do with insulting Mormons, but is pointed at worldwide indifference to elephants in the room such as AIDS, poverty, military dictatorships, FGM and so on. It’s a curious mixture: three retired-age ladies in the audience on my left had disappeared after the first interval (and it wasn’t to find better seats – it was sold out, and this was the stalls). I was only surprised that more people hadn’t left, since there was no out-of-bounds topic or swear-word left untouched by the end of the second song. What the ladies probably hadn’t got the hang of, however, is that all those things that they were singing about weren’t indigenous to the musical, they were out there in the world. Stone & Parker are just make you see and hear it through the medium of song, and in a style that is so immediate and familiar, that it’s like someone dropping 10 ton ideas on your foot, while you’re laughing.

We all laughed, it’s a hilarious show, and the more outrageous the songs are, the funnier it gets. I thought to myself, this is great. I live in a world where there’s a whole theatre full  of people who get the point like I do (apart from the three ladies, of course). The Book of Mormon is hugely successful, there must be thousands of us. So is this show a force for good? Can culture save us? Probably not, I thought – because what we’re doing, those of us who turned up, is celebrating the values we already hold through some kind of public ritual. It’s like choral evensong in South Park. Great, but eventually, will it change anything? It’s high satire, probably some of the most provocative satire in the world (more so than Charlie Hebdo, in many ways) yet I’m not sure it makes a difference, precisely because it’s preaching to the choir. There was a wonderful moment when Elder Cunningham, who has called the Ugandan girl Nabulungi by the wrong name every time he speaks to her (implying that he can’t be bothered to find out what it is, or spend time learning to pronounce it), calls her “Nigel Farage.” The house collapsed with laughter for several seconds. It was a master stroke. In one multimodal moment of musical theatre, the politics and personality of Ukip and Nigel Farage just imploded in a communal guffaw. The trouble is, of course, no-one could hear us.

And that led me back to thinking about another period of intense satire, Germany in the 1930s. If it hadn’t been for a cabaret singer that I teamed up with when I worked in Berlin in the early 1990s, I would never have known about a song by Friedrich Hollaender, written in 1931, called “An allem sind die Juden schuld” (Everything is the Jews’ fault).  The song, sung to the tune of the habanera from Carmen, pokes fun at Hitler, two years before he came to power (so the commonly held idea that Germans just woke up with a start after the second world to find that Hitler wasn’t who they thought he was needs some revision, if this song is anything to go by).

It has some cracking lines and rhymes like schwul/Stuhl (“If the Prince of Wales is gay, or your dog has hard stools… it’s the Jews’ fault”).  It’s as risqué in several senses as The Book of Mormon. But my point is, as accurate and funny as it is, it didn’t stop Hitler getting to power. My guess is that like The Book of Mormon, there were probably clubs full of people who were glad to find their ideals celebrated in song, but who nonetheless found themselves transported and killed by people who had no time for such things.

By chance, I’d recently read a brilliant article (Rediscovering Operetta – and overcoming the Nazi shadow) on how operetta, once a caustic, Book-of-Mormon type genre for social and political satire, got toned down into the anodyne schmaltz that we think of it today by – guess who, the Nazis. What’s brilliant about The Book of Mormon is that it satirizes within itself the kind of sanitized, politics-free sugary world of musical theatre, while carrying on its own more edgy version at the same time. The song “We Are Africa” is a masterwork of this kind of parody,

And yet. And yet, and yet.

Much as I love satire (and I love it almost above everything else), I think we overrate its power. Did Spitting Image change much? Or did it just give us a vent for our powerless rage at the politics that had overcome us? Months after Charlie Hebdo, have a few cartoons really changed the world?

I don’t think so, and that’s why, whatever you think of him (I don’t care – I love him), I think Russell Brand has got it right. He’s a comedian, but he’s not relying on comedy to change the world, but a Buddhist vision of right living and thinking. I’m not saying stop the satire, don’t laugh, or don’t see “The Book of Mormon,” but don’t pretend that “free speech,” in the form of satire is magically going to get us out of any conceptual ruts, because in the end, we choose what we listen to, and we pretty much know what we’re going to believe before we listen.  It takes much bigger thinking, and much more personal investment in change to make a difference.