This is day 25 in my 2007 Advent Calendar. This year, I’m
giving the story behind some of the music that I’ve collected for
ballet classes. All the pieces are on Studio Series Vol. 4 published by RAD
One of the highlights of my Desert Island First Notes would be the opening top E natural (and of course the C in the bass that accompanies it) that the solo piano plays in the slow movement of Shostakovich’s second piano concerto (the one in Macmillan’s Concerto). When the movement opens, Shostakovich envelops you in a world of C minor muted strings, getting lower and lower, sparser and sparser, sadder and sadder, until you are left with a unison low G. It’s like night falling.
And then, just when you’d forgotten that there had ever been a piano in this piece, that major keys or high notes existed, in comes the piano with a single note whose appearance is so beautiful and unexpected, it’s like one of those evenings where the sky is so cloudy, you think you won’t see the sun until tomorrow, and then suddenly there’s a break in the clouds just as the sun hits the horizon, and you go all biblical on yourself. It doesn’t matter how many times you’ve heard it, that moment is prepared so carefully and cleverly, it never loses its effect, just as that feeling of seeing the sea for the first time when you drive to the coast is always a magical moment. The whole of that opening section is a preparation for that single note; yet the preparation is also a musical episode in itself, so you don’t sit there watching the arrival boards to see what time the tune is due to land.
That’s also why the waltz from the second act of Prokofiev’s Cinderella is so unusual, special and lovely to put on a CD of music for ballet classes. Introductions in class usually serve the function of setting a tempo and giving time to get ready; a necessary but essentially meaningless routine. Prokofiev cleverly subverts the routine: you get what graphically looks like an eight-bar vamp, but is in fact a delicate harmonic kaleidoscope of chords that sets a scene and tells a story and establishes a mood. When the first note of the tune comes in, it’s been so carefully prepared it’s like threading a needle; it’s the only note that the tune could possibly begin on, but also feels completely unexpected. It’s an introduction, Jim, but not as we know it.
When a piece of music for class can convey so much wide-eyed wonderment and expectation before the exercise has even started, I think it probably deserves to sit at the top of the table.