Tag Archives: Advent 2007

PIrouettes (or other things): Grande valse from Cinderella Act II

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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.

Happy Christmas!

Grand allegro: Valse des bluets et des pavots from The Seasons

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This is day 24 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

poppies.jpgThe way I’ve been banging on about trying to avoid the waltz for class, you might think that I’ve got something against waltzes.  Nothing could be further from the truth. I love them, and in fact yesterday I spent a lovely morning playing class for Christopher Hampson and his happy band of dancers for the Raymond Gubbay Strauss gala, and stayed to watch a bit of Chris’s choreography for the exquisite Sphärenklänge by Josef Strauss. If you want to know what I do when I’m on holiday, that’s it. My point about avoiding waltzes is that
they’re gorgeous for waltzing to, or to listen to, but it’s rarer than you’d think that a waltz is really a good choice for an exercise, particularly in grand allegro.

It’s Denzil Bailey that first made me aware of this, coming over to the piano during allegro in an ENB class and saying very diplomatically and helpfully that what I was playing would be nice for pirouettes, but not really for allegro. I was quite surprised, because until then, that’s what teachers had always seemed to ask for.  But at the risk of being shot down by my teacher colleagues, dancers are often much better than teachers at saying what works and what doesn’t, because they’re the ones actually doing the darned exercise, and they’re the ones you’re doing it for, so their feedback is rather more urgent & expressive.

You won’t be surprised, after all this, to hear that the reason why “Valse des Bluets & des Pavots” from Glazunov’s The Seasons works so well is because it does a lot of things that waltzes don’t normally do.

  • Principally it frequently displaces the accent off of the first beat, which has the effect of steadying the tempo, and offering a natural prophylactic against becoming one-in-a-bar with a Viennese swing.
  • The harmonies often change significantly on each beat. This tends to push the melody in a forward, narrative direction rather than bouncing it up and down on a metrical trampoline.
  • It has all kinds of chromatic and dynamic journeys & diversions, which lend drama and emotion to even the simplest repetitive movements
  • Through a variety of means, it retains a nice fat accent on every bar, should you want it, rather than every other bar.

But this is ridiculous – valid and true though all those reasons are, the main thing is that it’s one of the most sumptuous, glorious waltzes I know, and in just three pages, it goes on a musical journey that makes you feel you’ve gone round the world to get home. The turnaround from the middle section into the reprise would be one of my first choices on Desert Island Modulations. Far from thinking ‘Oh god, how many more groups are there?’ during the exercise, you hope that there will be enough groups to allow you to do the whole thing, favourite modulations included. And if you can, it turns what is superficially a repetitive exercise into what seems like a wonderful story. 

Medium allegro: Mandolin dance from Romeo & Juliet

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This is day 23 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

Christmas picture quiz: What London landmark is pictured left? Click on the pic for answer.

Waltzes for ballet class have a number of inherent problems (see? I told you this would be a recurring theme).
 

  • They are nearly all one-in-a-bar, so if anything steppily significant happens on any other beat, the chances are the beat won’t be there in the music to support or give impetus to it
  • They are nearly all effectively in 6/8, and hence tend to waddle and sway (which is why people in Bierkellers sway inanely from side to side). Not much use if you want something to happen on 2, 4, 6 & 8 as well as 1,3, 5 & 7.
  • They tend (and indeed, are intended to) convey the kind of Gemütlichkeit you’d feel if you were an upperclass Austrian in the 19th century. Not much use if you want to be a swashbucklng pirate or contemplate a crime passionel while you jump.
  • They are subject to so many formal constraints that it’s difficult to depart from well-worn harmonic paths

That’s why this dance with mandolins from Prokofiev’s Romeo & Juliet is such a wonderful piece. It’s in 3 and in 8 bar phrases, but it avoids all of the problems I’ve noted above.  Best of all, Prokofiev’s harmonic language creates moods and emotions which (excuse the pun) strike a chord, but at last, after all that waltz schmalz, it’s a different damn chord.

There’s something so clean and edgy about this music, to play it is like opening a window, or taking off a layer of clothing on a hot day. Suddenly, a sissonne isn’t just a sissonne, it’s a gesture, part of a story. This music gives dignity and style to steps, and to the dancers dancing them – and what more could you ask of dance music?

Ronde de jambe en l’air: ‘Dawn’ from Coppélia Act III

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dawn_in_tooting.jpgThis is day 22 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
.

By the end of this Advent calendar (sorry to jump back to the barre, by the way, but I forgot this variation ealier), I think there’ll be a recurring theme of ‘things which are in three but aren’t waltzes are much better than waltzes, most of the time’.

This is a prime example.  Instead of just lumbering from one oom-pah to another, this gorgeous, magical variation writes its tune in the air like sparklers swirled by  invisible hands on firework night.  It’s so rhythmical and stylishly articulated, you can’t help but feel impelled to do things on the music (like a rond de jambe en l’air or two, for example). And yet the metre is all implied by the rhythmic gesture, not by chords which serve the function only of establishing metre (i.e. an ‘oom-pah-pah’).  It makes your average waltz look like a building where the builders never turned up to take the scaffolding away.

There are a hundred other reasons to include this: it’s another example of a piece which is so well known you’re tempted not to play it for class, but when do, you wish you’d done it before.

But I have to own up that Coppélia is also a score that I love unconditionally and eternally, as it was one of the first records I ever heard as a child.  I could listen to it and play it every day for the rest of my life, and I wouldn’t tire of it. The mazurka happened to be in my  Standard Album of ballet tunes as a child, and I played it so many times that I can still play it from start to finish from memory today. In Music & Movement at school, we had to jiggle around being washing machines to the ‘musique des automates’ in Act II, which I thought (and still think: I can’t help it) was the most thrilling and magical music I’d ever heard, even though it was coming out of a mono speaker on the school radio at 11 o’clock in the morning. There were fleeting chords in the Dawn solo which seemed to express everything I wanted in the world at that age, and if I had to choose eight chords to take with me on Desert Island Chords, I’d be happy if six of them came from this piece.

Medium jump: The Hole in the Wall

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This is day 21 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
.

In my kitchen cupboard I have, or have had, a set of Hungarian chocolate moulds in the shape of hazelnuts; some individual Madeleine moulds, a coconut scraper, an iddly steamer, a packet of petits fours cases, a julienne slicer, a melon baller, a pasta machine, a džezva, a hot-water crust game pie mould, an easter egg mould. Whenever I’m in the kitchen section of a foreign department store, particularly a central European one (they are by far the best), I get an uncomfortable yearning to buy every strange mould, device or implement I can see, just in case.

My first Gugelhupf (Dec. 2009, added retrospectively)

I’m a bit like this with music for class, too.  When you find something like Purcell’s 3/2 Hornpipe from Abdelazer (recorded in the 9th edition of Playford as ‘The Hole in the Wall’), you snap it up and put it in the cupboard for those occasions, however rare, when you want to make iddly, bake a Gugelhupf or eviscerate a fresh coconut.

Through lack of use, we have become unaccustomed to the metrical and rhythm patterns of this kind of dance, so you scrabble around trying to make do with ill-fitting polonaises or triple jigs. That’s when it’s great to be able  to open that bottom drawer, dust off your 3/2 hornpipe and say ‘There. I knew I had one somewhere’.  The other way of looking at it is that having a muffin tray is an incentive to make muffins – and having a 3/2 hornpipe to hand (on this CD) might inspire someone to make an enchaînement in 6 on a rainy Sunday afternoon.

It’s a pretty tune with an infectious rhythmic bounce, but it’s the metric/rhythmic design that I love. It’s like the rose window of Winchester Palace in the picture above, which is essentially a triple structure (a star of David) but it seems to conceal its own tripleness the more you look at it. Put that structure with an enchaînement in a six, and you have a little formal miracle in front of your eyes and ears.

Medium jump: Winter from ‘The Four Seasons’ (Vespri)

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This is day 20 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.

Medium jumps are, for my taste, the most difficult things to accompany in class. While a medium sized jump for a dancer requires considerable effort, skill & preparation, ‘medium’ in music is a potentially deadening adjective. Moderato, moderation, moderate, it’s like someone saying ‘I think we’ll just order a small glass each, shall we?’ when you’re ready for at least a bottle.

Worse still, when it comes to things in triple metre, a ‘medium’ waltz is just about the worst thing you could play for allegro. It will, quite literally, never get off the ground, and why should it? Waltzes are about turning and gliding, not jumping.

Look in the opera-ballet repertoire of the 19th century, and you find what we were looking for all the time – a nice, bouncy dance in triple metre, at a moderate tempo, but with the same kind of strength & elevation as the jumps that it accompanies.  It’s a combination of a lot of factors. Look at this one from I Vespri Siciliani and you see, for example:

  • A solid floor (pedal note in the bass) for the melody to bounce off, rather than the 2-bar shuffle between tonic & dominant you get in a waltz
  • A leaping melodic contour with a large tessitura & and an anacrusis that has considerable welly
  • Occasional implied or real accents on the second or third beats of the bar, which prevents the bass from ‘walking’
  • Lots of little acciaccaturas to spice up the melody line

The second half (which no-one ever seems to play) is very ingenious too – the ‘cadence’ of the first part becomes the beginning of the second tune, so that you feel as if you’ve suddenly lost a beat, but it all gets paid back in the end, and once you’ve heard the whole piece, that bar becomes a kind of trompe l’oreille – you can never say whether it’s the beginning of something or the end of something – and as it happens, the piece never ends, because it goes straight into

Batterie: Tentação

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This is day 19 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
.

prague_window.jpgTentação by F.L. da Silveira is one of many terrific musical discoveries that happened through force of circumstance. The circumstance here was that I originally wanted to record one of my favourite tangos ever, El Firulete, by Jose Basso in the place now occupied by Tentação. I first heard El Firulete on the The Story of Tango (it’s fantastic – still one of my favourite tango CDs), and spent a long time, as always, taking it down by dictation from the CD ( in Prague, summer of 2004 – mid-dictation I noticed the sun setting on the church outside my window, and took the picture you see on the left) and working out a version on the piano, trying it out in class, until I was happy.  It works brilliantly for the kind of batterie that needs what Chris calls ‘hot potato’ music – in other words, everything just off the beat, or barely touching it; edge of the beat, edge of your chair.

When it comes to a recording, although there are variations according to genre, you need a score, otherwise you run into problems of potential copyright infringement. Weeks before the recording, I located a shop in Buenos Aires that had the sheet music, and ordered it over the internet. It didn’t come. I emailed them, they apologised, said they’d send it again, it still didn’t come.  Tragic – one of the only internet transactions I’ve ever known that didn’t work out. 

So only days before the recording, I needed to replace this wonderful piece with something similar. But where from? The whole point about El Firulete is that it’s got a tempo and a character all of its own, and I’d chosen it out of hundreds.  But then, as I described under Herminia, I found this book of Brazilian Tangos, and a whole world opened up that I didn’t know existed. As it happened, it was a world full of pieces like El Firulete to the point where it was difficult to choose at first, though Tentação soon became a favourite.

I’d never quite got the connection between ragtime, tango & quadrilles until I saw this book, and nor had I (to my shame) encountered the terms cinquillo & tresillo until I read them in the introduction; and that opened up yet another wonderful avenue of research.  I still love El Firulete to bits, and will keep trying to get the score in time for the next recording, but I have to be grateful to the postal service for failing to deliver this time, because Brazilian Tangos was such a fantastic find.

Petit allegro: Czerny etude

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karlovmost.jpgThis is day 18 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

Riisager’s Etudes, a gorgeous, colourful orchestral score based on Czerny studies, and composed for Harald Lander’s ballet of the same name, has come to be one of my favourite ballet scores.  I don’t think I know a single dancer who doesn’t love this music, and I think I’m probably right in saying that if there were such a thing as the perfect music for class, this would probably be it. Hearing dancers talk about why Etudes works, and why they like it has been one of the most instructive experiences as a ballet accompanist.

It’s also helped me to appreciate Czerny as someone who’s a lot more fun than I used to give him credit for. That’s the genius of Riisager’s score. He unveils Czerny as someone with a sense of humour, with dance and fun bubbling through his musical veins even in the most gruelling technical exercises. 

One of the reasons that Czerny works so well for class is that once he’s started a rhythmic pattern, he’s like a child on a spacehopper, lurching around the place bumping into things and setting off in another direction, gaining dangerous momentum until he comes to some crashing finish.  As good as other music might be for class, most composers think that there’s a virtue in avoiding repetition, and hence go off in new directions which might be interesting musically but doesn’t help for a dance exercise.

The Etude Op. 335 Book 1 No. 19 (E major) is a perfect example. It does in music what feet do in little jumps, and so you get a hundred little landings on the piano keyboard just as you do on the studio floor. I don’t know any other music that works quite like this. The glorious thing is that Czerny wrote enough of this stuff to make another 100 ballets like Etudes, as I discovered when I dug out four volumes of studies I’d never seen before at the University of London a few years ago [see previous entry  ‘The joy of libraries & My mate Czerny’]

Medium allegro: Morning Serenade from Romeo & Juliet

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This is day 17 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

Some enchaînements, particularly pointe ones, seem to need music which is potentially rather dull –  carefully articulated, restrained and with a constant feeling of being ‘under tempo’. This little mandolin number from Prokofiev’s Romeo  & Juliet saves the day, because all those qualities are part of what makes it special.  Hot and sour Thai chicken soup is delicious; a hot and sour milkshake is a catastrophe.

There’s something endlessly satisfying and engaging about playing music like this. It’s so simple that any minor carelessness – lapses of timing, articulation or dynamics – show up immediately, like trying to eat spaghetti bolognese in a wedding dress. In fact it’s a lesson in the value of simplicity and understatement, and
waiting for the right moment to slip in something unusual; in having
the courage to write E major chords if E major chords are what works
(rather than thinking ‘E major’s so last year’). There is such clear, pure, cool air in this music that you can feel yourself creating the atmosphere Prokofiev wanted after only half a bar of the introduction.

That’s what perhaps makes this music most effective for class – it has the capacity to create instant magic and atmosphere, like stepping outside on a winter’s day and taking your first intake of bracing cold air.  So much in class conspires against that happening, that when you find a key to that door, you use it.

Fouettés/turns en diagonal: Mod?anská polka (Roll out the barrell)

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daria_nutcracker.jpgThis is day 16 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

I first heard this piece on an LP that I bought from a mechanical music museum in Cornwall when I was a teenager.  Having a passion for the music made by pianolas, reproducing pianos, orchestrions, fairground organs and so on, I listened to it over & over again, until I knew every section of every song – including this one – by heart. In those pre-iPod days, if you had one album like this you were lucky,
and you listened to it until you’d worn the grooves into a trench.

And so whereas most people only know how to shriek the ‘RAOUL ART THE BOWEL’ bit of the chorus, I’m afraid that right from the start, I knew the entire preamble, which is in fact about three times the length of the chorus, and just as worth listening to. The truth is that it originally never was a chorus, and never was a cockney pub song, but the final section of a brass band piece by the Czech composer Jaromír Vejvoda  called Mod?anská Polka (see my earlier entry for a history of the song).

The motoric jollity of Vejvoda’s music makes for good diagonal turn or fouetté music, and for UK dancers has the additional comic effect of being the kind of thing they sing around the piano at Christmas in the Queen Vic. I might have thought twice about putting it on this album were that the only layer of meaning attached to it, but it so happens that a few years ago I played this for a company class at the National Theatre in Prague and all the Czech dancers who’d been relatively quiet and focused for the barre suddenly turned round with a huge smile. 

It was Daria Klimentová who explained that the reason for this was not because they’d all got satellite TV and tuned into the Eastenders Christmas special every year, but because Škoda lásky (as Roll Out the Barrell is known in Czech – though the Czech song, about ‘wasted love’, isn’t the barrel of laughs that the English lyrics portray is a very famous Czech song, and indeed, in 2000, was voted the most popular Czech song of the 20th century. You play this music with a different kind of love and attention when you know that. It turns out the Daria knows all the Czech words, too, which is one of the less obvious reasons why her picture graces this blog entry.