Tag Archives: advent 2009

Musical surprises #26: The Csárdás from Coppélia is not by Delibes

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A bit unseasonal this, since ‘musical surprises’ was the theme of my 2009 Advent Calendar. But I just couldn’t wait til next year to share my excitement at this one. It seems that not only is the theme of the “‘Friends” dance in Coppélia Act I  not by Delibes (called “Thème Slave varié in the score) , but the Coppélia Czardas isn’t either.

The Coppélia czardas: as printed in an earlier score by Pugni

The Coppélia Czardas – in Pugni’s “Theolinda”

The Coppélia czardas – by Pugni?

I discovered this looking through the microfilm of Pugni’s Théolinda, ou le Lutin de la Vallée (1860) [click this link if that one doesn’t work], a ballet by the choreographer and violinist Arthur St Léon.  Look on page 29-30 of Act 1, and you’ll see great unmistakeable chunks of the Coppélia czardas, including so many stylistic particulars that it can only indicate that borrowing has taken place. My guess is both Delibes and Pugni were borrowing from a third source, introduced to them by St Léon, who was the person who had told Delibes that the ‘Thème Slave’ he’d heard on his travels was a folk song. The borrowing is so obvious, and so extraordinary, I can’t believe that I can be the first or only person to notice it.  My hope is that sooner or later I’ll come across the original composer of this czardas, as others have done for the Hungarian dance No. 5  supposedly by Brahms, but in fact by Kéler.

Pedantry note: Czardas/csárdás

I originally wrote this post using the correct Hungarian spelling csárdás, but I’ve changed it to czardas more or less throughout. This spelling is more common, even though it’s wrong and archaic, partly as a result of it being spelled like that in the score of Coppélia, and in the famous Czardas by Monti.  I’ve retained the wrong spelling to make it easier for search engines to pick up this post.

Musical surprises #25: A bit of Tooting history

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My grandfather's shop in Garratt Lane, late 1930s, I think.

Happy Christmas! Today’s revelation is not strictly a musical surprise, except that it vaguely concerns me and I’m a musician. But it’s quite surprising all the same, and I love it. I came across this old photograph of my paternal grandfather’s cornchandler’s shop at 759 Garratt Lane a couple of years ago.  The site doesn’t exist anymore as it was bombed in the blitz, but I believe it was at the junction with Franche Court Road, opposite Summerstown. Isn’t it slightly weird that after being born in Bournemouth, moving to London, and over 20 years of adult life, working my way down a succession of residences on the Northern line, I should end up where I live now, which – entirely by chance and without knowing about it  – is only a few minutes walk from where my grandfather had a shop?

If there’s a point it’s this: this Advent Calendar has often been about pointing out the realities behind abstractions, ideals and false unities in music.  So it’s rather appropriate that I point out the realities behind the author of these posts.  I rather like the idea that this blog, however metaphysical at times,  is just the ramblings, from Tooting,  of the grandson of a Tooting grocer.

Musical surprises #24: What Rumanian dances sound like without the Bartók

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I love Bartók’s Rumanian Dances, and indeed, I’ve just recorded them with the violinist Gillon Cameron on the album  After Class 2. But I was gobsmacked when I heard my favourite band, the Romanian Taraf de Haïdouks playing them as they might have been before they got turned into 20th century concert repertoire, or ‘re-gypsifying’ them as it’s called elsewhere. Enjoy.If you’re a speed junkie, the best bits are from 6’35” onwards.

Musical surprises #23: Vauxhall, Strauss & Tchaikovsky

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Vauxhall Gardens Estate. The name lives on, if not the splendour.

Although the light and popular dance rhythms of Johann Strauss II seem a sociocultural world away from the ‘classical’ Tchaikovsky, they’re not. It’s our own snobbery that obscures the connections in the music, for what is Tchaikovsky most famous for if not the Waltz of the Flowers, and the waltzes from Sleeping Beauty and Swan Lake?

But there is a physical and geographical connection too.  For in 1865, Strauss – who was a regular guest conductor at summer concerts at the Pavlovsk station in Russia – conducted the first public performance of Tchaikovsky’s Characteristic Dances.

At a station? Well yes. The station at Pavlovsk was no ordinary railway terminus – it had been fashioned on the magnificent Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens in London, and included a concert hall in formal gardens, amongst other Imperial extravagances.   And it’s that connection with Vauxhall that, to this day, gave rise to the Russian word for ‘train station’ – vokzal. By the strangest of coincidences, I’m now off to Vauxhall to play for class for the Strauss Gala.

And as someone has wittily pointed out since reading this post, Tchaikovsky would have been very at home in today’s Vauxhall, which is gayer than Old Compton Street.

Musical surprises #22: There’s a psychopomp in my barcarole

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Standing on bridges makes me all spiritual and contemplative. A psychopompic moment if ever there was one.

Next time you get to a slow bit of a ballet where there’s something a bit wafty and barcarole-ish in 6/8, look out for a psychopomp.

A psychopomp, explains the scholar Rodney Edgecombe in a fascinating article ‘can be either a spiritual guide or a figure who conducts the soul from the zone of this life and the putative next.’ (2001, p.259).  And to illustrate the point, he cites a host of examples from opera and ballet where barcaroles underscore or signify the transition between two worlds, including the opening tableau of La Sylphide (1832), the ballabile of the Wilis in Act II of Giselle (1841), the beginning of the ‘Kingdom of the Shades’ from La Bayadère (1877), the ‘Panorama’ in Act II of Sleeping Beauty (1890) and the opening of Act II of The Nutcracker (1892). You can add several others to this list, including the ‘Rose Adage’ from Sleeping Beauty, ‘Prayer’ from Coppélia, the ‘White Swan’ pas de deux from Act II of Swan Lake, to name but a few.

So when Drosselmeyer takes Clara to the Kingdom of Sweets at the beginning of Act II of The Nutcracker, it’s not chance that the music is a barcarole, and it’s not chance that we sense we’re going on a journey. It’s part of a web of references in music that have a textual significance for us, even if we don’t recognise it consciously. What I love about articles like this, and books like Raymond Monelle’s (see yesterday’s post) is that they tease out the text beneath ostensibly ‘absolute’ music, and uncover a much more interesting world.

Edgecombe, R.S. (2001) On the Limits of Genre: Some Nineteenth-Century Barcaroles. 19th Century Music Vol. 24 No. 3 (Spring 2001) pp. 252-267. Get article from JSTOR here

Bits of this post were first published in the Dance Gazette a few years ago. I’m not lazy, it’s just that I still find it interesting.

Musical surprises #21: If you want to play for children’s ballet, study semiotics

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The Musical Topic

Thanks to the musical semiotician Raymond Monelle and his wonderful book The Sense of Music, I am happily aware that there is a concept in music of a horse which is unique to music – it’s not a representation of a horse, but a musical idea, a musical topic. Hear a certain kind of 6/8, and you think ‘horse’. It’s not really horsey, of course. There is an important distinction between the sound of real horses in music (like in The Surrey with the Fringe on Top or Horsey Horsey Don’t You Stop) and the cheval écrit or literary horse, noble horse, horse as musical text.

The musical horse is usually noble and male (though dysphoric women on horses like the Valkyries are another topic), and gallops along in a certain kind of 6/8 which then becomes, of itself, a musical topic which you find littering the musical field of the 19th century. And it is quite definitely a 19th century topic, part of the Romantic landscape, so to speak. Anyway, Monelle devotes 22 pages of the book to the subject (pp. 45-67), and I can’t do justice to the extraordinary depth and detail of his work, so if you’re interested, get the book or read a section of it on Google books.

I was lucky enough to discover The Sense of Music just when I was desperately struggling to find horsey music (in the musical sense) for picked-up gallops in a dance syllabus I was working on.  (Interestingly, the fact that the noble horse is a 19th century topic might explain why picked-up gallops are still de rigeur in children’s ballet – it’s a throwback to the topic of the literary horse in the Romantic era. Who knows.)

Here was a person who had wrestled with precisely the same questions as I had, albeit for different reasons, and here, oddly enough, was more useful information about selecting music for dance classes than I have ever read anywhere else.  I rushed to buy a related book by Monelle called The Musical Topic: Hunt, Military & Pastoral which goes into extraordinary detail about the those topics in music, and the social, cultural and historical context that gave rise to them.

And to celebrate this bizarre connection between semiotics and picked-up gallops, if you look really closely in the DVD extras of the RAD Pre-Primary in Dance & Primary in Dance where musical co-producer Andrew Holdsworth & I are talking about the process of creating the music for that syllabus, you’ll see that I had placed a copy of The Musical Topic on the MIDI keyboard in the background.

Musical surprises #20: The end of Sleeping Beauty is a French song

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That’s not the whole surprise, because it’s a fairly well-known fact that the big tune in the apotheosis of The Sleeping Beauty is an old French song, the pre-revolutionary national anthem, no less,  from the 16th century called Vive Henri IV .

Gerard McBurney on “Vive Henri IV” in Discovering Music 

The reasons for this are discussed by Russian music specialist and composer Gerard McBurney in a terrific programme  for the BBC’s Discovering Music series on the music and context of Sleeping Beauty (last broadcast on 15th September 2002 on Radio 3, it was once available from the BBC’s Discovering Music archive, but sadly no longer. Shame – it’s one of the best things you’ll ever hear about the piece, and one of the best things the BBC have on Tchaikovsky ).  The inclusion of Vive Henri IV and all the other neo-Versailles stuff was, he suggests, aimed at flattering the right-wing Alexander III, who was eventually paying for this production, as head of the Imperial theatres. Listen to the whole section if you’re interested (from around 39:00 minutes onward) but here’s the gist:

By the late 18th century that tune was virtually the Bourbon national anthem, and by the  19th century,  it had become the hymn of the legitimist, monarchist absolutist cause everywhere. In other words, it’s the torch song of the far right.[Source: BBC R3]

Vive Henri IV as air parlant in French theatre music

This is echoed by the ballet music historian Marian Smith  in  Ballet and Opera in the Age of Giselle (p. 108). She points out that it was already a tradition in Paris to use this tune as an ‘air parlant’ in French ballets when scenarists wanted to convey the grandiose.  One example is the ballet Acis et Galathée from 1805.  (The air parlant was a device from 19th century French ballet where the tune of a well-known song would be used in a scene, so that the unsung words – which the audience would know – would convey the meaning of the action. The idea that there was a golden age when everyone understood mime is a fiction – it was aided along by devices like this).

So there it is – a curiously French, and curiously anachronistic apotheosis to a late 19th century Russian ballet.  I suppose it would be like going to the opera house in 2010 to see a defilé choreographed  to Land of Hope and Glory — which in fact, does not seem so unlikely at all.