Film clips of ballet pianists playing for class are so rare. There are films (such as the World Ballet Day online classes) where pianists play for a class that is being broadcast, but that is quite a different thing. The pianists are usually already in place in their corner, expertly making the class work, the piano mic’d and mixed in with a mic feed from the teacher, so that you never hear what a class sounds like as a natural observer, from a particular corner of the room. You don’t see the moment the pianist walks into the studio, whether they have music with them or not, how they are greeted (if at all) by the teacher, or what kind of people they are when they are not playing the piano.
So it was great to find this short clip, (starting at 28:20—should start playing there automatically) in The Children of Theatre Street (1977) a feature length documentary, with Grace Kelly, about what is now called the Vaganova Academy.
The voiceover intones mournfully, “Maria Ioseyevna Pal’tseva has walked these halls for 40 years. Like Madam Frankopolo [?], she has become part of the fabric of the school. The dancers come and go, but Pal’tseva remains, going from class to class with her purse and her old bag of music.”
Meanwhile, Pal’tseva is filmed walking down the corridor; the camera shifts to behind the piano, and shows her ambling slowly towards it. There is an almost embarrassing wait—as if editing hadn’t been invented in 1977— while the pianist puts her “old bag of music” on the floor, and places her right foot on the sustain pedal almost before she has finished sitting down properly. And no wonder: without a second thought, she provides a tinkling flourish to accompany the entrance of the teacher into the room.
There then follows a short interaction where the teacher explains to Palt’seva what the exercise is, and what music she wants for it. It’s a noticeable contrast to the 2007 film about the young English dancer Henry Perkins who studied at the Bol’shoi, where the pianist was invisible, and just supplied music on demand as the teacher barked “AGAIN” repeatedly at his student.
Both may be fictions. I doubt whether such interactions ever happened in quite that way in real classes in 1977 (any more than they do now). Documentary makers seem to swing between portraying idealized forms of collaboration, or cherry-picking tense moments which they may even have induced themselves, so I am likewise cautious about drawing any conclusions about the status of the pianist in the Bolshoi documentary. But that’s precisely why I find these clips interesting. You have to unpick so many strands of fiction to get at any kind of truth, and to do so would involve a lot of difficult work.
In a previous post about the so-called “lyrical waltz” (a term sometimes used by some ballet teachers) I took a long time to come to the conclusion that perhaps “lyrical” in this instance is not so much a quality of the music, as of what may be done to it. The more I think about this, the more I am convinced of that explanation, and am enjoying developing the idea further by applying some theory to it.
I think that for the teacher who asks for a lyrical waltz, the boundaries between the properties of the music, and what it affords, are blurred. You could go further: music has only the properties that we assign to it, using whatever categories and terms we happen to bring to it; so for the teacher, if music affords lyrical movement, then the music itself is deemed to be lyrical. A nappy bucket, likewise, is so called for the things that it affords, or is commonly used for (washing nappies) but there is nothing inherently nappy-like about the bucket.
Think of music as a bucket, and it’s easier to see that there no such musical object as a waltz in the sense of something that has intrinsically waltz-like properties, but there are “waltz buckets”: pieces of music that you can fit the movements of waltzes to. This is much clearer with contemporary ballroom dancing, where the waltz-like qualities or propensities of music that you’ve hitherto only been able to hear as a ballad become evident when you see waltzing done to it, as in the example below from Strictly Come Dancing, where waltzing to Hallelujah points up the three-ness at one level of the metrical structure. Having said that, what happens on Strictly is so far removed from the practicalities of everyday ballet classes that it’s not a great example, frankly.
What confuses the issue is perhaps the fact that there are so many musical compositions called waltz that seem to “call forth” waltzing, as if it was something about the properties of the sounds themselves that did the calling-forth. But if you have ever stood unmoved and unmoving while some dance music played that seems to be animating people around you into joyful, seemingly spontaneous dancing, you’ll probably have to admit that enculturation is important (unless you’re the kind to say that there was something better about the waltz than there is about whatever is being played in clubs now).
Enter Tia DeNora, and theories of affordance and perception
This has been articulated theoretically by the music sociologist Tia DeNora in After Adorno (2003), in relation to music, obviously, rather than nappy-buckets:
Music comes to afford things when it is perceived as incorporating into itself and/or its performance some property of the extra-musical, so as to be perceived as ‘doing’ the thing to which it points. (DeNora 2003, p. 57)
Earlier, she has explained this with reference to marching music:
Music may also afford the imaginative projection of bodily movement, as when one ‘pictures’ a type of movement when hearing a type of music. The example of marching music serves to illustrate these points. On hearing march music one may (but not automatically—see below) be reminded of or begin to imagine—to ‘picture’ marching. One may, in other words, become motivated or aroused in relation to a type of agency—marching—to a particular movement style, and one associated with a particular set of institutional practices and their particular agent-states, such as bodily regulation, coordination, and entrainment. One may ‘become’ (produce one’s self as) a ‘marcher”—that is, on the occasion of music heard, one may adapt one’s self to its perceived properties and so become, via the music, a type of agent, in this case, one imbued with march-like, militaristic agency. (DeNora 2003, p. 47)
A ballet teacher asking for a lyrical waltz is a rather strange reversal of this, in that she is in effect saying “Play me a piece of music in waltz rhythm that will enable me to picture myself moving lyrically, so that when I hear it, I and the class will then be motivated or aroused to move in that way.” Or perhaps, more accurately, the subtext is: “I have been told by my teachers that if I use the term lyrical waltz, you will play me a piece of music in waltz rhythm that will enable me to picture myself moving lyrically” etc.
The trouble is, the teacher usually does not know how to define a lyrical waltz in terms that have any meaning or currency for musicians, and cannot cite or sing any examples of one; but like Justice Potter Stewart and hard-core pornography, she will know it when she hears it. (In Jacobellis v. Ohio, 1964, giving his reasons for deciding that something should not be considered hard-core pornography, the judge said, in a statement which has since become famous, “I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description; and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it. . . “).
Implications for teaching
It is things like this that make playing for ballet so wretchedly difficult at times. At the same time, trying to unpick the problems theoretically fascinates me, particularly when this has implications for the way that music is taught or thought about in ballet training. For example, the teacher who says “Can’t you hear it in the music?” may be barking completely up the wrong tree. DeNora speaks (in the quotation above) about institutional practices and movement styles, and how the conventional association of particular music with such practices is what enables us to perceive (or perhaps tricks us into perceiving) a certain piece of music as “march” music, or whatever. That being the case, what will enable the student to “hear” music as lyrical is to do lyrical movement to it, in the style and manner encouraged by the teacher. The music alone holds no clues, no “information” on its own.
To a limited extent—and I’d be interested to know if the experiment could be repeated elsewhere with the same results—my late colleague Holly Price and I discovered this in relation to teaching about “dance rhythms.” You could chalk-and-talk til you were blue in the face about the properties and characteristics of dance rhythms from a musical point of view (e.g. the waltz is in three four time, the polka has this rhythm, the hornpipe has these characteristics), but it was much more effective to just get a class of students to polka, waltz or hornpipe or whatever, around the studio for a couple of minutes to the relevant kind of music.
The lyrical waltz and the not-so-grand allegro
An associated problem, though, is that both music and movement are adaptable. You can do the same movement to different kinds of music, and the same music will fit different kinds of movement. Only in the last few weeks—and I’ve been playing for class for over 30 years— I realised that a certain kind of grand allegro is ideally accompanied by the kind of (wait for it) lyrical, 6/8 music that opens the pas de trois in Swan Lake, or the entrée of Odalisques from Le Corsaire.
The pas de trois from Act I of Swan Lake by Tchaikovsky.
The entrée of the “Odalisques” in Le Corsaire. It’s more allegro than it looks
I realised about Odalisques because I was playing for a repertoire class where the teacher explained to the students the amount of energy and dynamics they needed to put into the movement, which made me realise how “allegro-y” it was, contrary to the way it looks on the page and feels under the fingers. As for Swan Lake, this was a rare example of a teacher (the wonderful Romayne Grigorova) citing the prime example of what she was after.
In both cases, the music may not seem to be dynamically the equivalent of grand allegro (which is the test that I think a lot of us ballet pianists would apply) but it affords a certain kind of grand allegro, and the music would be associated in the minds and bodies with the choreography customarily done to it. It seems counterintuitive at first glance, but it makes sense: this is about doing energetic movements with grace and lyricism (there, I said it again).
It’s been a bit of a week for finding things. I had a lovely email from a visitor to my site following the last few posts, asking if I knew where to find a piano score of La forêt enchantée which provides some of the material for the Grand pas des éventails in Le Corsaire (see clip below—it’s not in all Corsaires). The only one I knew of, from the wonderful www.balletmusic.ru site, was incomplete, and frustratingly, it’s some of the best bits that are missing. But it niggled me: I had had a score of the waltz once, with all the pages intact—I’ve even recorded it—so like a dog with a bone, I pursued it. Sure enough, here it is, a complete, downloadable piano reduction of La forêt enchantée from the Sergeyev collection at Harvard. As if that’s not enough, it’s got the dedication “to my dear friend Nikaloi Grigorovich Sergeyev from Riccardo Drigo, St Petersburg, 20.1.1910” on the inside title page, in the most elegant cyrillic script.
The Pygmalion solo
The beginning of the “Pygmalion” variation: click the score to download
There’s a solo from the Grand pas des éventails (at 13’15” in the video clip above) from another ballet, Pygmalion that I just happen to have done a piano reduction of. It’s short and sweet, and you can’t use it for much else except the variation, because it soon hares off into a coda, but it’s rather nice. And I can guarantee someone will ask you to play it and there won’t be a score anywhere in sight.
If I ever get to play what I think of as “a waltz” for class (you know, the rollicking, flowing, swaying kind that has a pendulum swing in it that propels you forward without ever getting tired) , I mentally crack open the champagne. Ninety percent of the time in class, you’re trying to find something that is waltz-like, but not exactly “a waltz.” I suspect the problem is that the waltzes we know from the concert repertoire were made more for ears than legs. I have rarely, if ever, found a suitable moment in a ballet class to play Léhar’s Lippen schweigen (“The Merry Widow Waltz”), yet that’s one of the first tunes that comes to mind when someone says “waltz.” Over ten years, many of the posts on this site have hovered around this topic in one way and another, to the extent that I’ve now created a page listing the “waltz problem” posts.
The sound of three heads turning
Much of the music you’re asked for in class has zen-like conundrums in the specifications. A colleague said he’d been asked by one teacher for a “melting march.” Sounds familiar: I tried to solve a similar problem with what I called a “chameleon-like March by Granados). Waltzes for multiple pirouettes are similarly taxing: you need something slow, but not too squidgy. Rhythmic, but with space for allowing more turns without sounding naff. Elastic and steppy for balancés, but then with three sharp beats that can signify three “heads” for a triple pirouette.
If there’s a model for the tune that can accommodate all this, then perhaps it’s the opening theme of Kaiserwalzer Op. 437 by Johann Strauss II:
But it doesn’t last long, and it’s played so often for classes, you can only use it sparingly.
That’s why Dvořák’s Prague Waltzes is such a find. Like the old slogan for Andrex toilet paper, it’s soft, strong, and very, very long. If you’ll forgive the comparison, the design problems of pirouette music and toilet paper are not so dissimilar. Beats in waltz music need a softness combined with a tensile strength such that they can hold together and stretch without breaking, but also separate with a quick tug when you need them to. And here you have it: pages and pages of pirouette music that does all the right things (though I’ve made a few minor cuts to make it class-ready).
Prague Waltzes is a useful model of what “waltz” can mean. This composition is evidence that waltzes don’t just go “1 2 3 1 2 3” — there’s a whole world of varied accents and tempos and rhythms within a single phrase. Most significantly, in my view, there’s a lift/accent/length/weight, call it what you will, in the middle of the bar rather than beginning, and often a sense of direction towards the third beat, not the first; sometimes there are three separate gestural beats in a bar, not three subsumed into one. Prague Waltzes also provides many examples of how to vary and extend a waltz idea when you’re improvising.
I also love the title, having spent every 14 of the last 15 years playing for the International Ballet Masterclasses in Prague. It’s a city I will associate forever with ballet, playing for some of the best and nicest people in the ballet world. I wish i’d had this music for some of them, however, considering how many hours of pirouettes I must have played for.
Tempo for Prague Waltzes
I left the allegro vivace on this arrangement out of deference to the orchestral score, but to me this doesn’t sound right given what’s on the page, and so the metronome marking range is mine. I like the tempo that Jirí Belohlavek takes it with the Prague Symphony Orchestra (I also like to think they must know what they’re doing with this Czech music). For class, you could take it even slower, and pull it about in different ways as necessary. Belohlavek plays around with the tempo quite a lot for the sake of concert interest, but the opening sections are the kind of tempo which works well for a lot of pirouette exercises.
You’d think that if ballet teachers have a mental model of how a polonaise goes, this would be a distillation of all the polonaises they’d ever heard, the top of the bell curve, just as when you go to buy a door, you expect that the shop will have a selection of them that resembles your idea of what a door is, even if the panelling and materials are different. Polonaises like the teacher’s model should be a dime a dozen in the repertoire, you’d think.
But they’re not. As I’ve written elsewhere there’s hardly a polonaise in the ballet repertoire that you can play for class straight out of the box. They have all kinds of little annoyances in them—2 bar fills, 10 bar phrases, four bar phrases, 5-phrase sections. They’re too slow, or too fast, too lyrical, or too complex rhythmically. So you hunt again, and find another breed of polonaise that, if it was a food product, would have the ominous word flavour on the label. Polonaise flavour. Contains polonaise flavouring. A teacher wrote to me recently, asking why it was that the grand battement on a polonaise she’d tried out for class didn’t work—she wanted to cross-phrase it so the leg went up on 1, 3 and 5 across a two-bar phrase (i.e. 1 2 3 4 5 6—a hemiola, in musical terms). She knew exactly what she was doing, but it didn’t work. I wasn’t there, but I would put money on the reason being that the pianist used a polonaise-flavoured room spray, rather than the eau de parfum.
Triple meter and the polonaise —(trigger warning: meter theory, including some hemiola)
Metrically speaking, the eau de parfum of the ballet teacher’s polonaise is one in which all the beats of the bar are equal, so that if you want to cross-phrase, hemiola fashion, you can. The classic case from the pianist’s repertoire is the opening section of Chopin’s A major “military polonaise” Op. 40 No. 1, or the final polonaise in Tchaikovsky’s Suite No. 3 (used in Balanchine’s Theme and Variations). But many polonaises aren’t like this. They tend, like the middle section of the Chopin polonaise I just mentioned, towards a kind of unequal meter, with the first part twice as long as the second (2+1). Even if you try to play with metronomic accuracy, there’s going to be a pull towards unevenness, either on the part of the performer or listener.
This is a much bigger issue than it might appear on the surface. In Beating Time & Measuring Music in the Early Modern Era ,Roger Grant devotes a chapter to “a renewed account of unequal triple meter” which sets out the problem. Somewhere in the 16th century, triple meter became “grounded in a basic inequality.” Beating duple time consisted of an equal lowering and raising of the hand, whereas triple time involved a lowering (i.e. a downbeat) of double the length of the upbeat. In this form, “triple meter was an unequal meter, similar in nature to the unbalanced meters in five or seven with which we are familiar in the twenty-first century” .
Now get this:
In theoretical writings of the past forty years, however, triple meter no longer garners special treatment. It has become, for the most part, an equivalent of duple meter with different cardinality (that is, a different number of beats per measure). In these theories, triple meter is an isochronous meter—all of its parts are equal in length. This is the result of recent scholarship’s heavy theoretical investment in the properties of equal division and graduated hierarchy. .
Although Grant is here comparing theoretical perspectives, as a ballet pianist, you see this played out all the time in practice, and the polonaise problem I outlined above can be analysed in precisely these terms. The teacher has a conception of triple meter—in the polonaise, at least—in which the 3/4 bar is an isochronous meter, i.e. three equal beats. A lot of music in 3/4 isn’t like this. There is an unequal ebb and flow in the bar, a proportion of 2:1. Even if the pulse you’re playing to is even, the rhythm of the music draws you into this pattern, so that if you’re trying to cross-phrase your grands battements, the music pulls in another direction. Nonetheless, there are some polonaises which are examples of isochronous triple meter, and Tchaikovsky, when he’s polonaising, tends towards this pattern. The trouble is, most of them aren’t good for class for one reason or another (including overfamiliarity if you’re playing for a company).
Enter Nápravník, on an isochronous triple meter
This one by Nápravník is one of the rare pieces I’ve found in years of searching that comes close to the model of the ballet teacher’s polonaise without sounding like it’s been knocked together out of two-by-fours and MDF. Czech by birth, Eduard Nápravník was principal conductor at the Mariinsky Theatre, and conducted many of Tchaikovsky’s works, including the first performance of the 1st piano concerto, and the posthumous performance of the Pathètique. At the double bill premiere of Iolante and The Nutcracker, Nápravník conducted the opera, Drigo the ballet.
The date of Nápravník’s opera Dubrovsky, 1895, suggests that if there’s any influence, it must have been from Tchaikovsky to Nápravník. But with Tchaikovky’s documented respect for Czech composers—he “unreservedly praises Saint-Saëns, Delibes, Massenet, Grieg, Svendsen, Dvořák, and in the latter’s train Zdeněk Fibich, Karel Bendl, Karel Kovařovic, and Josef Bohuslav Foerster” and for Nápravník, it’s not inconceivable that perhaps some of the influence flowed in the other direction.
Like so many other polonaise composers, Nápravník doesn’t write in blocks of 4 x 8 bar phrases, so I’ve had to cut it in places, and double up a four-bar phrase in another to make it usable for class. It was very hard to decide how to do this without committing a crime against music, but I think it’s worth it. Some of the cuts and repeats feel criminal to me, but I think of all the times in real life productions where choreographers have cut or repeated, and once you’ve heard it a couple of times, you get used to it. Cuts, like murder, get easier after the first time.
I haven’t simplified the arrangement, as if the exercise is slow, you might be grateful of having something to play while you wait for the next beat to arrive. There’s no getting away from it, polonaises are just difficult to play, particularly this kind. There’s a rather lovely trio section in the middle which has echoes of one of the servant girls’ chorus (“Dyevitsy krasavitsy”) in Onegin. Given thatNápravník conducted the first performance of that opera, and would have known it well, the similarity is perhaps not surprising.
I’ve just had an email from a teacher, asking me what I understand by the term “Lyrical Waltz.” Short answer, I don’t understand anything by it, but the long answer is that I’m rather fascinated by how a term like this can gain such currency over a long time, without apparently having much meaning.
Lyrical waltz: a potted personal history
The first time I heard the term “lyrical waltz” was when I started work at the RAD back in 1986. I think it was something that teachers had been told was a meaningful musical term to use to pianists. I used to improvise waltzes that started with a dotted quarter note + three eighth-note pattern (as in the Sleeping Beauty lilac fairy attendants example below). I soon ran out of ideas. I think the reason I associated this pattern with “lyrical” was because somewhere in a syllabus book there was an exercise that had “lyrical waltz” as a tempo indication, and that’s roughly how the music went.
Lilac fairy attendants from Sleeping Beauty (Tchaikovsky). When I hear “lyrical waltz” I think of this rhythmic pattern of dotted quarter note + three eighth notes. But I’m not convinced that’s good enough.
What—if anything—is a lyrical waltz?
Over the years, I have tried to work out what, if anything, a “lyrical waltz” is in musical terms, but have only come up with more questions.
Does it mean something that has the quality of a song? That doesn’t really work, because there are plenty of songs that have a bombastic quality.
Does it have a melody that is song-like, rather than being motif-based like the Act 1 waltz in Swan Lake, or the opening of waltz of the flowers in Nutcracker, where you can hear the composer at work, rather than the singer. However, as soon as you start singing these tunes, they have a song-like quality, they’re singable. Back to square one.
Does it mean something that has more eighth-note motion than 1-in-a-bar feel? Not an infallible criterion, because there are 1-in-a-bar waltzes which could be described as lyrical, and eighth-note ones which aren’t.
Does it just mean slow? I don’t think so, because teachers who have ever asked for this didn’t (I think) want something ponderous
Does it mean something where the melody takes precedence over the accompaniment, i.e. something like La plus que lente by Debussy? Up to a point, but if teachers use the word “waltz” at all, I presume they’re expecting more rhythmic predictability than this.
Lyrical waltz—a pedagogical category only?
By “pedagogical category” I mean a term that has arisen from a teaching context, but has little relation to the world outside, but has somehow stuck. Whoever started using it may have had a particular waltz in mind, like the “Lyrical Waltz” of Shostakovich, from which they extrapolated a category, without giving it much thought. I think this happens a lot—where people like a single tune, not realising that what they like about it is particular, not generic. Take La cumparsita which people have sometimes used as a generic template for “tango” — when it’s about the only tango that goes like that, and in fact, was never a tango in the first place, but a march. As an illustration of this in practice, a colleague told me of a class where the teacher had sung a tune while she marked the exercise, and then said “But don’t play that. Play something similar.” You guessed it: after a few try-outs, she said “You know what, just play what I sang.”
Incidentally, this is the opposite of that odd, ballet-only scenario where a teacher will ask for “The same thing” by which they don’t mean literally the same thing, but something that is in metre, tempo, style and feel the same, without being, you know, the same. This is where the everyday German distinction between das Gleiche and dasselbe is useful. There might be an interesting intersection here between musicology and everyday ballet class practice. In Music, Imagination and Culture (1991), Nicholas Cook writes of the tendency to “hear works as individuals rather than as exemplars of a type” (p. 147) and that this is a “defining principle of the aesthetic attitude,” citing Dahlhaus’s Analysis and Value Judgement (1983, pp. 13-14). In my experience, ballet pianists are much more attuned to attuned to what dance forms are as a genre than classically trained musicians. Ask the latter for “a polonaise” and they’ll play an exemplar, of which they probably only know a couple of the Chopin compositions, without being aware of the things that make it a polonaise in the first place.
Lyrical waltz—or little waltz?
One teacher I play for often asks for “A little waltz” and for some reason, I know exactly what she means, though it could also be the tone of voice and gesture that conveys the idea. “Little” to me here suggests something in moderate tempo, moderate volume, not bombastic, not grand, with a smooth melody line, perhaps like the Tchaikovsky E flat major waltz Op. 39 , or the Little Waltz by Teresa Carreño. A piano piece, rather than an orchestral number reduced for piano. A miniature. Little is a more productive and meaningful term for me than lyrical, though I’m still not convinced it helps. I’m also referring mentally to particular pieces that have an overall quality elicited in performance more than composition.
Lyrical—just a name, rather than a category?
I searched around for “lyrical waltz” on Google, and then for Valse Lyrique. Once you exclude Shostakovich or Sibelius, it’s not a huge list, so the idea that there was once a whole category of waltzes called “lyrical” is suspect (though you’ll find quite a few of them on ballet pianists’ albums, which supports my theory that it’s a pedagogical term, not a real-life one).
In the US Library of Congress Catalog of Copyright Entries 1945 (Music) New Series Vol 40 Pt 3 No 10 there are more compositions in the index with the word “Valse” in the title than “waltz,” and only a handful with the term “lyric.” When you look at the list of adjectives associated with “valse,” (see below) apart from lyrique including erotic, beige, parfumée, you begin to wonder whether any of them have much meaning, except as a way of flogging a generic composition as if it might be particular. Perhaps lyrical is doing the work of organic, natural, new, advanced, healthy, free-from! in food-labelling. If we’re fooled by food labels, I’m sure we can be taken in by sheet music covers.
Extract from the Catalog of Copyright Entries (Music) 1945, compositions with the title “Valse”
Postscript: Is “a lyrical waltz” something to do with the body, not music?
Once I’d written this, I began to wonder whether the term “lyrical” has some purchase with dance teachers because of the genre of lyrical dance, in which case maybe it means “the kind of music I can do emotionally charged slow bendy dance to.” That opens the field up more, without the need to get too metrical-technical about the music.
What a difference an e makes: the difference between a grand waltz and a grande valse
Ballet teachers often ask for a “grande valse” or a “grande waltz” or a “big waltz” for grand allegro, probably as a result of someone telling them to do so on a teacher training course, but to be honest, it’s a misleading and much misunderstood term. It’s clear from the way that many teachers make a kind of Popeye-flexing-his-biceps gesture as they say “grande valse” that by grande they mean something with oomph, or butch, or—to use a phrase I haven’t heard for years—to give it some welly.
But the grande in grande valse in compositional terms refers to the scale and nature of the work (i.e. long and discursive) rather than its dynamics or capacity to be used for big jumps. And there’s the problem, because when composers write large-scale works, they usually introduce contrast, interest, variation, symphonic-style development, the unexpected, including changes of speed, and the playful expansion of melodic material. For that reason, many of the pieces in the concert repertoire called grande valse won’t be that useful for ballet class, given that what is needed is a succession of 16-count phrases of similar dynamics for each group of dancers as they come across the room. Composers of grandes valses don’t last long before the temptation kicks in to try some canonic imitation or rhythmic dissonance over a pedal point. If you’re trying to do grand allegro, or play for it, this is often more of an annoyance than an interesting feature. A notable exception is Chopin’s grande valse op. 18 No. 1, which has a lot of usable sections in it—but on the other hand, it’s not very “grande” in terms of tempo and oomph.
Tcherepnin’s Grande valse: the best bits
Tcherepnin is unfortunately no exception to the general rule (incidentally, it should really be Cherepnin—the ‘T’ comes from French transliteration, where the T is needed to make the “ch” sound, otherwise it would be pronounced “Sherepnin”; Chaikovsky, a.k.a. Tchaikovsky is another example). No sooner has he stated his big tune, than he begins to take it apart, like a dog pulling at a lead while you’re trying to head straight through the park. Depending on the exercise, there might be times when this can work, and in principle, If you’re going to have 10 minutes of grand allegro, much nicer to be able to play stuff that develops and changes than keep repeating yourself. For that reason, I originally intended to transcribe the whole waltz: it’s wonderful. However, I had to keep cutting and cutting until there were only two pages left. In grand allegro, you can’t suddenly drop from fortissimo voluptuousness into the coy experiment in the example below. It’s an example of what Christopher Hampson once called being “musical” in a pejorative sense (see earlier post on “Being too musical“). The grande valse concert repertoire is littered with them, which is fine if you’re listening rather than dancing.
Tcherepnin giving in to the temptation to be ‘too musical’
However, the first couple of pages of this is great for a certain kind of travelling (rather than jumpy) grand allegro, and it’s wonderfully dramatic, wistful and film-scoreish in a similar vein to Geoffrey Toye’s 1934 Haunted Ballroom waltz .
Listen to Tcherepnin’s Grande Valse from Le Pavillon d’Armide
Many of the Youtube classical music links I post eventually disappear for copyright reasons, so listen while you can.
I think I only have about three of these in my repertoire, which is why it was high time I got another. The way that some ballet teachers mark adages, you’d think the world was just full of voluptuous music that went “and one and a two and a.” I guess my worst fear is when you’re thinking of what to play, you settle on something fairly plain that will work, and then the teacher does that inclined head thing, gives you a knowing smile, and says “Something inspiring.”You have to hope they don’t add “…for a change”. This is the stuff of nightmares, because it usually wipes out what you’d decided to play (which is another reason not to decide what to play until the last minute. You never know what tempo or adjective is going to hit you in the few nanoseconds before you play the first note of the introduction).
This aria from Rusalka is just about perfect. The tune really does go “one and a two and a” so there’ll be no fumbling about while the class finds the beat, and half way through, it goes all Maria Callas. I’m afraid I’ve had to do inexcusable metrical surgery on the first part, leaving out a whole 8 bar phrase in order to make it regular, but it’s hard to hear the joins unless you know the aria really well.
You have to have heard this before trying to translate it into piano music. The opening muted strings are hard to reproduce on a piano, and you have to do a lot of work to get the tune out on top, but If you’re lucky, you won’t have to fill it out with semiquavers, though that’s a possibility if you don’t have a very good piano or nice acoustics.
Watching this video is a rather fascinating lesson in how to play for adage well. Listen to the elastic, free, fluid vocal line in the “chorus” bit, and look how the harp accompanies it with almost metronomic rhythmic precision. It must be really precise, because in fact, the last semiquaver that you hear in the bar (part of a single group in my piano reduction) is not the harp (which is silent on the last semiquaver of the bar), but the last note of the pizzicato string figure (quaver, quaver, semiquaver semiquaver) that accompanies the harp.
Pianists tend to be “expressive” and pull the timing around in the bar, but for adage you need to choose your moments very carefully. To provide the right kind of support for a dancer who is doing the equivalent of the vocal line, you have to be as rhythmically solid as that harp and those strings, but at the same time hint at the elasticity of the vocal line. It’s something like the Chopinesque rubato where the accompaniment remains steady while the right hand floats free, but somehow conceptually different. Hard to put into words, but easy to see in this clip.
I’ve put this in “Spades” (Adage) because it’s quite definitely an Adage (see here for an explanation), but on the other hand, it’s about as truly triple metre as metre gets, which is common in some Czech music. Yet more proof that “three” is a big subject in music: so many ways to be triple.
Organizing music for ballet class: where to put stuff, and where to find it again?
I’ve had a blog post brewing for years on the topic of organizing music for ballet class, but I’m glad to see that someone has saved me the job. Trevor Hewer’s The best way to organize music for free ballet class sums upthe problems, but he’s also got a nice picture of a folder with coloured tabs. For the blog post I never wrote, I wanted to collect pictures of people’s folders and discuss their approach to categories and ordering. It’s a fascinating topic.
I agree with all Trevor’s points – memorization seems the best way to me, because sometimes things work for reasons that you can’t categorize. Conversely, once you start categorizing, you build boundaries around the objects you’ve categorised. As I’ve written about before, time signatures (for example) can blind you (deafen you) to the possibility of hearing something in 12/8 as a waltz, or a waltz as being effectively 12/8 or 4/4 with triplets. The other day I got myself out of two difficult corners when I suddenly realised I could use a tango instead of a slow march, and a tarantella instead of a quick one. The less you know in these circumstances, the better, because you don’t rule out things on the basis of their category. I also found that as much as I like ForScore on my iPad, I find it very difficult and time consuming to catalogue my music on it – and it would take me forever to do it well; and as Trevor points out, “extreme ease of adding new music means less emotional connection with it” — quite. What I’ve found with my own “year of ballet playing cards” project is that the act of choosing, inputting, arranging and practising and blogging about each piece embeds it much better in my memory. You have to love your repertoire into practice.
None of this makes the problem of categorization go away, however. You still have to categorize your memory, or find ways to deliberately overrule it. Sometimes, when I’m stuck, I think of music titles beginning with a letter of the alphabet, or in a certain key; or I think of a word or word-type (songs about love, or food, or places). Sometimes, a particular teacher will get repertoire out of me that I’d forgotten about, and I couldn’t tell you why. Some miniscule difference in the way a teacher marks, or what you know about them, or the way they interact with you. More worryingly, some teachers seem to elicit the same narrow repertoire from me every time, and I have to find ways to avoid the rut.
The thing about memorization is that it potentially allows you random access, whereas a book requires you to think about order and category, titles, subtitles, genres, and so on. I had to make decisions about it several times in my previous job. One of the things I learned is that if anyone else is going to use your system, your plan has to align as best it can with the way that the user thinks about the topic, otherwise it will never get used, or will fail.
String and categories
It’s interesting to see how supermarkets deal with the same problem. For example, the other day I helped a woman in Wilkinson’s who couldn’t find a plain ball of string anywhere. She’d looked without success in “household” (where you’d think it might be), she’d settled for a ball of overpriced, fancy, “hobby” string in the toy section (for making necklaces and so on). I eventually found what she was looking for (plain string, 50p a ball) in the stationery area, on the packing and parcel materials shelves. We had to try to understand the “mind” of the shop in order find it.
Categorizing music is no different: what are the chances of someone else working out where you have put a piece of music? If someone else has devised the system, you have to be able to understand their mind and their culture in order to retrieve an object. Trevor makes a good point – you might as well put your repertoire in alphabetical order, since the thing you’re most likely to remember is the title.
But that only gives you one chance of finding it – if you don’t know the title, you’ll have to go through all your library piece by piece. The best chance you have is to assign multiple categories to each one, so that you and others have several chances of finding what you want. On different days you might want the same piece for different reasons: because it sounds French; because it has a long anacrusis; because it’s in 3/4; because the teacher likes it; because you didn’t play it last week; because it’s in E flat and in a related key to what you’re playing right now; because you can adapt the rhythm and feel easily to the exercise (which is an affordance somewhere between you, your imagination, the music, what you’re playing it on, and the exercise – it’s not a property of a sound object). I have a piece in mind right now, the Petite Valse by Joe Heyne which has been all of those things to me.
I came across faceted navigation in Paul Lamere’s “Social Tagging and Music Information Retrieval” (article, free to download) when I was writing about similar issues in training ballet teachers to deal with music (given that the immediately relevant categories of music-as-heard and danced-to are not the same as the notational ones, how do you start talking about music, especially when the music can be categorised in various ways?). Faceted navigation means being able to locate or select a piece of music by using any of a number of its attributes (“facets”) not all of which are “inherent’ in the sound at all, but cluster around the object through discourse, cultural conventions, use and personal experience.
I’m now writing about similar things in my thesis, but with the additional theme of boundary objects. Perhaps the strangest and most elusive thing about musical “objects” in the ballet world is in the context of use, a piece of music becomes “something I can do this to” where this is gestural, and does not become particularly musical (rhythmic, metric, dynamic, etc.) until the music is drawn into it. Try categorizing that.
Although the “anxious ballet pianist” series is officially over, I’m adding one more post now, because I realised today that after thirty years of playing for class, I still often ask myself the same question: shall I play the same or different music for the other side of an exercise?
Sitting on the fence about music on the other side
Sitting on the fence about the “same or different music on the other side?” issue.
What’s made me think about it is that I’ve just played for a teacher that I first worked with maybe 28 years ago, who made me bristle (back then, that is) by saying “Please play the same thing on the second side” after one of the first exercises at the barre. I bristled for a long time, because variety was my shtick, and was what I believed you were supposed to aim for in class: avoid boredom and sameness at all costs (see previous post on fear of repetition). I remember crying into my beer with another teacher, who cheered me up by saying “But it always feels different on the other side anyway — it’s not the same thing.
That was 28 years ago. A few months ago, I played for that teacher again, and with the wisdom of experience, I remembered that he liked the same music on both sides, and so that’s what I did, without any bristling. Experience had also taught me that he was a highly respected teacher with a securely individual approach and style, and that he had known exactly what he was doing when he asked for the same music on both sides. Looking at him and his class again, I realised that I had been lucky to have the correction, because it had given me something to think about for thirty years: only problems generate solutions.
Playing for him again more recently, I reminded myself not to alternate at the barre, but this introduces another anxiety: I know why I’m repeating the same music, but the class doesn’t. Do they care? Does it matter? Will they think I’m dull, or lazy? Part of me thinks that nobody probably gives a damn, they’ve got other things to worry about. And particularly in this case, the exercises are hard enough that the music needs to be there to help, not distract.
“Same or different music for the other side” is a constant dilemma (literally, a choice between two unpleasant alternatives). In another class recently, after I’d played the same music for three groups in adage in the centre, I decided maybe I could do better, so I changed the music. The teacher (one of the most experienced and musical I know) stopped me and said something like “You’ve lost them. Play what you played before, they can’t find what they need in the music.”
Now that’s an even more difficult dilemma: what I was playing wasn’t great, but it at least had the virtue of familiarity after a couple of groups. Possibly, what I was going to play would have been better had I played it the first time round, but now it was too late: better the devil you know. It’s the wise choice, but it runs counter to the pervasive idea that progress and change are unquestionably a Good Thing.
From both sides now
The trouble is that there is no right or wrong about this issue: you just have to make a reasonable guess about what’s right in each situation, and risk getting it wrong. I probably got the idea that changing the music was a good thing because I learned my trade playing for syllabus classes where any diversion from the set music was a welcome relief. The teacher who said “It feels different on the other side” was right, and there are other occasions when changing the music has a positive effect. But there are other times when you have to let the music listen to the exercise, so to speak: when it’s new, difficult, or to achieve a very particular thing. As I’ve discovered, that might not only be with children: it can be at company class level as well, but you have to know when and where what is appropriate.
I got it wrong last week, I realised half way through pliés that the tiny rhythmic hint that the teacher had given in the marking was not just incidental or accidental, it was in fact exactly what she’d wanted. I changed the music to something more suitable halfway through the exercise, and she smiled and nodded at me. I felt great for a moment, and then thought “Why didn’t I just do that the first time around?” Was I clever to have sorted it mid-exercise, or stupid for not getting it right at the beginning? I don’t know. That’s another anxiety to add to the list.