Tag Archives: ballet class accompaniment

On-screen commentary from pianist Joshua Piper during YouTube ballet class


When I first learned to drive, I read a book about the police driving test, in which you had to do a “commentary drive,” which involves describing to the examiner (while you’re driving) what you are observing on the road ahead, explaining the decisions you’re making, the precautions you’re taking, and so on. I often think of this during ballet class, because as any ballet pianist will tell you, although we seem to “just” play when the exercise starts, there’s a whole series of observations, analyses and decision-making processes going on before we lay a finger on the keyboard, and then a dozen more as we’re actually playing, some of which are so quick as to seem unconscious and instantaneous. For the novice pianist trying to learn something about how to play for class, watching another pianist has limited use, because you don’t know why they’re doing what they do. Sometimes, they don’t know either, or have forgotten by the time class is over. That’s why the video below by ballet pianist Joshua Piper (aka heavypiano) is really useful: he’s filmed a real class, with him playing, put it on YouTube, and put a short text commentary over it, usually at the beginning and ends of exercises, so you can see why he’s doing what he’s doing. [If you can’t see the embedded video, click here to see it on YouTube]

He explains, for example, that at a certain point in the barre, the teacher likes a “less is more” approach to the music, so he holds back, avoiding too much subdivision, playing chords in light touches, which gives the dancers space to move, so to speak; elsewhere he talks about trying to maintain tempo, and create a feeling of ebb and flow, of introducing a bit of stride, but not too heavy. It’s a great lesson on making your repertoire stretch, too—adapting tunes according to the tempo and feel of the exercise, so that you only just realise by the end that you know the tune, but in a different form (I’m thinking here of his styling of Korobeiniki, a.k.a. the Tetris theme.

He emphasises that what’s happening in this class at times is fairly unusual: the teacher wants him to play quiet, thin, and spacious music for exercises that would often be accompanied by more robust, circussy stuff. But that’s why the video is so useful—it demonstrates how a particular pianist adapts his style to a particular teacher and the dancers, rather than making any claims that you can apply the same musical template to every ballet class in the world. It’s the necessity to adapt that is what makes the job difficult, but also rewarding. One of my favourite comments is where he says he’s trying to “imply round movement with my LH pattern” in ronds de jambe, an exercise that’s normally taken in 3/4, but which he’s playing in 4. Finding ways to trick people’s ears into thinking they’re hearing three when they aren’t is one of my tactics, too, as I’ve described in another post.

This is a great video, and Joshua Piper plays beautifully—but I also have to say he’s lucky to have this teacher, and that class (I’m guessing it’s Ballet Austin, but I’m not sure). There are other videos to be made, where the pianist—like a police driver explaining how he is going to manoeuvre a skidding car out of a muddy ditch while pursuing criminals— shows how they try to make the eternal fondu-tango-that-is-too-slow or the ronds-de-jambe-stirring-porridge-waltz still feel like music against the most challenging odds.

The more I watch and listen to this video, the more I love the way Joshua Piper plays, his repertoire, stylings, and commentary—and the video itself, too: it makes such a nice change to have a static, wide camera angle, and a focus on a good quality recording of the sound, rather than a body mic given to the teacher, and fetishistic close-ups of dancers’ feet and sweaty faces. Ballet on TV is so darn predictable. This video gives you a feel for the calm, peaceful concentration that you get in a ballet classes, and an idea of just how exposed and focal the music can be when you’ve got a teacher who isn’t screaming over the top of it.

Music in “Where Snowflakes Dance and Swear” by Stephen Manes


Where Snowflakes Dance, book by Stephen ManesI bought Where Snowflakes Dance and Swear when it first came out in 2011: I didn’t particularly want to read it (because I spend enough time in this world at work) but I couldn’t ignore it as a kind of ethnography of the ballet world that I was writing about. It was a good decision: unlike so many other authors of backstage views of the ballet world, Stephen Manes actually talks about music—the problems, what people play, the problems of hiring and marking up orchestral parts, how much it costs, and so on. 

For anyone who has ever had a problem with music publishers, copyright and licensing in the ballet world, pages 252-258 will probably be one of the first times you’ve seen your experience represented in a published book, with the exception of Matthew Naughtin’s Ballet Music: A Handbookwhich tells the story (and gives information) from the music librarian’s perspective. Even he, though, doesn’t get into the kind of gory embarrassing detail that Manes does, where a company has to do things that are on the grey, fuzzy margins of legal, in order to get by. Everything in these pages I had experienced myself, and was delighted and surprised to see that my troubles had been shared by others. You think you’re mad, criminal and incompetent until you realize it’s the craziness of music publishing that is the problem. 

I can’t think of another book or article that contains so much about everyday musical practice in the ballet world: what pianists play for class; the decision to use CD or piano for rehearsal; the embarrassing moment when you do a new work, and find that there’s no rehearsal score, so the company pianist has to do one. It’s just a shame that you have to trawl through the book looking for the references—the indexing could be improved so that it’s easier to find topics, rather than very granular references to particular people or ballets, but at least the references are in there somewhere: ethnographies of ballet often say little more than ‘classical music plays in the background’ and leave it at that, so this is a welcome change. 

Ballet pianists and company class

The author (see comment below) has reminded me of one of the biggest sections on the work of ballet pianists, on page 697-703, with detailed explanations from two company pianists, and their route into the profession. One ended up playing for the company “because they hated the class pianist” (p. 698), another started out when he was left to sink or swim in a class in Moscow—  “. . .there’s something about someone foreign yelling at you, screaming at you. . .” (p.700). Quite. We’ve all been there. But the balance in Manes’ writing is everything: despite the awfulness, there are compensations, and reasons why ballet pianists end up loving their job and staying in it. A lot of so-called “behind the scenes” writing on ballet musicians is nothing of the sort, because it’s commissioned and written under the auspices of the ballet companies themselves. 


Dotted around the book (and this is what prompted this post) are little references to music that to my mind, make a huge difference, not just to the evocation of the scenes that the author is describing, but to our knowledge of what music in the ballet world is like generally. The book may be specific to a time and place, but musically, it sounds very familiar: “A medley of ‘Stairway to Paradise,’ ‘Bidin’ my Time,’ and ‘Nice Work if You Can Get it’ played with strong emphasis on the beat accompanies a combination that involves what Otto calls ‘many’ turns.” (p. 44). Stretches are done to a Dvořák Slavonic Dance, and sit-ups to Carmen (p. 119); “Flashy jumps and big turns to Beethoven, Bach, “Be a Clown,” and “Meet Me in St. Louis” begin to lighten the mood of the room. (p. 505).  In a description of a rehearsal, Manes mentions that “The Merry Widow Waltz” wafts in from an adjacent classroom (p.173), prompting a momentary digression in the rehearsal to remember fondly the time the company did Ronnie Hynd’s ballet The Merry Widow.” It’s a lovely detail—it’s exactly the kind of thing that happens in rehearsal. In writing about ballet, there is usually so much emphasis on the hyperfocus and determination of dancers as elite athletes, that these little overhearings and spillages of music and memory usually go unmentioned.  

Judith Espinosa, the fishermen’s wives and the waltz


As allegro was about to begin during a ballet class yesterday, I started to smirk thinking about something I’d read in the fascinating The First 75 Years of the Academy, a book about the RAD from 1995. It was a reminiscence about the teaching methods of Judith Espinosa, who “spoke Cockney in the old Dickensian manner” (pronouncing the letter v as w, apparently), and was rarely seen without a cigarette. For those used to universal smoking bans, it’s hard to believe that this was probably in a ballet studio, but even I remember having an ashtray on the piano during company class. In addition to chain-smoking and speaking Dickensian cockney, she also shouted so loud that people feared for her vocal health. 

Put all these together, and now imagine the way that she set her choreographic “scenas” in class:

“You’re fishermen’s wives—you’re waiting on the beach for the boats, but there’s news that all the men have been drowned in a storm; you’re wild with grief. [To the pianist] We’ll have a waltz.” The First 75 Years of the Academy, p. 12

The style is hilarious, but what I was smirking at just as much was the familiarity—to anyone who’s played for class—of the abrupt return to musical mundanity with “we’ll have a waltz.” 


Ballet pianists on film


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. 

For more on this, see an earlier post on communication in ballet classes, featuring a great clip from Stepping Out. 



Tia DeNora, affordances, and more on the lyrical waltz


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.

Waltz buckets

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. 

A lyrical waltz? The pas de trois from Act I of Swan Lake

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

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). 


A year of ballet playing cards #54 (Red Joker): Odalisques from Le Corsaire

Fragment of Odalisques from Le Corsaire (sheet music)

Click on the image to download the file

It’s that time of year again, ballet summer schools season, when teachers are supposed to tell you in advance what they are going to do in the repertoire classes, but they don’t decide until they’re making the coffee in the green room on the first day. Then they come into the studio, and see that they have a boy in the class that they weren’t expecting and it all changes again. Or they’re teaching a version of Swan Lake that has an interpolation in it that they didn’t realise was interpolated, and in fact not by Tchaikovsky at all, until today.

I’d bet money on the fact that if you play for summer schools, someone is going to say “Odalisques” to you, and expect you to know what they mean, and to have the score saved on your brain’s USB stick. As an aside, you might just ponder the fact that boys on summer schools get to be princes, heroes, idealists and poets. If you’re a girl? Here, I have a harem chambermaid solo for you. 

Repertoire classes in the YouTube era

Repertoire classes have got worse for pianists (and others) since YouTube, because people in Vladivostok post stuff from a rare Soviet gala that they digitized from a VHS tape that they recorded in 1986, someone in a vocational school in England sees it and decides that it would be perfect for Arabella’s solo at the end of year show. For the performance, Arabella plugs her phone into the sound system at the side of the stage, and gets her friend to press play on YouTube, because it’s 2018, and that’s how we roll. A week later, Arabella’s  teacher is teaching at a summer school and says knowledgeably “I thought we’d do the third act girl’s solo from The Cobbler of Archangelsk, do you have that?”  The recriminations when you say you don’t. “But Arabella did it in Minehead, and the pianist could play it by ear.” Don’t get me started. 

People seem to be frustrated when their flesh-and-blood supplier of music (i.e. the pianist) isn’t like YouTube. You can’t type <YAGP Elena Razumovsky 2014> on their forehead and wait for a result.  The look of bewilderment when you say you just don’t have something, or don’t know it; don’t get me started. 

Odalisques from Corsaire: a typical problem, and now a solution! 

The solos from the pas de trois from Le Corsaire for three Odalisques keeps turning up at summer schools and repertoire classes, and I keep printing off the handwritten score from IMSLP.  Le Corsaire is in the repertoire of many companies, but you can’t download or buy a score, or rather, the one you can buy is expensive and covered in all kinds of copyright notices because it’s someone’s version. Thank God for IMSLP, and for the two people who uploaded a couple of incomplete handwritten scores from cupboard in Russia somewhere.  But these are only just OK. The second odalisque takes up four handwritten pages of score with awkward page turns, whereas in my typeset version, it fits on a single page. 

Then there’s that moment where you thought you were safe with the solo, and then the teacher says halfway through the last class, “I thought as we’ve got a bit of time, we’d do the coda.” Have you got the coda? Of course you haven’t, don’t get me started. 

Then there’s that other moment where you triumphantly come into the studio with the score, play all the way through to the last page, and oh—wait! What’s that? The teacher looks at you like you just rammed her car at the traffic lights.  That’s not how it goes? Maestro, you must have cut some bars out? No, no, no, we don’t need that! Out comes the YouTube clip on the iPad, and you find that there’s another version that you didn’t know about. Don’t get me started. 

At least for Odalisques, help is at hand. Here, free to download, is the pas de trois, with the intro, three solos, and the coda. The Bolshoi version and the Mariinsky version (there might be several, for all I know, don’t get me started) have slightly different endings for the entrée and the coda. Because I’m nice, I’ve put both in. 

A useful pas de trois to keep by the bread bin

Apart from being useful if you are going to be playing for the actual pas de trois, Odalisques is handy material for class. The opening is a curious mixture of legato, wafty, and allegro-like music. It’s perfect for when you’re not sure what kind of music is needed, because it’s got a bit of everything. The three solos and the coda are all at that slightly awkward in-the-middle tempo that you need for some exercises. For sure it’s not the most interesting music, but it’s useful. 

A year of ballet playing cards #38 (QC): Prague Waltzes: Soft, strong and very long.

Screen grab of piano score of Prague Waltzes by Dvořák

Prague Waltzes: click the image to download the free piano score

When is a waltz not “a waltz”? Most of the time 

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. 


A year of ballet playing cards #37: A grand polonaise by Nápravník


Screenshot of the polonaise from Dubrovsky by Eduard Nápravník

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. 136—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 that Nápravník conducted the first performance of that opera, and would have known it well, the similarity is perhaps not surprising. 


The mysterious case of the Lyrical Waltz


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. 

Screengrab of the piano score of Tchaikovsky's Sleeping Beauty, Lilac Fairy Attendants

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.

Picture of the index from the US Catalog of Copyright Entries for Music 1945, showing a list of compositions including the term "valse"

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. 

See also a new post on this topic here: 


A year of playing cards #23: A fruity waltz by Tcherepnin / Cherepnin (10h)

Screen grab of the sheet music of Grande valse by Tcherepnin

Click on the link to download

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. 

Screen grab of a section of Cherepnin's Grande Valse from Le Pavillon d'Armide

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.