Tag Archives: choreomusicology

More on “truly triple meter” – are Chopin’s waltzes really mazurkas?

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After a previous post about triple metre and waltzes, some pianist colleagues and I had an ongoing discussion about particular pieces. According to our (my) definition, for a waltz-like piece to be classed as ‘truly triple’, cadences have to fall on the second main beat of a 6/8 bar, or, in 3/4, on the 8th bar of the phrase (otherwise it’s 3/4 “masquerading”, so to speak, as 6/8).

One musician cited Chopin’s Grande valse Op. 18 No. 1 (the finale of Les Sylphides) – is this truly triple, she asked? Well, yes it is. And so are most of the other waltzes. As I mentioned in our Facebook discussion, my composition teacher Malcolm Williamson once praised Chopin’s treatment of the harmony in his waltzes, that is, he’s careful to make sure that it changes in every bar. At the time, I don’t think either Malcolm or I knew enough about waltzing to discuss this from a metrical point of view, the point he was making was about maintaining harmonic interest.  One of Malcolm’s own great waltz tunes (he would probably not thank me for that, since he didn’t want it extracted from the opera as a single number), Thank You, Saint Seraphina, from Our Man in Havana was itself truly triple, which probably reflected his concern for both metric and harmonic interest.

From the little I know from having worked with him, the last thing he wanted was to have to wait in music – harmonic or metric inertia. And that’s the thing about 6/8s, once you know that you’ve arrived on 7, all you’re doing is just waiting for that extra beat. That can be OK sometimes, but in allegro, it’s not great.

Which brings me back to Chopin and the waltz. The  epigraph to chapter 6  of Eric McKee’s Decorum of the Minuet, Delirium of the Waltz is an interesting quote from Chopin

“I have picked up nothing that is essentially Viennese. For example, I can’t dance a waltz properly – that speaks for itself! My piano has heard nothing but mazurkas.”

I’m not saying that Chopin couldn’t write a waltz, or that his embodied sense of what waltzing was was too fragile to be able to incorporate it in music. But I wonder if the inherent tripleness of his waltzes is not a question of autonomous compositional technique in the ways that I’ve described it above, but a difficulty in shaking off an ingrained Mazurka habit.

 

 

Dancing masters, music and memory

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deliriumI’m thoroughly enjoying Eric McKee’s book Decorum of the minuet, delirium of the waltz: a study of dance-music relations in 3/4 time. There are books that you grow up with that made the world what it is for you, and other books that don’t yet exist, but they’re so begging to be written, they hang around you like literary ectoplasm. This is one of those, and it’s a joy to read. There are plenty of books and articles on works, performances, composers, collaborations, but not about how music and dance relate in teaching steps and dances. This does the job magnificently, with loads of musical examples.

This is one of my favourite quotes so far, in a section about how dancing masters composed their own music to help teach dance steps: 

“While visiting Paris in 1762, Leopold Mozart observed that “in the whole town there are about two or three favourite minuets, which must always be played, because they people cannot dance to any save those particular ones during the playing of which they learned to dance.” (McKee 2012, 21) 

It sounds like when children or teachers can’t remember an exercise in an exam syllabus until they hear the music that goes with it. But it also points out what is so different about ballet training.  Children can do the same exercise to different music. You can play a famous piece from a ballet for a company class, and dancers don’t fall over because they go into autopilot and start doing whatever ballet it was from instead of the exercise.

Playing for ballet class tip #21: Make friends with a notator

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If there’s one kind of person in the ballet universe who can really understand where you’re coming from as a musician, and where you need to go, it’s someone who writes movement notation, whether that’s Labanotation or Benesh Movement Notation.

As they have to be able to dance, notate movement, and work out how their movement notation aligns to a musical score, they live in a kind of wireframe version of the world where    everything is provisional until they’ve found a way of writing it all down coherently.  They understand the anomalies and contradictions that  time signatures bring with them in relation to movement, and have ways of marking up musical scores that indicate logically how dancers are moving in relation to them.

They can speak your (notational) language, but also understand things from a dancer’s perspective, so they can help you make sense of the dance world with reference to your own musical background. They’ll show you how to mark up a score in rehearsal so that you next time someone says ‘Can we go from the second time she does the arabesque?’ you don’t have to sit in shame playing bars at random until they shout ‘That’s it!’ (Only to shout two seconds later ‘Oh…No it’s not there, it all sounds the same, doesn’t it?). They can also tell you a lot about the ballet repertoire, and help you to judge when you need to improve, and when someone’s just being difficult and naff in a rehearsal.

If you ever meet one, grab hold of them and make friends. In my experience, they’re often very happy to help when you want to know why something didn’t work for class, or talk through music and dance problems with you (like I did only yesterday with notation expert Vicki Watts) and from the very beginning, I learned a lot of my trade from the lovely Gillian Cornish, who used to chaînée across the room for me while we tried out different bits of music. I’ve enjoyed sitting in on countless conversations about notation with Christopher Hampson and the person who’s notated so many of his ballets, Caroline Palmer.  I could list many more – Mark Kay, Patricia Tierney, Marzena Sobanska, the people at the Benesh Institute that has its home now at the RAD, and of course the most remarkable of them all, Ann Hutchinson Guest.

More on borrowings in the Nutcracker

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I think most people know that Tchaikovsky got the theme for the Arabian from somewhere – a Georgian folk song or something like that. But it’s only thanks to a post from Lawrence Sisk on the Tchaikovsky research site forum that I came to know about Ippolitov-Ivanov’s use of the same theme in his berceuse in the Caucasian Sketches (the tune starts at 00:59 – click here to jump directly to the right part).

Further to this, I’ve now come across an interesting reference to this from a 1913 interview with the conductor Modeste Altschuler, entitled The Music of the People in Russian Masterpieces.  Speaking of the role of folk singing in Russia, he says:

 If you are sick your mother sings you a song, part prayer, part superstition, part lullaby, which may do you far more good than the doctor’s drugs. There is a song for nearly every disease. For instance, if you had the measles your mother or your nurse would sing.While in Russia four years ago, I had many occasions to speak to Ippolitov-Ivanov regarding folk-songs in Russia, and he called my attention to a Berceuse, the theme of which is used by the Caucasian women as a lullaby for the children affected with the measles. Tschaikovsky has used the first four measures of the same theme in the Arabian Dance, from his Casse Noisette suite, while Ippolitov has developed it to a greater extent in his lovely piano piece. After all it is a folk-song melody, so every composer is entitled to the use of it.

He then quotes the first few bars of the Berceuse which in Ippolitov-Ivanov’s version is in F# minor:

Ippolitov-Ivanov: 'Berceuse', from Caucausian Sketches Op 42 No. 2 (2-piano score) via IMSLP

The connections between Ippolitov-Ivanov and Tchaikovsky are not tenuous, they are very real and documented  – they met in Tiflis, Georgia in 1886, and were in contact until Tchaikovsky’s death. If Ippolitov-Ivanov could tell Altschuler of the story of this lullaby, then he could have told Tchaikovsky. If Altschuler’s account is reliable, then this adds further weight to Wiley’s argument (see earlier post) that Act II of the Nutcracker might be interpreted as a musical idealization of  Tchaikovsky’s  childhood, a mourning nostalgia for happier times with his sister – who had died as he was composing The Nutcracker.

Wiley has a theory about the pas de deux that  the  rhythm of the pas de deux melody matches exactly the spoken rhythm of the  text of an Orthodox funeral rite. If this is correct, and the Arabian is a borrowing of a song sung to sick children, then Act II is even less  the chocolate box it appears on the surface.  There is more: it has always puzzled me that the Sugar Plum Fairy is thematically and tonally directly related to the Snowflakes, as if she’s not so much made of sugar, but of ice.  And it’s in a minor key, a comparative rarity for 19th century ballet solos, even in Tchaikovsky. Act 2 is also enclosed in two haunting,  barcarolles, symbols of journeys and transitions to other worlds.

For all this, I tend to agree with Wiley about Tchaikovsky’s borrowings and quotes – they’re not intended to rise to the surface, they are private. But they are fascinating, all the same.

The perils of video

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Two recent conversations have caused me to remember an interview between Christopher Hampson & his long-term notator Caroline Palmer about his ballet Canciones that  I transcribed and posted on the web 12 years ago (see full interview here). If you were around, you may remember that at the last moment, he had to pull the intended score by Manuel de Falla and replace it with something else, because of an issue over rights. It seems like 12 minutes ago.  At the time, I thought the following tale was quite funny – with the passage of time, it seems really rather sad…

CH: I know that people use videos, but a good example of why not to use a video is…

CP: (laughs) Do we have to go down this route?!

CH: We do, because a good example of why not to use a video is that there is one version, which is a rehearsal tape of the Manuel de Falla version

CP: The only one

CH: The only tape, and you know, I just love it dearly because it’s what it was what it was meant to be. I went round, and took Caroline out for her birthday, which… I don’t know if I’ll do again [laughter], because half way through the last section, the jota, she’d taped Lorraine Kelly, GMTV…

CP: Over it…

CH: … interviewing someone from Coronation Street over it. But you know, because the notation is there, that puts my mind at ease.

New choreomusicology article

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Music, dance and the total art work: choreomusicology in theory and practice is an article just out by Paul Mason in Research in Dance Education that pretty much sums up where we are now in that field.  I’m feeling especially smug, because I’d actually read it by the time that Paul had posted a comment on my blog drawing attention to it. Looking at his biog makes me feel ashamed at my miserable attempts at interdisciplinarity. Anthropology, neuroscience, dance, music, and writing in three languages – now that’s impressive.

The Scotch Snap: everything you needed to know, and a hundred more questions

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This is probably the most interesting video I’ve ever seen on a musical question. If you want to know why, read on below the clip. As it happens, I’ve posted this on Robert Burns Day/Burns Night, so the topic of the Scotch snap couldn’t be more appropriate.

Philip Tagg: making sense of the Scotch snap at last

Philip Tagg and his articles have kept me sane since the day I discovered him somewhere around 1999.  He gets inside the same questions that perplex me about music, and is one of the few musicologists that make much sense when it comes to understanding dance and music.  One of the things that has intrigued me for years and years is the ‘Scotch snap’.

I’ve probably thought about it daily for about 10 years, mainly because of the Waltz in the ballet Giselle (1841) and that Mozart minuet in E flat, both of which exhibit scotch snaps in 3/4 time, and because my yearly trips to Prague have given me occasion to overhear Scotch snaps in Czech music, or at least folk music that’s played in Prague (which might be Slovakian or Hungarian, or Romanian, depending on who’s playing it, and when your maps were drawn).  One pianist I know deliberately plays the scotch snaps in the Giselle waltz as if they’re before the beat. When I asked him why, he said he’s always thought that bit ‘sounded silly’ if you play it like it’s written. Sometimes I’ve wondered whether some scotch snaps in classical music are  just notational errors:  I seem to remember reading that there are  instances where copyists would write a dotted rhythm using the semiquaver first as a kind of shorthand meaning the opposite. Can’t remember where I read that, unfortunately.

The Scotch snap and stress patterns in Croatian

And there’s more: as a student of living in Zagreb, I remember being fascinated by the comment of a Croatian translator who noted that since all stress in Croatian is on the first syllable, there was no iambic poetry in that language. Considering that iambs are so common in English (think of all those children’s skipping songs) the idea that a language could just exist without an iamb to speak of seemed bizarre. But I speak Croatian, so I know that it’s not.  Then there’s the added fact that Croatian/Serbian have accents of length as well as of stress, sometimes it’s really difficult to tell whether someone’s elongating a vowel, or stressing it – so someone could tell you that the accent is on the first syllable of a word, but to me it sounds like it’s on the second, because it’s a long vowel (the same is true of Czech sometimes).

The great thing about this video is that Tagg has done all the work that I knew needed to be done, but I wondered if I’d ever live long enough to start doing it. It’s a wonderful advert for the kind of interdisciplinarity that makes me get up in the morning, and which Tagg himself advocates in his 2011 article Caught on the back foot.  By the end of the video, there are just even more questions to ask, which to me is what good research is all about. And Tagg’s conclusion – that you should be looking for class divisions before ethnic ones if you want to understand issues like this in music – resonates hugely with a great article I read yesterday on the concept of the ‘ballet boy’ (Time to confront Willis’ lads with a ballet class?) – in which the author says that it’s class, not gender that’s the issue in ballet & Billy Elliot, but gender’s an easier issue to tackle if you’re trying to pretend that you live in a classless society.

 

Dancing to words

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Interesting blog by Eleanor Turney in the Guardian about dancing to words, and what makes it work or not work. It’s a topic that interests me a lot, ever since, about ten years ago, I saw a pas de deux in Christopher Hampson’s Canciones done to a reading of the poem instead of the sung version, due to a ghastly cock-up over rights.

It has stayed with me as one of the most beautiful, haunting, and musical moments of dance, one of my favourites, even. You have to understand that it’s all I can do to stay awake in a pas de deux. Too much blurred sentimental wrestling. But in this instance, the rise and fall of Rosario Serrano’s voice seemed to be more musically communicative and articulate than any music could have been.

Perhaps the reason it worked is precisely because the movement had originally been choreographed to de Falla’s music rather than the words, so what emerged from the conjunction of the music and text was the musicality of the poetry, not what it meant.

Ballet troubles & music

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Picture of view from the Royal Ballet Studios, Covent Garden

The view from here

Music in Motion is an article on new scores for NYCB from The New Yorker by Alex Ross, author of The Rest is Noise. (Via theballetbag via Twitter)

I enjoyed reading The Rest is Noise more than any other book I’ve read on music, which is saying something, because I usually can’t even bring myself to even walk past the  ‘music’ section in bookshops.  By ‘music’, I mean that very specialised thing that people do in concert halls, or in the privacy of their own home hifi, the contemplation of works. And so by ‘books on music’ I mean things like biographies of composers, and the whole fawning and promotional literary culture that surrounds the classical music industry.  Since the moment I had the experience of seeing people dance while I played the piano, I found it difficult to find music without movement interesting or enjoyable any more, and it is the premise of so much writing about music that nothing, but nothing, should come between ‘the music’ and ‘the audience’ – especially not dance.

So I was rather sorry to see an author I admire so much be so dismissive of ballet. As a friend of mine pointed out recently, no-one would think it was OK to be ignorant of a work of literature or a canonical work of music, but when it comes to dance, there’s almost a certain hipness about saying you’ve never seen any, or don’t understand it, or don’t know anything about it. Ross quotes the pianist Susan Tomes as someone who also writes about her ‘ballet troubles’ in her book, Out of Silence. “I feel a sense of frustration that the dancers’ steps are not actually to the music, but merely run in parallel with it. I’m all too aware of the way they have rehearsed their movements in the studio using spoken rhythms (‘And one-and-two-and-point-and-turn,’ etc.).”

I don’t mind that she feels frustration – heaven knows, some of the worst nights I’ve ever had in a theatre have been watching ballet – but what does this mean,  ‘the dancer’s steps are not actually to the music’? Which dancers? All ballets? All music? All steps? And what determines the right of anyone to say what the music is, and that others have somehow got it wrong?  What’s so terrible about spoken rhythms, or rehearsing?  Watching pianists rehearse is no picnic  either.

So much of Western art music has dance at its very heart (see the section on ‘mind and body’ from Philip Tagg’s great article on High and Low, Cool and Uncool: aesthetic and historical falsifications about music in Europe), and there’s a whiff of high-mindedness about both Ross & Tomes on this subject – it’s only the body, it’s only dancing, how could it matter, compared to the great rational minds that create music?