Tag Archives: Dance

A year of ballet playing cards #35: A mazurka by Hubay


Click to download score

Slow, mazurka-like exercises from the corner for multiple pirouettes are a staple of all the company classes I play for, and if you haven’t got the right kind of music, it’s the longest 10 minutes of your life (see earlier posts on the “dreaded slow mazurka and “think mazurka, not waltz for pirouettes“). This has been a problem for me for 30 years, and it’s only recently that I’ve come close to solving it. Once you’ve experienced playing the right kind of music for this, you realise just how wrong a waltz is.  An eminent teacher recently said in company class that it wasn’t until he was 50 that he realised that the difference between a waltz and a balancé is that a waltz goes down-up-up, and a balancé goes down-up-down. When he said that, a light went on for me: I realised that this probably explains why waltzes tend to be wrong for an exercise with a balancé in it—the third beat of the bar will have the wrong gravitational feel (see my article on meter, ballet, and gravity if you haven’t already).

By who? By Hubay, that’s who

I first heard of Hubay when I was researching music for another project, and came across Hullàmzò Balaton, which was remarkable in that it contained one of my favourite bits of the Grand pas Hongrois in Act 3 of Raymonda (see earlier post), that I had always believed to be by Glazunov. I guessed from this that Hubay probably wrote some other good dance tunes. What I wanted most was something polka-mazurka-ish, but with oomph. Of all the “playing cards” I’ve created so far, the most useful one for me has been the polka mazurka by Verdi.

Mazurka or polka mazurka?

Hubay calls this a mazurka, but rhythmically it’s got that characteristic rumpty-tumpty-tumpty of a polka mazurka, yet has none of the tweeness. It’s the same rhythm as the middle section of the Coppélia mazurka, which is also useful (as long as you’re not playing for a company class, where you may get shot for playing it). Incidentally, the original of the Hubay is remarkably similar to this, with the change of rhythm prefaced by four bars of fifths on the violin, as here. It’s interesting to note, however, how subtly different they are below the surface: Delibes’ appears to be more markedly in 4-bar phrases compared to the 2-bar units of Hubay. But harmonically, Delibes’ change of chord on every bar makes it more markedly more truly triple meter than Hubay, who moves from G major only after the fourth bar: those two-bar units are beginning to look suspiciously like 6/8 in disguise. The longer you play for ballet, the more you appreciate how details like this can be a tipping point for choosing one piece rather than another for an exercise.


Extract from the mazurka in Coppélia


From Hubay’s mazurka – same key, same fifths, similar rhythmic patterns

Hubay’s mazurka works well for pirouettes if you play it slow and large. At a faster speed (the crotchet = 172 that I’ve marked) it also works for a certain kind of grand battement. Once you’ve played it a few times and the rhythmic patterns and conventions are in your fingers, you can use it as a basis for improvisation. Another convention that is good to bring in is the huge leaps across two octaves, which would be out of place in vocal music and counterintuitive when you’re thinking pianistically.

I’ve done a lot of messing around with this to get it into a format that will work for class. In the original—though I didn’t notice until long after I’d input it—there are several 12 bar phrases (or rather an 8-bar antecedent followed by a 4-bar consequent), and 8 bar interludes. Better to work on the assumption that there will be 32 counts per dancer, and then you don’t get left hanging mid-phrase.  However, the original is lovely to listen to, so here it is without the straightening out and the cuts:

Because it’s a concert piece for violin, there isn’t a recording of this that gives a sense of what it could be like when it’s butched up on the piano for a ballet class, so I’ve quickly recorded a rough version to give an idea of what I think it can do. It could go slower than this, and there’s plenty of room for rubato and pauses and stretches to allow for multiple pirouettes and other contingencies. Forgive my mistakes, but it’s better than nothing.

PS: There’s a small octave mistake that I’ll correct when I have the will to live — it’s in the repeat of the G minor section near the end on page 3. The D-Eflat-D motifs should be up the octave, as they are the first time around on page one.

See also: 

A year of ballet playing cards #53 (Black Joker): Reel from La Sylphide

Image of piano score of The reel from La Sylphide, Bournonville's ballet with music by Løvenskiold

Click to download the score

I promised that I’d be posting a couple of “jokers” in the pack of ballet playing cards, and here’s one of them: the Reel from La Sylphide.  It’s a joker, because you should only play this one with care: I’d advise against playing it for class anywhere where La Sylphide has recently been in the company repertoire, but it’s such great music for little jumps, and such fun, that it almost always raises a smile, or gets people trying to remember the steps while they wait for the next group.  A crotchet/quarter-note beat of 108 is only a guide, but it’s not worth playing if it’s slower than that, frankly – the whole point is that it’s fast, furious, and jolly, as a reel should be. To talk shop for a moment, it’s also great for little jumps because it has a proper four-on-the-floor feel, rather than falling into a see-saw pattern of oom-pahs. Also rather interesting how often it has a strong beat at the end of the bar. Explain that one to your music teacher.

It’s handy because it goes on for pages and pages (I’ve included everything, but the most useful part stops at the end of page 3 – after that, go carefully, although it’s in 8 bar phrases almost right up to the end. There’s something really exhilarating about playing for an exercise that goes on for a long time and not running out of material – because people keep think you’re going to, and then you don’t. I’ve done this joker as a favour to myself, so I can remind myself of how it all goes. I’m also rather fond of a post I wrote about it when I had to play it after slicing the end of the fourth finger of my RH with a food processor blade, and discovered interesting new fingering methods.

A reel life experience

This piece brings back so many memories too – one of my earliest jobs was sight-reading it from a terrible hand written score for Peter Schaufuss and Festival Ballet (ENB) at a stage rehearsal back in the 80s. It was then that I realised how much more fun Bournonville ballets were than the turgid Tchaikovsky ones.  Probably the two best ballet nights out I’ve ever had were watching Matthew Bourne’s reworking of La Sylphide (Highland Fling!) in London when it first came out, and then in 2013 when it was restaged for Scottish Ballet.


A year of ballet playing cards #22: A schmaltzy waltz by Kéler (9h)




Click to download the score

Elastic or expressive timing is a feature of music in ballet classes that I’m rather nostalgic for. When I meet teachers who still do it, I feel as if I’m back home again.  Recently, I’ve found that I need a particular category of waltz for company classes with multiple pirouettes, where the tempo needs to be forgiving, accommodating, like stretch fabric jeans that can be a couple of sizes larger than the label suggests. Schmaltzy is what we would have called it a few decades ago, but it’s a long time since I heard that word.

How I learned to love the schmaltzy waltz again

When I first started working in ballet, I’d be slightly appalled if a teacher wanted part of an exercise slower than the beginning, to make space for a different kind of step or more pirouettes. Now I enjoy the interaction with the teacher, enjoy the challenge to get the tempo change right and still make it sound musical.

You can’t do this with any old waltz, and particularly not with the kind that has an overwhelming metrical level, rather than switching between several through the course of the tune. I’ve put Deutsches Gemüthsleben in the “hearts” section because it has places where it’s in six (see various posts on triple meter), but the opening is very definitely in three. Sections E and F do what the Swan Lake Act 1 waltz does, which is to drive the accent to the second bar and fourth bars. At the ends of sections, the three-in-a-bar is suddenly more marked. In other words, what appears to be simply “3/4” has several different kinds of metre both internally (within a single phrase) and from section to section.

I’d never heard of Kéler until I read that he was the source of the Hungarian dance that made Brahms famous when he plagiarized it in its entirety, believing it to be a folk tune (like folk tunes just precipitate in the ether like ectoplasm, huh?), but I’m glad I found him. See more in Nancy Handrigan’s wonderful thesis On the Hungarian in Brahmsespecially pages 55-56, and for the proof, listen to the original Kéler below (scroll to 2:56″ if it doesn’t start there automatically).

I haven’t found a performance of this Deutsches Gemüthsleben Walzer that I like, or that does justice to its potential for elastic timing (some of which Kéler writes into the score), but it’s remarkably similar to the waltz in Der Rosenkavalier, which is the feel I’m looking for (see below – scroll to 5:40 if the technology doesn’t make it start there automatically).

It might also not escape your notice that both Kéler’s melody and Richard Strauss’s have a lot in common with The Lonely Goatherd from The Sound of Music, and also — i noticed much longer aftewards — with the “Waltz of the Flowers” from The Nutcracker.   Perhaps these falling thirds against an unchanging major floor is music’s answer to Gemüt, and perhaps Gemütlichkeit is the best way to describe character of the schmaltzy waltz that you need for a certain kind of pirouette: music that’s warm, roomy, comfortable, supple, supportive, like an armchair by the fire in an old pub.

Musicology, ballet teaching and time signature


A proud day for me, my first proper article published in Empirical Musicology Review. “How Down is a Downbeat? Feeling Meter and Gravity in Music and Dance?” came out of a single teaching session, when about 12 years of trying to teach about meter and time signature finally imploded in a discussion with students. For people who wonder why I’m doing a PhD, and what I’m writing about, this will give you an idea – not of the subject, but of the problem.

What I’m really chuffed about is that both Arnie Cox and Robert Hatten agreed to write commentaries on the article (see Arnie Cox’s here, and Robert Hatten’s here).

It would be nice to think that perhaps this might open up a conversation about the musical components of dance teaching courses, but I somehow doubt it will – and for as long as that’s the case, I guess dance teachers will keep saying “By the way, I don’t do time signatures,” and be perfectly justified in doing so, in my view.

I’m still hopelessly behind with the 52 cards, which is annoying me, but I’ve not given up yet.

A year of playing cards #19: A medley of (double) jigs (6h)

Image of the double jig medley

A medley of double jigs: click to download the score

I’m a few weeks behind, not least because it’s that time of year when everyone has a show, or is preparing for one. I thought that while I had O’Neill’s 1001 open (see previous post), I’d fill another gap: jigs. Good job I did, because I ended playing for a lot of children’s classes recently, and boy, do you need jigs for that. Skips, galops, horses, they all need jigs (particularly the kind called the “double jig”). I hadn’t quite finished this set when I suddenly needed it for a skipathon, and – as has happened a few times already – I became one of the most grateful users of my own 52 cards project.

Make mine a double: the difference between a single and a double jig

If you need jigs at all in a class, double ones seem to be better than singles almost all of the time (double jigs are the one with the continuous 8th notes and slightly slower than single jigs, which—like Humpty Dumpty Sat on a Wall—alternate between long and short notes). I think it’s because they are (sorry about this) truly triple. By that I mean they’re not just 4/4 with a bit of a lilt, the melody actually moves in 3 (see an earlier post, And now for something completely sextuple for a fuller explanation). I can’t really identify what my criteria are for choosing these jigs rather than the many, many others in O’Neill’s 1001, except I like the ones that sound a bit like a The frost is all over that I heard on a friend’s album when I was a teenager – I think it was Planxty, but it might have been The Chieftains. I couldn’t resist including the jiggy version of Green Sleeves. The Vaughan Williams version is lovely, but it could do with a rest.

Harmonising these tunes for the piano is not as easy as it you’d think it ought to be, and I change my mind several times no sooner than I’ve put down a version. It helps to listen to some bands playing the tunes. Guitarists often use fewer chord changes than you’d be tempted to make on the piano, and bassists make particular shapes with their bass lines. Here’s a version of the first of the set The Joy of My Life. 

The schottische and the chotis, and other dances


It’s years ago since a Spanish friend and dancing colleague told me that there was a connection between Schottische and a Spanish dance called chotis, and I’ve been meaning to look it up properly ever since. I’ve now come across this fabulous page:  Kicking It Up: ‘Asi se baila el chotis’ (this is how you dance the chotis) which traces several international links between the Schottische and its counterparts in other countries. The page is  part of a project called Modern Moves: Kinetic Transnationalism and Afro-Diasporic Rhythm Cultures, a “five-year =research project (June 2013 – May 2018), funded by a European Research Council Advanced Grant, and located at the Department of English, King’s College London.”

I’m thrilled by this, but also slightly dismayed that yet again, when you want to know something that has really bugged you about dance and music, more often than not, it seems to be done by people outside conventional music or dance studies, as if those disciplines are in fact too disciplined to generate the right kind of questions and research methods. The site looks fantastic, and I’m looking forward to exploring more.

Here’s a nice sample of one of the clips – music: Feira de Mangaio by Sivuca

A year of ballet playing cards #29: A Chaconne and a grand dance (3c)

Image of the chaconne by Purcell

Click to download the score of Purcell’s chaconne

Why is the chaconne so rare in ballet class culture?

I’ve no idea. Given that ballet’s history is supposed to have its roots in Italy and France, it’s odd that things like minuets, chaconnes, bourrées, sarabandes, gavottes and so on are some of the rarest things ever to be heard in a ballet class.  If there’s any cultural hegemony going on, it’s Austro-Hungarian: the waltz and the polka.  Of all the music that isn’t played in classes, it’s the chaconne that seems to miss out most. I don’t think there’s a reason why, except that the only kind of three people can think of in a hurry is the waltz and the mazurka, and those rhythms get embedded in the technique, I suppose. Can there really be something about ballet that requires the waltz? Or is it that chaconne requires learning a new rhythmic trick, and ballet habits are remarkably resilient?

Install a new chaconne instead of your old waltz

I discovered a while back that if you’re lucky, and the exercise isn’t too slow, you can replace the thick, porridge-like stir of a waltz played too slow for ronds de jambe with a Chaconne like this (albeit played rather too slow for a chaconne). It has a push on 1, but not the feeling of a wellington boot sinking into mud that the slow waltz has. The dotted rhythms and true triple metre (see earlier posts on the topic of triple meter) keep the music moving.

There’s something hypnotic yet interesting about the variations on the ground bass: it’s amazing how  much harmonic interest Purcell squeezes out of a single 8-bar bass line.  It’s also handy that there’s loads of it – 16 eight-bar phrases. I’ve put rehearsal marks on each one so you can pick and choose depending on the length of the exercise, but beware of – it’s the only time the phrase ends in a dominant.  There are some great recordings available, but I chose the one below because it has some baroque dance in it as well – which helps to give an idea of what a central tempo for this could be, even though it bears playing more slowly.

By chance, I started to input this just before going to a wonderful concert of the Shostakovich 1st violin concerto at the Barbican, and I was thinking of how the first of Shostakovich’s 24 preludes and fugues is a little chaconne, rather like the one in Purcell’s The Fairy Queen. Then In the violin concerto there’s also a kind of chaconne-like passacaglia in 3, which I felt peculiarly prepared for, as if inputting the Purcell had been a kind of mental warm-up.

On wikipedia there’s a wonderful list of other compositions that have used the chaconne as a basis. Well worth looking at for other ideas, if you liked this one.


A year of ballet playing cards #45: A country wedding (polka) from Má Vlast (6d)

First line of the polka by Smetana

Click to download this polka by Smetana from Ma Vlast

How this polka fell into my hands, and why I love it

A friend and I were talking the other day about how even something as apparently soulless as a bit of computer code (try telling that to a programmer like him) can have a history to it that marks it emotionally.  Every time you use that useful, remarkable snippet of code, you think fondly of when you learned it, and from whom, and how you felt about them and the job at the time. I think of a particular musical theatre conductor every time I sellotape photocopies together, because he showed me how to do it in a way that’s easy and works perfectly, and I’m grateful to him for teaching me whenever I have to prepare a score.

Likewise, a lot, maybe even most of the things I play for class have the feel of a handshake about them: they are things handed on by others, liked by others, mentioned by others, or offered to others in tribute. What I like about this method of collecting music is that the repertoire comes pre-loved, so to speak, so you have to try and work out what it is that made it appeal to the person who recommended it to you. Even if you are wrong, you’ve made the effort to get inside the piece with good intentions and a positive frame of mind, and you end up loving it yourself.

A dancer friend told me a few years ago that this “Country Wedding” scene in Smetana’s Má Vlast was one of the pieces he’d love to hear for class. I don’t think I’d ever concentrated enough during Má Vlast to notice it (that’s my fault for being a very distractible listener, nothing to do with the music, which I like). What an odd piece of music to like that much, I thought, and vowed that I’d learn it one day, even though the chances of anyone else except him recognising it or wanting it for class are fairly slim. [Starts at 4.38 – should begin automatically by clicking on the link below]

Arranging the polka dots: problems of transcription and reduction

I thought it was going to be an easy job – just copying someone else’s (public domain, before you ask) piano reduction. But I couldn’t leave it alone. The piano reduction I found was a mess, and even left out my favourite bit, which is where the violins go up to the top D (5:08″-5:09″, or bar 20 in my score) because it transcribed the woodwind instead of the string parts at that point. So I got the orchestral score and started again. It took me ages.  Although it sounds like a simple piece, the simplicity is achieved by elaborate means – there’s something happening on every semiquaver, and in all kinds of registers, in parallel and contrary motion, in thirds, sixths and octaves, and it’s impossible to transcribe for the piano in a way which conveys this richness. I’ve done my best, but it doesn’t lie that easily under the fingers.


Where that tree is in front of the cream-coloured building on the left is the café/bar we called “Smetana’s Arse” because there’s a larger-than-life statue of a seated Smetana there, outside the Smetana museum. The willow tree used to be one of the most distinctive features of this bit of Prague and of that bar, but it was uprooted in the floods of 2002, and what you see is the newly planted one, not a patch on the old one yet.

In this respect, it’s rather similar to Jaromír Weinberger’s score for the polka from Schwanda the Bagpiper. It sounds like a simple tune, but the orchestration consists of multiple streams of non-stop chromatic semiquavers cascading over the tune in a sea of black beams. When a colleague of mine first saw the score, he couldn’t quite believe his eyes, and said he wasn’t sure he’d like to play it if he saw it on the stand.  But the effect is nice: what goes on between the notes of the tune happens so thick and fast that it’s affected you before you’ve had a chance to hear what it is properly.

This would be really handy for the kind of exercise that needs rhythm but not sharpness. All that movement, all those suspensions and appogiaturas give it a tender  kind of accent, like a tenuto plus a staccato plus a marcato in brackets.

I also couldn’t help wondering whether there’s more than a family resemblance between the rest of Vltava and the opening of Act II of the Nutcracker: same key, same time signature, same evocation of a journey by water.

Confessions of an anxious ballet pianist day #24: Happy birthday


fatherchSpecial occasions make me nervous. Take birthdays, for example. It’s someone’s birthday, and so one of the dancers comes up before class and says “Can you play happy birthday for so-and-so, please?” Sure I can. But the question is, when?

Before class feels wrong. If you suddenly play a C7 arpeggio on the keyboard just while the teacher is trying to take charge of the class, you interrupt her flow and usurp her authority. Once she realises what’s going on, the face will crack a smile, we’ll do the song, and then get on with the rest of the class, but for three horrible, uncomfortable seconds that seem like an eternity, you’ve acted as inappropriately as an altar boy booty-shaking like Beyoncé during communion while the priest wasn’t looking.

If you wait til after the barre, you run the risk that the birthday girl/boy, or his/her best friends, or the person that asked for the tune in the first place have all suddenly run out to go to the loo/check their phone/read the schedule – especially difficult if you don’t actually know the person by sight to know whether s/he’s in the room or not. At the end of class can be even worse, if it’s one of those days where only a few are left standing – or just when you’re about to play, someone wants to do turns in second or fouettés, so everyone else leaves, thinking there’s nothing left for them. Your indecision just ruined someone’s birthday.

Usually, once you start it’s fine, except for those days when it takes half the song to realise what’s going on, then by the time it gets to the “dear _____” line, everyone’s looking round the room to see who ______ is. It’s not your fault that the community singing collapses in confusion at this point, but you started it, so it feels like it is. And yes, I have once played happy birthday while the person it was intended for wasn’t there. It’s like having an entire battery farm lay eggs on your face.

Don’t let that stop you asking me to play happy birthday. But sometimes I wish someone would invent a protocol for this, so that just as  pliés come before grands battements,  Happy Birthday would  be allotted its own place in the barre to avoid embarrassment and confusion. The trouble is, singing happy birthday is one of those subversive moments in class that needs to stay just as it is: ignoring the teacher’s control and power while you wish your classmate a happy birthday is all part of the celebration.  It’s just that arpeggio that makes me anxious.

Confessions of an anxious ballet pianist day #8: The dreaded slow mazurka pirouette

Redowa by Meyerbeer: not a slow mazurka, but good pirouette music

The Pas de la Rédowa from Act 3 of Meyerbeer’s opera “Le Prophète.” Never leave home without this pirouette music.

The moment I see a teacher marking a pirouette that has a massive, sweeping balancé in it, I know there’s trouble ahead. Like the dreaded 2/4 sissonne of yesterday’s post, the slow mazurka pirouette is one of those ballet exercises that makes choreographic sense, but leaves us musicians with a problem, because – unless I just haven’t discovered it yet – there’s not a lot of music in the world that goes like this.

What in the world is a “slow mazurka”?

In terms of tempo, this kind of pirouette music is heading towards a polonaise, but a polonaise doesn’t have the right feel. Rhythmically, it’s in the region of a ballroom mazurka or polka mazurka, but those two dance forms are really too light and dainty for the expansive power that the exercise needs. The nearest thing might be the waltz from Act I of Giselle, but playing that probably won’t make you many friends in a company class. The A minor mazurka from Etudes (see earlier post for sources) is nearly right – but is still too fast for the kind of exercise I mean. The Rédowa from Meyerbeer’s Le Prophète – used in Les Patineurs (on page 147 of this score from IMSLP) –  is almost perfect: you can play this really slowly, and it still works. It fills out the space between the beats, and it’s very triple, and you can play it anywhere between butch and dainty without ruining it.  But that’s just one piece, and it’s probably not a good idea to play it if Patineurs is in the company’s repertoire.

The problems of pirouette music on a slow three

So you have to improvise, and improvising in a slow three is hard. One of the biggest problems with it is that we’re so used to the metrical model of the waltz,  that when you’re faced with something that needs to have three proper, solid beats in a bar, and a main accent at the beginning of each one rather than every two bars (i.e. it’s truly triple, not a kind of duple hypermeter like most waltzes), it’s difficult to stop your mental metrical framework slipping back into waltz mode. If you do, you’ll be constantly too fast and out of time with the dancers, and you’ll spend half your mental energy trying to keep at the right tempo, and you won’t succeed because the metrical pattern is basically wrong.

It’s also easy to get lost, because you start to think in little phrases of six, losing your sense of where you are in the eight-bar phrase. Well I do, at least. It’s also hard to be interesting. If you look at the model of the Prophète redowa, that’s an awful lot of notes and unexpected melodic, harmonic, metrical, and rhythmic activity  – like ending with a cadence on the last beat of the bar, for example. Unless you’re a genius, you can’t just keep making this stuff up in interesting ways while 40 groups of dancers do 16 bars each.

As with the 2/4 sissonne, this is one of those ballet problems that you just have to deal with, and if this sounds familiar, it’s because I’m repeating myself: I’ve already written about this in another Advent Calendar (though I wrongly said the piece was from L’Étoile du Nord). The Redowa is one of the things that I refer to as a musical “honey spoon” because it’s a rather weird implement that does one, necessary task. It’s not got any easier since writing those posts. If anything, it’s more difficult, because the more aware you are of what the “musical body” of an exercise should look like, the harder it is to be satisfied with playing things that don’t quite work. Reading that earlier post from 2007, there’s a hint of snideness about it which I no longer feel. In the intervening years, I’ve come to realise that you don’t solve these problems by getting annoyed at them, but by respecting them.


A year after I wrote this post, I decided to try and solve some of the problems in my “year of ballet playing cards” series. There are a few slow mazurkas that would work as pirouette music in that series, including