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.
Short and sweet today, a little tango by Tárrega that is barely arranged at all from the original guitar piece. It’s tempting to fill it out (and I probably would a little in class, by doubling the bass occasionally, and doubling the thirds of the tune in the left hand where possible). On the other hand, part of the appeal of the piece is its simplicity. I kept changing my mind about whether the first tune would sound better an octave lower or not. I think you could probably experiment with playing the first half an octave lower, and the second half an octave higher.
The cool and restrained tango, for a change
It was also tempting to cover the piece with Grainger-esque articulations and dynamics to try and mimic the touch of the guitar, but thought it might look a bit presumptuous. It was also tempting to pimp it up Godowsky-style. To play a piece like this, which has so little in it, is hard to do well, whereas the Godowsky arrangement of the Albéniz Tango has voluptuousness built into it, so it sounds pretty good even if you don’t play it well. To make the original, much thinner piece sound like something, you have to work much harder, and so it is with this. I figured that you can fill it out yourself, if you want.
The reason for choosing this unassuming piece is because the holy grail for the ballet pianist searching for new repertoire is the “tango”-that-isn’t-a-tango, the kind that teachers request for battements fondus, and which also work well for slow tendus, because they have a perpetual feeling of in-and-out in their rhythm. This piece is in the right area, I think. If nothing else, it’s a lesson in less-is-more. The reason improvised tangos often don’t sound effective is because there’s a temptation to throw every harmonic trick going at them, or fill them out with masses of chords, forgetting that the real thing tends to just toggle between dominant and tonic a lot of the time – the interest is in the rhythm, and the way it’s played. It’s interesting that in the second half, the G major section, the peak of the phrase is every second bar, which creates an interesting tension between the metre and phrasing. So far, my favourite performance is the one in the clip below:
Tárrega: the bloke that composed that Nokia ringtone
I came across this because I was going to upload a piano version of the Gran Vals by Tárrega, better know as the Nokia tune/Nokia waltz/Nokia ringtone as this week’s card. (My thanks to the student who told me it was originally by Tárrega). It would have been fun, but the more I looked at it, the less I could see how it could be useful in class, except for the fact that the last four bars (the ringtone) happen to be in truly triple metre, whereas the rest isn’t, so it would be great for an exercise that needed detail at the end of the phrase, or to slow down as you turned around on the barre or something. But the truth is, there is little use for the bog-standard waltz in class, because it’s essentially duple metre with triple subdivision. So apart from the increasingly rare occasion where a teacher actually asks you for a “little waltz” during tendus, say, there’s no reason to fill your toolbox with them (it’s probably full of them anyway).
There’s a kind of allegro that’s in 6/8 that needs music like this. I don’t really know what to call it, except “a six eight allegro.” The canonical example for me is “Sempre libera” from La Traviata (below):
The trouble is that there’s only about 16 useful bars of that aria, and for this kind of exercise that comes forward in multiple groups, you need at least a hundred. Most of the things I know that fit the bill are equally short, or turn out to have too many notes to keep up the necessary speed without wilting. Also, the exercise usually needs lift and movement in particular places, so I usually end up improvising – until I found this piece from Jerusalem.
Tip: Useful is not always interesting, and interesting is not always useful
I was going to skip this in favour of something that looks more interesting on paper, but when I came to play it, it felt and sounded better as performed music than it does on the page, and it’s also very handy because it goes on for ages. Even though I can hear a score in my head by reading it, there is often – as with this piece – a chasm between what it feels and sounds like as a physical experience, and what it looks like on paper. I’m certainly influenced by just how useful this is, so maybe a normal pianist (rather than a ballet pianist) wouldn’t feel that way.
What I love about this piece, the more I hear it and play it, is its constantly changing rhythmic shape. I wouldn’t have noticed this so much, or had the words to talk about it, had it not been for two instances recently where I was supposed to be teaching pianists, and learned something myself.
The first occasion was in Ljublana, (photo gallery here) leading a weekend seminar for ballet teachers and pianists at the Conservatoire for Music and Ballet. A question came up about battements tendus with the accent in or out: how much does that affect the music that you should play? I wasn’t giving answers, it was a discussion between teachers and pianists. After nearly 30 years of playing for ballet, I noticed something for the first time: teachers, when they want to stress the accent in, appear to give more “accent” to the out preceding it. That figures logically, because if you want to chop a log harder, you lift it higher before it falls, and you have to show that the leg is out before it comes in on one. But it really messes with your metrical head, because you hear “accent in” as a verbal instruction, then you hear “AND a 1″ as a musical cue. Also, “accent in” doesn’t (I think) mean accent in the sense of chopping logs, but of where the close is in relation to the musical metre.
Franco-Italian hypermeter in the ballet class: try it, you’ll like it (and so will they)
So maybe this is a case for pieces that exhibit what Rothstein explains as “Franco Italian hypermeter” (see previous post) I tested the theory by playing this piece (playing card 46) which has more than half a bar anacrusis (which is one of the requirements), and asked teacher Tom Linecar-Boulton during a London Amateur Ballet class to see if it did the trick. It seems to, and it illustrates a fascinating thing about the incommensurability (in my view, at least) of musical accent with ballet accents. There’s a lightness and accentuation about this which has a very different kind of body to it than non-ballet music, and “anacrusis” in music has too many implications about downbeat that may not work for dance. What it has is a long “and,” not a heavy one, and the one has an accent which is not to do with volume or weight, but – I don’t know how to describe it – where it is. It’s like saying “I’m going to put this here, and that there,” without shouting about it.
Try this (at a slow speed) for tendus with the accent in. It’s fun.
Franco-Italian hypermeter in a six eight allegro
The second occasion was yesterday, when I was talking to some music students who were going to have a go at playing for ballet classes. They were asking if it’s acceptable to have a stock of chord sequences that you improvise over. I said yes it was, and that it’s surprising how much a simple repeated sequence can be masked by the detail that you hang over it. I took this Verdi piece as an example. It’s in 6/8, but as Danuta Mirka would say, the “composed meter” varies – that is, the first two bars are indeed in duple with triple subdivision, but then the next bars, with the little grace notes, and the emphasis on each beat, are effectively in 3/8. As the piece goes on (I’ve sewn two together and done a bit of reworking to try to make enough for several groups), there are many variations on the rhythm of the phrase (with an anacrusis, or on the beat, with a half-bar anacrusis, or a short one) even though the basic duple structure is maintained. My favourite is this one:
That triple forte is the upbeat to the next “1”
“A bit lighter please” — try meter, not dynamics
This to me solves a conundrum with a certain kind of jump that jumps before the 1, yet mustn’t be heavy. When a teacher I played for recently kept saying “a bit lighter” I thought he meant just “quicker” but I think he really did mean lighter – but in the sense of not thumping either downbeats or upbeats, but maintaining a kind of tension between the two, as in this wonderful example.
You’d have to pick your moment to play this – if the dancers need the music to tell them what to do on every step, then avoid it – but if they know what they’re doing, the subtle shifts of grouping over the phrase bring all kinds of lightness and accent to it, in a way which is definitely Franco-Italian, and not German: what you have to avoid is obeying the (Germanic) rule that every downbeat has to have an accent. Think about Italian or French poetry, with its end-accented lines, and swoop over the bar lines, resisting the accents until the final bar.
I can’t find a recording of this that is at a tempo which I think would work for class, so I’ve done a very rough one here – my apologies for the botched job, but I’m sight reading, and the piece has only just come out of my musical oven. Teachers, I’d love to know what you think about this, and whether I can give a name to this (is it particularly good for a certain kind of jump?).
The point of posting stuff like this is not to bring back Verdi’s Jerusalem because it’s the best thing for allegro, but to offer models for either improvising or finding other repertoire, and the changes of accent, metre, phrasing, rhythm, grouping and so on in this offers all kinds of ideas.
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 H – 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.
In search of the serviceable polonaise for ballet class
A commenter on a previous post about polonaises asked me – since I’d said so many polonaises were unusable – which ones I would choose. I realised I didn’t really have much of an answer, so it was clearly time to go on a polonaise hunt. I can’t pretend I’m that thrilled by this polonaise, but I’m no great fan of the polonaise to start with, and everyone needs a polonaise or three in their repertoire: so this one, which as Miss Brodie said of chrysanthemums (“such serviceable flowers”) is serviceable, so why not. “Serviceable” is no bad thing for class, for nothing is worse than music that draws attention to itself so much that it’s distracting. If nothing else, the Fächerpolonaise is a good model of just how little one needs to do when improvising around a dance rhythm: as I’ve written before, less is usually more when it comes to harmony in dance rhythms.
Another reason I chose this music is because it has still has a currency at Viennese balls. The clip below is from the Regenbogenball in Vienna (the “Rainbow Ball” for LGBT people and friends). If there’s a reason to hang on to these strangely antique traditions perhaps it’s to give people who were previously denied participation a chance to join in now. Dance and music might be a metaphor for this kind of thing: you keep the music going for long enough (i.e. over a century and a half) for the last couple in the room to get to the front. There’s an essay to be written on that that would include a reference to Elias’s Society of Individuals, but I haven’t got time. There’s also an essay to be written about the way the Habsburg Empire lives on (at least culturally) with extraordinary resilience – this also happens to be one of André Rieu’s greatest hits.
About Carl Ziehrer, composer of the Fächer polonaise
I ought to have heard of Carl Ziehrer before, but I hadn’t. The fact that this polonaise is Op. 525 will tell you something about his output – he actually wrote more dance music that Johann Strauss II. The more you listen to the music of Strauss’s contemporaries, the more that composers like Minkus and Pugni – and even Tchaikovsky – fall into context. If, as Taruskin has said, leaving out ballet music from music history is a “scandalous omission” then leaving out light music is a double scandal, because it conceals the extent to which composers like Tchaikovsky were surfing a much more popular wave.
You can add in or take away as many notes in the chords as you like – I’ve added a few from the piano transcription to thicken it up, but they’re not compulsory.
I’ve been meaning to find this music, the Fauré ballade for piano and orchestra, for nearly 18 years. It was in the score of Roland Petit’s “Proust” ballet, Les Intermittences du coeur that we did at the Deutsche Oper Berlin, and I played the piano part in the orchestra. Whatever the musical equivalent of a bunhead is, that’s me – I learned it, performed it and loved it, but I hadn’t a clue what it was, and it was only in researching it for this blog this week that I finally found out that it was once a piano solo, and that Fauré then arranged it for piano and orchestra, and a few other things that tie it very interestingly to Proust (for more on this, see here).
Fauré ballade for piano and orchestra: what am I missing in the piano solo version?
I’ve put the countermelody in small notes, because I think you could easily lose the tune if you tried too hard to play these, and you want the main melody to sing out – so I’d treat them as optional, so help me God.
If you’re squeamish about cuts, look away and don’t play my version, because I’ve had to fillet out the bits that are in 8 bar phrases (click here for the full version at IMSLP). As cuts go, they’re not life-threatening, and they’re worth it to be able to play this for class. It’s a very clever orchestration – the orchestra creeps up on you gradually like a feeling, rather than being the water you swim in, and then suddenly it’s on top of you and like all feelings that creep up on you, it’s a bit scary.
I’m putting this in my “don’t care if it’s three or four” category, but a lot would depend on how fast or slowly you take it, as to whether you can get away with it every time. It would also kill it to be either too slow or too fast, or too many times, so pick your moment carefully,
I hope you like it: F# is such a woody key, apart from anything else (if you don’t know what I mean, see below).
I like it when teachers set grands battements on what I call a rumpty-tumpty 3. My favourite pieces for this kind of exercise is the Zarah Leander song Davon geht die Welt nicht unter, and Hands, knees and boomps-a-daisy, but all good things must come to a brief pause, and so it was time to find another one, and Oh! Oh! Antonio is just what I was looking for. If you’re wondering why I’m suddenly bringing music hall into this game, after all that Schubert and czardases, I have to point out that rhythmically speaking, behind every balletic variation, there’s a tarty music-hall number dying to show its frilly knickers, and a bit of decorum (which flies out of the window once you put some swing into a waltz) is the only thing that divides these songs from Paquita or Bayadère.
How I discovered Oh! Oh! Antonio
I wonder what the chances are of anyone knowing this if you played it for class? I didn’t know it until last week, when it was used in Indian Summers, set in 1932: Cynthia Coffin (Julie Walters) proprietor of the English Club in Simla leads the singing as the local English gather for the club’s re-opening. You never can tell: someone on a forum remembers his great grandfather (Welsh, who spoke no English) singing it to him as a child. Songs have a way of travelling through time. I always thought the Teddy Bears’ Picnic was a song from the 60s (because I heard it as a child) yet the tune was written in 1907, and the words in 1932.
In fact, this song is also about the way songs get transmitted. You may have noticed that it begins almost note-for-note like Strauss’s Kunstlerleben (Artist’s Life) waltz Op. 316, written in 1867, and regarded as the “twin” of the Blue Danube. Now listen to the words of the second verse:
Her old hurdy-gurdy all day she’d parade
And this she would sing to each tune that it played.
So what you’re hearing are new words to an old tune. But there’s a third temporal layer to this: the third verse (not on the recording, but available here) has the line (just before the chorus)
She faded away, but they say in the streets
The ghost of that girl in Italian repeats…
So this is a song about people talking about the ghost of a girl singing a song that she made up to an old tune playing on her hurdy-gurdy. A Pathé newsreel film clip from 1923 of the “first wireless barrel organ” playing this song adds yet another layer to the story: here is a kind of hurdy gurdy playing, ghost-like through the ether, a song about people talking about the ghost of a girl singing a song that she made up to an old tune playing on her hurdy-gurdy. Incidentally, it’s wonderful to see people waltzing in the street as they hear the music. I nearly wrote “spontaneously waltzing” until I wondered whether perhaps Pathé had placed those people very carefully there to make the clip more interesting. Sadly, there’s no audio on the film.
Reanimating ghosts: songs and musicians
When Florrie Forde sings Oh! Oh! Antonio, she brings that ghost of a song back into the physical present (in 1908, that is). That’s one of the things we do as musicians – let songs breathe a bit longer, or, if you like, plant them in ground where they’ll suddenly flourish again just when they were in danger of expiring. There is no natural process by which “great” songs stay hits purely on their own, it only happens by transmission, and the processes can be unpredictable and strange (and expensive, in the case of Pharrell Williams and Robin Thicke). They are “broadcast” both in the TV/Radio/Internet sense, but also in physical form as sheet music and records. They travel with people as carriers of songs, geographically and temporally.
Last week, I saw a 101-year-old woman teaching Are you lonesome tonight? to a young Filipino nurse in a care home in Streatham. I thought, that’s odd, she would have been 46 when Elvis Presley recorded it – surely this isn’t her generation of songs? But when I looked the song up just now, I discovered that in fact, it was first released in 1927, when she would have been 13 – which makes a lot more sense.
So let’s keep Oh! Oh! Antonio going a bit longer—why not? Sing along if you know the words (which you do, because I’ve put them in the score). It would of course be wonderful in any class where there’s an Antonio teaching or dancing, or maybe just for remembering your own Antonio-related history. There’s not an app for that, but there’s a song for it.
This piece has a strange place in my affections. I disliked it for many years – I’m only a fairweather clarinet enthusiast, I’m not a huge Mozart fan, I don’t like slow music, and this piece is just too sentimental for my liking (those descending motifs in the second phrase tug too hard at the heart strings). But a few years ago, I suddenly heard this music through someone else’s ears at a moment when it was accompanying them through the worst part of their life, and they found peace and comfort in it. After that, I could only think of it that way, and only think of them in that situation, and it changed it for me permanently.
At the moment I’m reading Tia DeNora’s Musical Asylums, and I was really taken with the bit where she says how it’s precisely because music is so indefinite and malleable in its meanings, that it is so useful as a medium for change and personal use: it defies meaning, but it can also acquire all kinds of meanings according to people and context. That’s what happened here: the same musical material changed its meaning for me. The music offered me an insight into someone else’s feelings through a transformative connection with my own, and that is an extraordinary achievement of music, isn’t it? – though the whole point of what DeNora is saying is that music on its own does not have this “power,” it’s what we do with it, the way we appropriate it, and give it meanings and uses that is extraordinary.
Adage and metrical issues: the case of the Mozart clarinet concerto
At times, I have wondered whether I should never have created the “Spades” category for myself – that is, the kind of adage music where you don’t care whether it’s in three or four or 12 or whatever, it’s just “slow” (see the “about the year of cards” page if you don’t know what I’m talking about). In the cold light of empirical day, is there actually such a thing? This is the danger of creating categories before you start work on a project.
Yet just when I was going to give it up as a bad idea, I remembered this piece, the slow movement of the Mozart Clarinet concerto. It’s a perfect example of what I mean by the “spades” category, since for almost a week a couple of years ago, I was sure it was in four, not three. I had chosen it for a plié exercise, and even tested it out by plié-ing in my head while listening to it. If i could notate or explain how I came to hear it in four rather than three, I’d talk myself out of it, but I’ll do my best.
With this music, at least on this occasion, I didn’t feel subdivisions, I just heard the “1s” – the slow pulses marking the beginning of each bar. The beats in between were like rubber ducks floating in a bath, with no metre or pattern, no rhythmical parsing. Just a kind of flow or feeling. It’s at times like this when I feel the most affinity with my dance colleagues when they don’t have any perception of or interest in time signature: they’re being mindful (in the Buddhist, meditative sense) of the music, but in a different way. I’ve tried to mentally notate what I thought the music was doing, but I can’t, because whatever I was hearing was “pre-notational.”
Mozart and phrase structure
There is something so perfect about a Mozart phrase. If you read Joseph Riepel’s 1752 primer on how to write a minuet in Fundamentals of Musical Composition , you get an insight into the craft of phrase structure: it’s not genius, it’s about knowing when to go up, when to go down, how to go there, for how long, and in what proportion and so on. As Riepel illustrates, this is something you can teach and learn, and the minuet is a good way to start. I once got a group of first year students to act out Riepel’s master-and-pupil-style dialog, providing the musical examples myself at the piano. I don’t know whether those students really learned much from it, but it was quite a fun way of spending a music lesson.
This piece could be wonderful for class, but the potential for problems are in its tempo. It needs to be slow, and that’s how I managed to mishear it (i.e. because it was so slow, the elapsed time of a single bar was about twice the length of a normal 3/4 plié bar). Wait til someone wants a really slow three, and save it for that. So even though I’m saying that this piece is perhaps neither “particularly” three or particularly four, you might need to wait for a “particularly three” moment to play it, even if you don’t feel its threeness on the surface.
About this arrangement of the Mozart clarinet concerto
In transcribing this for piano, it’s been hard to leave a single note out (hence the rather awkward arrangement). It sounds simple until you try to reproduce it on the piano: the transparency of the writing makes it surprisingly difficult. You can’t just chuck a chord in the left hand and a solo in the right, because the light won’t shine through it. The writing is thin: no bass in the solo sections, and only two notes to hold the harmony together: not an ounce of surplus anywhere. And when the tutti come in, you want richness, not sludge, so chord voicing is a problem. I’ve done my best, though I know I’ll be trying to perfect a sound for this for a long time to come.
Postscript: (if you like your adage with a bit of Wittgenstein)
Now by coincidence, I’d just been reading Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations, and had just got to No. 78 as I was doing this blog entry:
“78. Compare knowing and saying:
how many metres high Mont Blanc is –
how the word “game” is used –
how a clarinet sounds
Someone who is surprised that one can know something and not be able to say it is perhaps thinking of a case like the first. Certainly not of one like the third.”
Now, it’s pure coincidence that he happens to be talking about the clarinet here and this is a clarinet concerto, but the issue is the same as “knowing” a piece of music without being able to say what it “is” or what it’s “in” in terms of metre and structure. I know what this music sounds like, and I could probably play some of it by ear, but initially, I couldn’t say what it was in terms of metre (even though I’d known the music for years). That’s not something you hear much with regard to metre, because metre is so often spoken about in terms of number, as if that’s all it was.
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 outmy 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.
“Do you have anything smaller?” Music, meter and small change
Even though I haven’t used a laundrette in years, I can’t get out of the habit of holding on to 20p pieces for the dryer, just in case. Likewise, when I’m in Prague, my heart sinks when I realise that I’ve just taken out 2,000 Czech crowns at the ATM, because you’ll get a 2000 note, which is currently about £50. Try buying a bus ticket from the airport with that.
Some ballet exercises, particularly those in a medium waltz tempo, are like a launderette where you need a whole bag full of assorted change for the various machines. It needs to be lyrical (notes), then accented (pound coins) then some detail for smaller movements (20p pieces), then some 50p pieces for the bit that’s strong and lyrical, but not so lyrical as the bit you paid for with a tenner, and then lyrical again, but with a strong beat. In other words, whatever accompaniment, dynamic or articulation worked for one bit of the exercise won’t work for all of it, and it’s never quite one thing or another, and you need to be able to keep it all going just under the surface, in case you need to accentuate a different level of the music suddenly.
The “ballet music waltz”
I’m calling this piece from Le diable à quatre a “little waltz,” or a “ballet music waltz” because that term is usually a sign that you need to get your laundrette money out: a waltz is just a waltz, a big waltz kind of plays itself, but a little waltz, or a “ballet music waltz” is like an overweight dachsund that you have to cajole, but not so much that it drags it’s tummy along the ground. I apologise in arrears for all the metaphors, but that’s the nature of the problem – this kind of music isn’t anything in particular, it’s a lot of things at once, and it doesn’t have a name, just a capability.
It starts at 11:09 in the clip above (it should start there automatically).
This little ballet music waltz has got it all: it’s lyrical, with the possibility of long phrases. it’s sometimes in 6, sometimes in 3 (which is a big deal: see my earlier post on the rarity of truly triple metre) sometimes subdivided, sometimes not, sometimes heavy, sometimes light, sometimes quiet, sometimes loud. What’s more, you can play it several different ways without sucking the life out of it.
As if that weren’t enough reasons to include in my year of ballet playing cards, I love the fact that you can hear echos of Giselle’s opening Act 1 solo (the G major 6/8 one) in this.