Tag Archives: music for ballet class

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

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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. 

Repertoire

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.  

A year of ballet playing cards #41: A juicy csárdás – Ünneplö (“Festive”) by Rózsavölgyi (D2)

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Click this picture of the csárdás to download the file

Rózsavölgyi’s csárdás “Ünneplö”, rewritten in 4/8 – I like it better this way, but it’s too late now. Click the picture to download the file.

Diamonds: a set of pieces in 4: See the Year of Ballet Playing Cards information page

2_of_diamondsAt the end of the previous post, I said I regretted not transcribing Mark Rózsavölgyi‘s “Festive,” which I discovered right at the last moment, while I was trying to find out who wrote the tune that Liszt borrowed for his Hungarian Rhapsody No. 6. The music has haunted me literally for the whole week since, morning, noon and night, and so I have transcribed it for week 2 of the Year of Ballet Playing Cards. 


I’ve transcribed it because I fell in love with the music at first hearing, but also because it happens to be very useful for all kinds of things in ballet class:  that kind of slow, juicy, stretchy tendu exercise where nothing seems to be quite slow enough; a fondu that has been set on a very slow habañera/tango; an adage.

What to play for a slow, warm-up tendu? Try a csárdás for a change

I default to jazz standards for this, or a slow tango/habañera type,  but always wish I had a few other things in reserve. Those styles will do, but they require some fixing and a lot of control to keep them in the right tempo area, the  styles aren’t to every teacher’s taste. What’s great about this piece is that it’s really slow, but there’s a kind of cat’s cradle of notes between the beats that keep a rhythmic tension going, and keep a sense of beat for both you and the dancers. 

Picture of cat's cradle

A cat’s cradle: for me, a metaphor for the kind of springy-tension that you need between beats in when playing for some ballet exercises. Source: wikicommons

One of the hardest things to do is to play very slowly without any intermediate beats, but this plays itself. Slow exercises often have little bits of detail in them that need an occasional fine-tuning of the beat, so music like this which has several levels of metre at once is the equivalent of making sure you’ve got plenty of change for the parking meter (no pun intended) as well as a bundle of notes for your larger purchases.

A juicy csárdás by any other name…

The term that comes instantly to mind for this music is “Juicy csárdás.” I don’t think it is really a csárdás, but I’m just calling it that as a placeholder for something slow and Hungarian. Why juicy? Not sure, but I think it’s because you sort of squeeze the notes out between the beats, you can almost feel a productive tension as you play, as if you’re playing the accordion. I couldn’t think of a tempo/expression word to put at the beginning, but when I played it for class yesterday, the teacher smiled and said, “I like that – moodily East European” and that summed it up. I won’t risk offending moody East Europeans by putting it on the score, but it just goes to show how easily music conveys culturally sedimented meanings. For more on that, see Marina Frolova-Walker’s wonderful article on why we think all Russian music is sad   .

Only when I’d nearly finished did I realise that I should have notated it in 4/8 so that you could see the longer lines, and how beats belong together. The image at the top of this post will give you the idea. Unfortunately, I didn’t have time to redo the whole thing (I know there’s a plug-in in Sibelius for this, but it doesn’t copy anything except notes and articulations, so it would have taken ages to edit).

See also

References

Tari, L. (2012). The Verbunkos, a music genre and musical symbol of Hungary. Bulletin of the Transilvania University of Braşov, 5(54), 81–86.

A year of ballet playing cards: #40 The Csárdás (1D)

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Csárdás for ballet class by Liszt

Click on the picture to download the sheet music for a Csárdás for ballet class

Diamonds: a set of pieces in 4: See the Year of Ballet Playing Cards information page

A csárdás for ballet class: something for everyone

One of most awkward kinds of 4/4 that you need for class is one that is in strict tempo without sounding too boxy; strong but not so strong that it sounds like a march; slow but without being flaccid or adage-like; upright and proud but without sounding pompous or baroque; in four, but with strong off-beats. It’s the kind of music that’s defined more by what it isn’t than what it is: you have to constantly avoid drifting into the music that feels more natural.

Help is at hand: enter the csárdás (pronounced char-dash, and sometimes spelled czardas outside Hungary  – csárdás is the Hungarian spelling), or rather the slow part of that dance, called the lassú  – the fast part is called friss. Liszt’s arrangement of this tune, which is as carefully detailed as something by Percy Grainger, is a good example of the kind of rich chord voicing, varied dynamics, interesting phrasing, careful articulation and accentuation that sounds good for class: it’s less about the tunes, than about how you play them. It also shows that backbeat wasn’t invented in the 1950s, it was alive and kicking (or should we say “snaring”?) at least a century earlier.

Something borrowed, something Hungarian: the bring and buy sale of 19th century music

If this piece sounds or looks familiar, it’s because it sounds suspiciously like Glazunov nicked it for the introduction to the Grand Pas Hongrois in Act 3 of Raymonda. It seems Hungarian music was just up for grabs in the nineteenth century  – Delibes didn’t write the csárdás in CoppéliaLiszt – like Brahms in his Hungarian Dances –  borrowed the tunes for his Magyar Dalok and Hungarian Rhapsodies from somewhere else, from so-called “folk tunes” which nonetheless were written by actual composers such as Jozsef Kossovits and Márk Rózsavölgyi who apparently provided the tune for this dance (well worth downloading the score of a few Hungarian dances by Rózsavölgyi from IMSLP, by the way). Who knows where it originated? You can find it as Jaj de huncut a… on page 103 of Vol 1. of the 101 Hungarian Folksongs, and you can hear it sung in the Youtube clip below (scroll to 1.20 if it doesn’t automatically start there).

jajdehuncut

 


Amongst other things, Glazunov seems to have borrowed at least the first bar or two of this, the folk song “Elmenten én a szölöbe” (page 20 in vol. 2 of 101 Hungarian Folksongs) and also a tune by Hubay for the first coda  (see earlier post on Glazunov, Raymonda and Hullàmzò Balaton). In turn, you’ll find that tune in volume two of the 101 folksongs, as “Én vagyok az aki nem jó” (p.29). Come to think of it, why do we this borrowing in music? It’s not like the composers give it back to the “folk” after they’ve finished with it, and say “There you go, I think it’s all there, I gave it a good wash yesterday.”

raymonda

The opening of the Grand Pas Hongrois in Glazunov’s Raymonda, Act 3. Sound familiar?

I owe this piece to one of the people I learned most from, Woytek Lowski. I recorded it on the first ballet album I ever made, which was to accompany his book, The Art of Teaching of Classical BalletWoytek wanted something for a warm-up that wasn’t stodgy or relaxing: he said that on the contrary, sometimes it was good to have something that was invigorating and strong. When I played it to him, he probably thought instantly of Raymonda. It was only nearly 20 years later that I realised that the Liszt and Glazunov pieces had the same first 2 bars, which shows how important context is when you’re recognising things.

If you’re wondering why the first piece of the year is No. 40, it’s because that’s where it belongs in the deck of cards, but I’m not setting myself the burdensome task of doing them in order as the weeks go by. I’m sure I’ll be cursing at the end of the year when I’m fitting the last piece of the jigsaw, but I’d rather curse then, than every week.

I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that once I’d heard this lovely piece by Rózsavölgyi, I wished I transcribed that as my csárdás of choice rather than the Liszt, but that’s blogging for you – you live and learn, in that order.

See more about the csárdás for ballet class

See even more

Don’t expect a bibliography like this for every entry, it’s just that Hungarian music raises a lot of issues about nationalism, identity, borrowing, folk music and so on. This is just a small selection of what is a huge field. If the references look a bit weird in places, it’s because half of them are generated with Zotpress – a fantastic plugin for WordPress that enables you to cite-and-write using Zotero with WordPress, one of the best things I’ve seen in years – and the other half by hand. Forgive the untidiness, but I’ve only just installed it, and am still playing with settings.

See even, even more 

Playing card images by Byron Knoll 
Creative Commons License
Ballet Playing Card 40 by Liszt is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

Black Friday – Christmas Carols for Class, Free Download (all 26 tracks)

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I saw this at the museum of broken relationships

My motto.

For last year’s Advent Calendar, I did 26 sketches of Christmas Carols for class. I’d love to make the album properly one day, but in the meantime, if you would like to use any of these for class, please be my guest. Some are a bit silly, some aren’t in straight sets of 8 bar phrases (that’s Christmas carols for you), and some are a bit rough round the edges, but you might find something in there you like.

If you want to read the background, see last year’s Advent calendar as a list