Tag Archives: Music

A year of playing cards #5: An operatic adage by Dvořák

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"Song to the Moon" by Dvorak

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The curse of the operatic adage 

I think I only have about three of these in my repertoire, which is why it was high time I got another. The way that some ballet teachers mark adages, you’d think the world was just full of voluptuous music that went “and one and a two and a.” I guess my worst fear is when you’re thinking of what to play, you settle on something fairly plain that will work, and then the  teacher does that inclined head thing, gives you a knowing smile, and says “Something inspiring.”  You have to hope they don’t add “…for a change”. This is the stuff of nightmares, because it usually wipes out what you’d decided to play (which is another reason not to decide what to play until the last minute. You never know what tempo or adjective is going to hit you in the few nanoseconds before you play the first note of the introduction).

This aria from Rusalka is just about perfect. The tune really does go “one and a two and a” so there’ll be no fumbling about while the class finds the beat, and half way through, it goes all Maria Callas. I’m afraid I’ve had to do inexcusable metrical surgery on the first part, leaving out a whole 8 bar phrase in order to make it regular, but it’s hard to hear the joins unless you know the aria really well.

Playing tips

You have to have heard this before trying to translate it into piano music. The opening muted strings are hard to reproduce on a piano, and you have to do a lot of work to get the tune out on top, but If you’re lucky, you won’t have to fill it out with semiquavers, though that’s a possibility if you don’t have a very good piano or nice acoustics.

Watching this video is a rather fascinating lesson in how to play for adage well. Listen to the elastic, free, fluid vocal line in the “chorus” bit, and look how the harp accompanies it with almost metronomic rhythmic precision. It must be really precise, because in fact, the last semiquaver that you hear in the bar (part of a single group in my piano reduction) is not the harp (which is silent on the last semiquaver of the bar), but the last note of the pizzicato string figure (quaver, quaver, semiquaver semiquaver) that accompanies the harp.

Pianists tend to be “expressive” and pull the timing around in the bar, but for adage you need to choose your moments very carefully. To provide the right kind of support for a dancer who is doing the equivalent of the vocal line, you have to be as rhythmically solid as that harp and those strings, but at the same time hint at the elasticity of the vocal line. It’s something like the Chopinesque rubato where the accompaniment remains steady while the right hand floats free, but somehow conceptually different. Hard to put into words, but easy to see in this clip.

Metre issues

I’ve put this in “Spades” (Adage) because it’s quite definitely an Adage (see here for an explanation), but on the other hand, it’s about as truly triple metre as metre gets, which is common in some Czech music. Yet more proof that “three” is a big subject in music: so many ways to be triple.

 

Inventing Tradition: The Chestnut Tree Dance

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Dancing your country back

The Chestnut Tree Dance is a bizarre bit of British dance history. It seems worth remembering for a moment in the current atmosphere where some English have been printing  “I want my country back” on badges and t-shirts, and Sarkozy wants to reclaim France “for the French.” If you got your country back, and “reclaimed it” in some way that meant you got the right to impose national dress and culture on people who happen to share the same nearby landmass, what might the dancing look like?

Well, maybe a bit like this. In her article [1]  on social dance in interwar Britain, Rishona Zimring quotes contemporary accounts of nightclubs and rhythm clubs (mainly from the Mass Observation project of the time) that demonstrated the novel diversity of social dance habits of the time:

These were places where races mixed: the interviews reveal that club-goers were highly conscious of this mixture, in some cases attracted by it, in others, uncomfortable. Places where social dancing occurred or where dance music was played were locations of everyday “cosmopolitan modernity.” They displayed a hybridity hard to discern elsewhere (say, at Cambridge) but highly significant as a challenge to English xenophobia and a harbinger of a new, multicultural society. (p. 715)

Those who were uncomfortable with this hybridity wanted something that could reclaim social dancing for the English. The dance halls in comparison to rhythm clubs were a bit dull, and couldn’t compete with the novelty of jazz. As Zimring explains:

The dance halls’ monotony arose in confrontation with the multiculturalism of jazz, which for some in the music business was a problem, a threat to English identity as revealed and bolstered by native traditions in music and dance. The solution was to invent a tradition. (p. 715)

Inventing tradition: The Chestnut Tree Dance

The result was the “Chestnut Tree Dance,” invented and marketed in 1938 by a dance hall impressario, C. L. Heimann. As a press bulletin of the time stated, this dance was a conscious revisiting of past epochs (they wanted their country back then, too).

“The musical basis . . . is an old-time melody—this and the Dance itself is severely ENGLISH. So many of the new and short-lived dances that have been introduced in recent years have been American, and based upon Negro rhythms that have not been suited to English temperament.”

What could be more English than a chestnut tree, what could be more unlike a nazi Salute than raising both arms to symbolise it’s branches? And of course, if you did this in a dance hall, you’d be reasserting your national identity through the medium of dance.  Thanks to the wonders of the internet, you can see what it looked like:

You can imagine how well this might have gone down with people already in thrall to new rhythms, nightclubs, jazz, and a change from the Lambeth Walk:

The Chestnut Tree”’s flexibility as a symbol made it especially resonant as a potential icon of social coherence to counter the hybridity of jazz that threatened the dance halls. Mass-Observation assiduously collected responses from volunteers about “The Chestnut Tree”; it was the dance whose impact they most doggedly pursued (to discover, through interviews, that the majority of dance hall attendees found it fairly silly). (p. 716)

How I found the Chestnut Tree Dance

I’m delighted I found this article. I wouldn’t have done so, had it not been for this beautifully written review of the video game Bound by Farah Rishi. She quotes a journal entry about dance written by Virginia Woolf in 1903, which I found also referenced by Maria Popova at Brainpickings (Party like it’s 1903: Virginia Woolf on the Ecstasy of Music and Dance). That led me to Zimring’s article, and to the Chestnut Tree Dance.  A few months ago, I would have read this and thought “how quaint.” Now, with Trump, Sarkozy, and Farage all circling round what Billig calls banal nationalismit would hardly surprise me if something as bizarre and loopy as the Chestnut Tree Dance surfaced again.

References:

  • Zimring, R. (2007). “The Dangerous Art Where One Slip Means Death”: Dance and the Literary Imagination in Interwar Britain. Modernism/modernity, 14(4), 707–727. http://doi.org/10.1353/mod.2007.0096 [currently available here]

Zimring has also written a whole book on the topic:

  • Zimring, R. (2013). Social dance and the modernist imagination in interwar Britain. Burlington, VT: Ashgate.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Organizing music for ballet class: problems and solutions

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Organizing music for ballet class: where to put stuff, and where to find it again?

I’ve had a blog post brewing for years  on the topic of organizing music for ballet class, but I’m glad to see that someone has saved me the job. Trevor Hewer’s The best way to organize music for free ballet class sums up the problems, but he’s also got a nice picture of a folder with coloured tabs. For the blog post I never wrote, I wanted to collect pictures of people’s folders and discuss their approach to categories and ordering. It’s a fascinating topic.

I agree with all Trevor’s points – memorization seems the best way to me, because sometimes things work for reasons that you can’t categorize. Conversely, once you start categorizing, you build boundaries around the objects you’ve categorised. As I’ve written about before, time signatures (for example) can blind you (deafen you) to the possibility of hearing something in 12/8 as a waltz, or a waltz as being effectively 12/8 or 4/4 with triplets. The other day I got myself out of two difficult corners when I suddenly realised I could use a tango instead of a slow march, and a tarantella instead of a quick one. The less you know in these circumstances, the better, because you don’t rule out things on the basis of their category.  I also found that as much as I like ForScore on my iPad, I find it very difficult and time consuming to catalogue my music on it – and it would take me forever to do it well; and as Trevor points out, “extreme ease of adding new music means less emotional connection with it” — quite. What I’ve found with my own “year of ballet playing cards” project is that the act of choosing, inputting, arranging and practising and blogging about each piece embeds it much better in my memory. You have to love your repertoire into practice.

None of this makes the problem of categorization go away, however. You still have to categorize your memory, or find ways to deliberately overrule it. Sometimes, when I’m stuck, I think of music titles beginning with a letter of the alphabet, or in a certain key; or I think of a word or word-type (songs about love, or food, or places). Sometimes, a particular teacher will get repertoire out of me that I’d forgotten about, and I couldn’t tell you why. Some miniscule difference in the way a teacher marks, or what you know about them, or the way they interact with you. More worryingly, some teachers seem to elicit the same narrow repertoire from me every time, and I have to find ways to avoid the rut.

The thing about memorization is that it potentially allows you random access, whereas a book requires you to think about order and category, titles, subtitles, genres, and so on. I had to make decisions about it several times in my previous job. One of the things I learned is that if anyone else is going to use your system, your plan has to align as best it can with the way that the user thinks about the topic, otherwise it will never get used, or will fail.

String and categories

It’s interesting to see how supermarkets deal with the same problem. For example, the other day I helped a woman in Wilkinson’s who couldn’t find a plain ball of string anywhere. She’d looked without success in “household” (where you’d think it might be), she’d settled for a ball of overpriced, fancy, “hobby” string in the toy section (for making necklaces and so on). I eventually found what she was looking for (plain string, 50p a ball) in the stationery area, on the packing and parcel materials shelves.  We had to try to understand the “mind” of the shop in order find it.

Categorizing music is no different:  what are the chances of someone else working out where you have put a piece of music? If someone else has devised the system, you have to be able to understand their mind and their culture in order to retrieve an object. Trevor makes a good point – you might as well put your repertoire in alphabetical order, since the thing you’re most likely to remember is the title.

Faceted navigation

But that only gives you one chance of finding it – if you don’t know the title, you’ll have to go through all your library piece by piece. The best chance you have is to assign multiple categories to each one, so that you and others  have several chances of finding what you want. On different days you might want the same piece for different reasons: because it sounds French; because it has a long anacrusis; because it’s in 3/4; because the teacher likes it; because you didn’t play it last week; because it’s in E flat and in a related key to what you’re playing right now; because you can adapt the rhythm and feel easily to the exercise (which is an affordance somewhere between you, your imagination, the music, what you’re playing it on, and the exercise – it’s not a property of a sound object). I have a piece in mind right now, the Petite Valse by Joe Heyne which has been all of those things to me.

I came across faceted navigation in Paul Lamere’s “Social Tagging and Music Information Retrieval” (article, free to download) when I was writing about similar issues in training ballet teachers to deal with music (given that the immediately relevant categories of music-as-heard and danced-to are not the same as the notational ones, how do you start talking about music, especially when the music can be categorised in various ways?).  Faceted navigation means being able to locate or select a piece of music by using any of a number of its attributes (“facets”) not all of which are “inherent’ in the sound at all, but cluster around the object through discourse, cultural conventions, use and personal experience.

I’m now writing about similar things in my thesis, but with the additional theme of boundary objects. Perhaps the strangest and most elusive thing about musical “objects” in the ballet world is in the context of use, a piece of music becomes “something I can do this to” where this is gestural, and does not become particularly musical (rhythmic, metric, dynamic, etc.) until the music is drawn into it. Try categorizing that.

 

A year of ballet playing cards #50: A chameleon-like march by Granados (DJ)

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Screen-grab of the Marcha Militar by Granados. Free piano music for ballet class

Click to download the score of this chameleon-like music

The march that isn’t a march: one of the perennial problems of music for ballet class

Another problem that I could have added to my “Confessions of an anxious ballet pianist” series is the search for something march-like  that can nonetheless immediately adapt to its surroundings without losing its identity:  a musical chameleon that can be staccato and legato, slow and  fast, up and  down on the beat, but not too much; loud and  soft, rhythmed and even; even but not mechanical, strict but not rigid. You need this for a certain kind of battement jeté exercise that tries to be all things to all women, and is neither fish nor fowl, musically. Enter the Military March by Granados (Marcha Militar).

Originally for piano duet, this little march is great for those occasions when you start playing and then realise, horrified, that you misread the exercise in the marking: it turns out to be slower/faster, louder/softer, more down on the beat, more up on the beat than you thought, and so on. With the Military March by Granados, you can pick various levels of the meter and emphasise them. There are different sections that vary from soft and fluid to sharp and detached, but within those sections, you can also alter your articulation and dynamics without causing any life-threatening injuries to the music.  I found it thanks to Susie Cooper, who recommended as something for a children’s piece in a school on a Facebook thread. I heard two bars, and fell in love with it. Thanks, Susie.

How fast is a march in music for ballet class?

The published score is marked allegretto: poco lento which would give this a warm, demure, leisurely, slightly pastoral feel: a parade in a country town after lunch, not the Red Army Choir or The Dambusters.  In fact, it’s more of a literary march than a military one, to borrow a concept from Raymond Monelle, who talks about the “cheval écrit” — the literary horse.  If there’s anyone marching here, it’s not an army, it’s  the pianists, dressed up in toy soldier uniforms. It was written in 1904, and  dedicated to King Alfonso XIII of Spain.  However indirectly, the favour was returned later: when Granados and his wife died in 1916 as a result of the torpedoing of the SS Sussex , King Alfonso set up a collection to raise money for the orphaned Granados children.

There’s a nice performance of it here, (as the original piano duet) and another one in the clip below, for brass band. Both are faster (at least to my mind) than necessary, and lose some of the potential for elegance and subtlety —but they demonstrate how it could be played fast, as well as slow.


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The arrangement

In making the arrangement, I’ve tried to keep almost everything in, so you can see what the chord voicings should be, but it would be impossible to keep that up all the way through. I’ve shown an ossia at the beginning to give an idea for what it could be, when simplified.  I find myself that even when I know that an orchestra would double the bass at the octave, I’m nervous to actually do it unless I see it written down, so my principle in reductions is to put it all in and let the player decide.

The manuscript of the Military March by Granados

For some details about the composition/publication history (in Spanish) see this short article.

 

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

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9ccard35

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.

coppelia-burgermeister

Extract from the mazurka in Coppélia

hubay-fifths

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

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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)

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keler

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.