Tag Archives: Music

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.

Playing for ballet class: links, books, suggestions


I’ve had a few messages recently asking for my advice on where to look for help on playing for ballet class, so it seemed like a good time to do a page on the subject. Please add your own suggestions in the comments. This isn’t a comprehensive review of what’s out there, it’s what I know, and a lot of it is stuff that I compiled myself. If you search for “ballet class sheet music” on the web, you’ll find links to loads of sites where people sell collections of improvisations/compositions for class. The lists below are to collections of music from the concert or ballet repertoire that are suitable for class.

Playing for ballet class is a bit like catering for a multi-faith wedding with food allergies: the suggestions below are the knives, chopping boards, saucepans and staples. Improvising and bringing in tunes that have local relevance or currency are ingredients.

Image of the score of a csárdás: a useful piece if you're playing for ballet class

A life-saving csárdas by Röszavölgyi – one of my “52 ballet playing cards” pieces that you are unlikely to come across in the standard piano repertoire.

Playing for ballet class: resources on this site:

A year of ballet playing cardsThis is a growing list (which will eventually grow to 52 pieces) of free, downloadable music for class, with sometimes lengthy explanations and illustrations.  Although the list is only about half-complete so far, there’s almost enough in there for a class already.

Tips for ballet pianists:  Not all the links here have music suggestions, but many do, these in particular:

Playing for ballet class: Anthologies of music 

  • Russian Ballet Technique, As Taught, by Alexis Kosloff. [free, online]  It was published in 1921, but nearly 100 years later, there’s plenty in there that hasn’t changed. The link is to my blog entry on the book, which links to the online file.
  • Anthologies of music for ballet classes from balletmusic.narod.ru [online, free] Published collections of music for ballet classes scanned as pdfs.  The site’s in Russian, but use Google translate to see what’s there if you’re not a Russian-speaker.
  • A Dance Class Anthology (Royal Academy of Dance, 2005). I edited this book of 50+ pieces for class that was designed to get you out of most ballet class problems. It’s now out of print, but you may pick one up on Amazon or from a reseller who still has stock.
  • Syllabus books of the Royal Academy of Dance. I helped to compile and edit these books since 2007. The Vocational Graded syllabi in particular (Intermediate Foundation, Intermediate, Advanced Foundation, Advanced 1 and Advanced 2) have dozens of examples of suitable repertoire for class – even if you don’t play what’s in the book, the models will be useful. In the end of these books there is a compilation of music for “free” allegro enchaînements. Putting these together almost completely exhausted my list of suitable classical repertoire.
  • Dance and MusicHarriet Cavalli. The first part of the book is a guide for musicians and teachers, the second part is a collection of music for class. The physical format of the book isn’t ideal for a piano, but the material is useful.
  • The Ballet Accompanist’s Handbook by Laurence Galian (1989). Not an anthology, but a brief and unpretentious guide to playing for classes that has excellent practical suggestions for where to look for repertoire. I’m incapable of being concise, but if I could be, this is the book I would have written. All good advice in shorty paragraphs.

Suggestions for further reading/listening about playing for ballet class

A year of ballet playing cards #21: A gigue by Grétry (8h)



Image of the piano score of a gigue by Grétry

Click to download the file

I can’t remember why I started listening to Grétry’s music after neglecting him for so long. In the years I’ve hunted for music for class, syllabi, other people’s ballet shows and so on, I’ve stopped at nothing as far as search routines are concerned, sometimes chucking any old search term into iTunes, like “carrot” or “milk” and seeing what comes up – so heaven knows how I might have found Grétry (random search terms can be very productive – give it a try if you haven’t already). Or perhaps it was reading about him in a music history book that led me to discover his catchy music for “Turks” in the Cairo Caravan, and to wonder whether there was more where this came from.

Meter and the gigue

Gigues that have real triple movement in them (as opposed to being marches with a bit of a triplet-y lilt)  as well as being in 8-bar phrases are quite hard to find. Pieces like this are useful for those teachers that set petit allegros which need this continuous, filigree surface. It’s interesting how much you find gigue-like  texture and movement in Tchaikovsky (think of the party scene, see below) which supports Taruskin’s thesis (I’m paraphrasing) that Tchaikovsky was more of a French composer than a Russian one.


Extract from Act 1 of Tchaikovsky’s “Nutcracker,” party scene

I was all excited at how much more interesting Grétry’s music was than I had thought it would be when I heard the clip below. Later, I realised that what I was listening to had been arranged and added to by Felix Mottl, as you’ll find out if you compare the two scores at IMSLP (i.e. the orchestral ballet suite, and the vocal score of the opera from which the ballet music is taken).

Rejigging the gigue: arranging as renovation

I happen to love Mottl’s re-hearing of the gigue (sadly, I’ve had to cut some of the best bits for the sake of making it work for class. When you look at Grétry’s original, you realise that Mottl had heard something in the music that needed polishing to summon the genie in the lamp. Perhaps I would not have been so ready to admire Mottl’s arrangement, had I not just re-read one of my favourite passages about arrangement from Peter Szendy’s Listen: A history of our ears. 

As ballet musicians, we are used to arranging (it fascinates me, incidentally, the  sociological implications behind the two terms dance arranger and “composer”) but it is Szendy who dignifies the practice with what you might call a poetics of arrangement:

amazon-szendyI love them more than all the others, the arrangers. The ones who sign their names inside the work, and don’t hesitate to set their name down next to the author’s. Bluntly adding their surname by means of a hyphen: Beethoven-Liszt (for a piano version of the nine symphonies), Bach-Webern (for an orchestration of the ricercar in the  Musical Offering), Brahms-Schoenberg, Schubert-Berio, who else—in short, a whole mass of double-barrel signatures.

Now it seems to me that what arrangers are signing is above all a listening. Their hearing of a work. They may even be the only listeners in the history of music to write down their listenings, rather than describe them (as critics do). And that is why I love them, I who so love to listen to someone listening. I love hearing them hear.

(Peter Szendy Listen: A history of our ears, Fordham University Press, 2008, pp. 35-36)

There’s enough material in this gigue to make your own version – you might not want to begin the exercise in octaves in the bass, but that might be fun half way through, for example. Arrange away, add a fourth or fifth name to the credits.


Ballet classes and dance calling


I’ve had two conversations with people who play for ceilidhs which have made me think that there’s much more in common between dance calling and teaching a ballet class than we’d like to think.  And now I’ve found a website which has convinced me even further.

The first conversation was with a fiddle player some years ago who explained in two sentences the relationship between marches and single jigs (you can replace one with the other) and how double jigs can be replaced with another dance (can’t remember which one now). The second was with someone recently who was explaining that they were going to do their first gig as a caller rather than just a player. When he gave an example of what he was going to do, I thought “hold on, this sounds just like someone teaching ballet, except with different steps.” It wouldn’t have occurred to me, had I not just transcribed a bit of a ballet class, and seen on paper what teachers say when they mark exercises.

The point I’m getting towards is that I think we often make far too much of a palaver out of what music for ballet class involves, because we (by which I mean “the ballet world”) would like to think it’s more classy and distinguished than it really is: elegant smoke and mirrors (literally, in the case of the ballet studio). We worry about whether this piece of music or that will have the right feel and atmosphere for that exercise, but if you look at fiddle books like Kerr’s Merry Melodies, you can see immediately that for a polka, for example, you can use all kinds of music, as long as you can still polka to it – and as the fiddler pointed out, single jigs and marches are interchangeable. Whether the music’s called a galop, hornpipe, reel or whatever is neither here nor there, it’s how it goes that matters; and if nothing else, people don’t always give their tunes correct names (classical ones are the worst at that – like Widor’s so-called Pavane in 6/8).


“It’s a Pavane, Jim, but not as we know it.”

And then I came across this, a “Caller’s Workshop” on the website of Colin Hume, a caller himself.  There, on a page, is about the best introduction I’ve seen to dealing with music in a ballet class – all you have to do is imagine he’s talking about ballet rather folk dance calling. It’s concise, it’s clear, it’s down to earth.  He deals with  Working With Live Music  music in a few paragraphs, without making  a (excuse the pun) song and dance about it:

So that’s one thing to discuss with the band beforehand: who counts?  The other is signals.  “One more time”, so they can go back to the original tune or just give it everything they’ve got.  “Out” — particularly in a patter square where you’re jabbering away.  “Kill”.  “Slower”.  “Faster”.  You think it’s obvious what you mean; they don’t have a clue.  Walt Tingle uses a circular movement of the hand to mean “Wind it up — finish”, but many callers use that to mean “Faster”.  Make sure you know who to give signals to — it might not be the obvious person.  I tend to give signals to the whole band, for safety.

I reckon if ballet teaching manuals were written in this style, no-one would get in such a flap over it. It’s only music, it’s only dancing, but we’d all like to think that it’s something more, something that transcends the everyday. For sure, ballet at it’s best is extraordinary and out of this world, but when it comes to class, “You think it’s obvious what you mean; they don’t have a clue” is what it boils down to (on both sides, in fact).




A year of playing cards #4: *THE* Talisman Pas de Deux


Click to download the score

After my recent anxiety that I might never find any more suitable adage-y music for my card collection, The Talisman came to the rescue again.  At the time I did this, I hadn’t seen a piano score, but got hold of one just as I’d uploaded it.  Here’s my transcription of the Talisman adagio section, with a few bits of guesswork.

It’s not quite even, unfortunately, but you could make a version of it by returning to the second half of A once you get to the end of B, or do a really cheeky cut from halfway through the end of the 16th bar of the tune, into the C7 that goes into the reprise of the tune in F major (the last section is also 16 bars, although it doesn’t seem regular).  At the time I did this in August 2015, The Talisman was not particularly well known except among people who do it at galas. For some reason, that’s changed in the last year, and now I keep hearing about people doing it:  Isabelle Brouwers and Erik Woolhouse will dance it at ENB’s Emerging Dancer performance 2016, for example.

I’m a bit behind with the 52 cards project, but hoping to catch up in the next couple of weeks. Meanwhile, treat yourself to a bit Anastasia Stashkevich and Yonah Acosta in Talisman Pas de Deux. I’ve got a recording that I prefer over this one in musical terms, where the orchestra takes more time over the juicy moments, but this is one of the nicest videos.

A year of playing cards #3: Talisman pas de deux (3h)


This page is about one of the lesser known Talisman pas de deux. For the famous Talisman pas de deux, see this page.

Talisman pas de deux, piano solo

Click to download

Talisman pas de deux: at last another adage

I was beginning to worry that I’d got past the summer equinox of my year of ballet playing cards, and still only had two adage-like things, and that I’d spend the last three months of the year having to try to find slow music. which would be a real pain. Then, out of the sky dropped the Talisman pas de deux, something I’d been meaning to transcribe for years, ever since Adam Lopez told me about it.  It’s apparently by Drigo, though – see what you think – it’s either not by Drigo, or it’s Drigo with a hangover. Whatever it is, it’s gorgeous, and one to pull out when you have real ballet fans in class. It’s a kind of Ballet World Citizenship Test, if you recognise this tune, then you can have indefinite leave to remain.

Now when I say it’s the Talisman pas de deux, I don’t mean it’s THEEEEE Talisman Pas de deux, but the one danced by Damayanti & Noureddin from the second act of the full-length ballet. The other (“real”) Talisman pas de deux by Gusev c. 1955 is by Drigo, but it’s a pot-pourri of Drigo (and a bit of Pugni thrown in). As always, I would know none of this without Adam Lopez, who deserves some kind of international medal for his work on all this Russian stuff.

The canonical ballet class adage style

After all this time playing for class, I’ve come to the conclusion that this piece is what “adage” means when teachers don’t specify anything at all: 12/8 at this speed, with the tune moving mostly at the 8th note/quaver level. If in doubt, play this kind of thing, and it’s Get Out of Adage Jail free.

I can’t promise that all the notes are absolutely correct: I’m taking it down by dictation, and the accompaniment is just a bit of chord-y wash. If you can get harp into the right hand rather than the bass register, it will sound nicer, but it would have been a week’s work to make an arrangement like that, and I probably wouldn’t end up playing it anyway. Amazingly (for Drigo) it’s actually in 8 bar phrases, and if you repeat C-D, you’ll have four sets of something.

For the “real” Talisman pas de deux, see this page.