Tag Archives: musicology

A year of ballet playing cards #37: A grand polonaise by Nápravník


Screenshot of the polonaise from Dubrovsky by Eduard Nápravník

You’d think that if ballet teachers have a mental model of how a polonaise goes, this would be a distillation of all the polonaises they’d ever heard, the top of the bell curve, just as when you go to buy a door, you expect that the shop will have a selection of them that resembles your idea of what a door is, even if the panelling and materials are different. Polonaises like the teacher’s model should be a dime a dozen in the repertoire, you’d think. 

But they’re not. As I’ve written elsewhere there’s hardly a polonaise in the ballet repertoire that you can play for class straight out of the box.  They have all kinds of little annoyances in them—2 bar fills, 10 bar phrases, four bar phrases, 5-phrase sections. They’re too slow, or too fast, too lyrical, or too complex rhythmically. So you hunt again, and find another breed of polonaise that, if it was a food product, would have the ominous word flavour on the label. Polonaise flavour. Contains polonaise flavouring.  A teacher wrote to me recently, asking why it was that the grand battement on a polonaise she’d tried out for class didn’t work—she wanted to cross-phrase it so the leg went up on 1, 3 and 5 across a two-bar phrase (i.e. 136—a hemiola, in musical terms). She knew exactly what she was doing, but it didn’t work. I wasn’t there, but I would put money on the reason being that the pianist used a polonaise-flavoured room spray, rather than the eau de parfum. 

Triple meter and the polonaise —(trigger warning: meter theory, including some hemiola) 

Metrically speaking, the eau de parfum of the ballet teacher’s polonaise is one in which all the beats of the bar are equal, so that if you want to cross-phrase, hemiola fashion, you can. The classic case from the pianist’s repertoire is the opening section of  Chopin’s A major “military polonaise” Op. 40 No. 1, or the final polonaise in Tchaikovsky’s Suite No. 3 (used in Balanchine’s Theme and Variations). But many polonaises aren’t like this. They tend, like the middle section of the Chopin polonaise I just mentioned, towards a kind of unequal meter, with the first part twice as long as the second (2+1). Even if you try to  play with metronomic accuracy, there’s going to be a pull towards unevenness, either on the part of the performer or listener. 

This is a much bigger issue than it might appear on the surface. In Beating Time & Measuring Music in the Early Modern Era , Roger Grant devotes a chapter to “a renewed account of unequal triple meter” which sets out the problem. Somewhere in the 16th century, triple meter became “grounded in a basic inequality.” Beating duple time consisted of an equal lowering and raising of the hand, whereas triple time involved a lowering (i.e. a downbeat) of double the length of the upbeat. In this form, “triple meter was an unequal meter, similar in nature to the unbalanced meters in five or seven with which we are familiar in the twenty-first century” 

Now get this: 

In theoretical writings of the past forty years, however, triple meter no longer garners special treatment. It has become, for the most part, an equivalent of duple meter with different cardinality (that is, a different number of beats per measure). In these theories, triple meter is an isochronous meter—all of its parts are equal in length. This is the result of recent scholarship’s heavy theoretical investment in the properties of equal division and graduated hierarchy.

Although Grant is here comparing theoretical perspectives, as a ballet pianist, you see this played out all the time in practice, and the polonaise problem I outlined above can be analysed in precisely these terms. The teacher has a conception of triple meter—in the polonaise, at least—in which the 3/4 bar is an isochronous meter, i.e. three equal beats. A lot of music in 3/4 isn’t like this. There is an unequal ebb and flow in the bar, a proportion of 2:1. Even if the pulse you’re playing to is even, the rhythm of the music draws you into this pattern, so that if you’re trying to cross-phrase your grands battements, the music pulls in another direction. Nonetheless, there are some polonaises which are examples of isochronous triple meter, and Tchaikovsky, when he’s polonaising, tends towards this pattern. The trouble is, most of them aren’t good for class for one reason or another (including overfamiliarity if you’re playing for a company). 

Enter Nápravník, on an isochronous triple meter

This one  by Nápravník is one of the rare pieces I’ve found in years of searching that comes close to the model of the ballet teacher’s polonaise without sounding like it’s been knocked together out of two-by-fours and MDF. Czech by birth, Eduard Nápravník was  principal conductor at the Mariinsky Theatre, and conducted many of Tchaikovsky’s works, including the first performance of the 1st piano concerto, and the posthumous performance of the Pathètique. At the double bill premiere of Iolante and The Nutcracker, Nápravník conducted the opera, Drigo the ballet. 


The  date of Nápravník’s opera Dubrovsky, 1895, suggests that if there’s any influence, it must have been from Tchaikovsky to Nápravník. But with Tchaikovky’s documented respect for Czech composers—he “unreservedly praises Saint-Saëns, Delibes, Massenet, Grieg, Svendsen, Dvořák, and in the latter’s train Zdeněk Fibich, Karel Bendl, Karel Kovařovic, and Josef Bohuslav Foerster”   and  for Nápravník, it’s not inconceivable that perhaps some of the influence flowed in the other direction.  

Like so many other polonaise composers, Nápravník doesn’t write in blocks of 4 x 8 bar phrases, so I’ve had to cut it in places, and double up a four-bar phrase in another to make it usable for class. It was very hard to decide how to do this without committing a crime against music, but I think it’s worth it.  Some of the cuts and repeats feel criminal to me, but I think of all the times in real life productions where choreographers have cut or repeated, and once you’ve heard it a couple of times, you get used to it. Cuts, like murder, get easier after the first time. 

I haven’t simplified the arrangement, as if the exercise is slow,  you might be grateful of having something to play while you wait for the next beat to arrive. There’s no getting away from it, polonaises are just difficult to play, particularly this kind. There’s a rather lovely trio section in the middle which has echoes of one of the servant girls’ chorus (“Dyevitsy krasavitsy”) in Onegin. Given that Nápravník conducted the first performance of that opera, and would have known it well, the similarity is perhaps not surprising. 


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


Click to download score

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

By who? By Hubay, that’s who

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

Mazurka or polka mazurka?

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


Extract from the mazurka in Coppélia


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

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

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

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

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

See also: 

Musicology, ballet teaching and time signature


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

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

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

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

A year of ballet playing cards #18: Another 6/8 allegro – by Auber (5h)

Music for allegro in six eight (6/8)

Click to download the score

This music for allegro in six eight is what I call an “assemblé 6/8” because it’s often in assemblé exercises that teachers ask for a 6/8, or what seems like a waltz. Once the exercise starts, you realise that it’s neither a waltz, nor the kind of 6/8 that grows on trees. I call it “one of those 6/8s” (see  recent post for another example), or an “assemblé 6/8” – you can also use it for some battements glissés exercises at the barre.

In music for ballet, less is often more

The longer I’ve played for ballet, the more I’ve come to appreciate pieces like this. On the surface they appear to do nothing – the bass line barely moves for the whole piece. But as a rule, taking stuff away rather than adding it seems to work well in ballet class. Structurally, too, the middle section with its upward motion and drama is all the more exciting for being set off by rather static stuff either side. What also looks like musical dullness – the same note in the bass for most of the piece, also acts like a drum, and a musical “floor” for the person doing the exercise. It’s easy to denigrate 19th century ballet music for being samey, but it works, and what the hell, Uptown Funk doesn’t suffer from having too many of the same notes in the tune either.

Well-designed music for allegro in six eight keeps you in time

This piece is a good example of music that has physical constraints in its design that prevent you from snatching a few milliseconds in the middle of the bar as you might in a waltz or jig-like rhythm. Those two semiquavers in the central beat (punctuated by horns in the orchestration) keep this in a genuine three, and make you hold your tempo. I borrowed the idea of physical constraints as a design feature  from Donald Norman’s The Design of Everyday Things .

The value of physical constraints is that they rely on properties of the physical world for their operation; no special training is necessary. With the proper use of physical constraints there should be only a limited number of possible actions – or, at least, desired actions can be made obvious, usually by being especially salient.  (Norman, 1989, p. 84)

An example of this in everday life would be a door that had a push-plate on one side, and a handle on the other. You simply couldn’t pull the door on the push side by accident because there’s nothing to grab, and you would naturally go to pull the door on the pull-side. In this music, those semiquavers are the physical constraints, they prevent you from squeezing the tempo in the middle of the bar. The same principle works like a dream when you use polka-mazurka types for a pirouette – it’s almost impossible to get out of time.

About the arrangement

Despite it’s simplicity, this piece was difficult to reduce for piano, and I’m still not happy with it, after several revisions.  It’s hard to capture the bouncy lightness of the orchestration on a piano with only two hands, so this would probably make a nice duet. In three places, I’ve missed out one beat, in order to drag the piece into a meter that works for class. The start of it comes from Act 1 (should start automatically start in the right place when you click, but if not, drag the slider to 6:11)

The A minor section comes from Act 5 (starts at 16:17, again, should start there automatically on click, but drag to the right time if not). Altogether, this week’s score has four variants of 6/8 for allegro, one of which will probably work for the exercise. It’s handy to have a piece that keeps changing rhythmic emphasis like this, because then you can see which particular variant works. You’ll notice that the final section also removes the constraint that I wrote about in the F major section – which will be either a good or a bad thing, depending on the exercise.

The Auber in the Tchaikovsky

I can’t say I was much of an Auber fan before this week, but the more I listen, the more I like it. There are some really bizarre, tender and wonderful moments of orchestration.  I also began to realise how much Tchaikovsky’s dance music resembles Auber at times (the Tchaikovsky pas de deux female variation could have been written by him, in places, and there’s a bit that sounds straight out of a march in Swan Lake.

There’s also a strong resemblance between this last A minor section from Act I, and Tchaikovsky’s “August” (Harvest song) from The Seasons which is used in the pas de trois after the duel in Onegin. There seems to be a worldwide competition to play this as fast as possible, until the rhythm just blurs into rabid prattle of notes, but I do rather like this orchestration, which makes the piece sound a lot better than it is:


A year of ballet playing cards #16 : Esmeralda male variation music (3h)

Esmeralda male variation music (clip of the piano score)

Click to download the score (pdf)

You can never have enough grand allegro, and this is handy because it’s in a class of pieces that are ballet music, which means that you have to be careful where you play them, but on the other hand, it’s repertoire that’s not often performed, so either people won’t know where it’s from, or they’ll smile and go “Isn’t that…??” and you look good because you know weird stuff that you found on Youtube. The solo is at 48’46” in the clip below. It should start there automatically when you click, but if it doesn’t, drag the slider to the correct time.

See also: 

Esmeralda male variation music: the meter (for geeks only)

This should really be in the Clubs suit, not Hearts, because it’s actually a truly triple meter, not the dodgy six-eight kind—the phrases end on the eighth count, not the seventh. What fooled me was the melodic phrasing, which is in two bar units, which definitely feels duple.  But look more closely, and not only are the cadences on 8, but also the harmony changes every bar, which strengthens the case for truly triple metre even more. Also, the introductory vamp before the first jump is one bar long, not two, which aligns somewhat with what William Rothstein has to say about “Franco-Italian hypermeter.” I transcribed this from the recording, so I don’t know whether in fact Drigo did write in 6/8, in which case the single count  vamp would align with that theory even more.  If it were the case, then the “extra” bar in the middle is not extra at all, because the melody begins on the half-bar in a 6/8 (but don’t try actually playing it that way in class).

On the other hand, it could just be a kind of compositional economy: given that you’ve already got an eight-bar phrase of entrance music, you don’t want to prolong the vamp any more than absolutely necessary, so keep it short, if you must have one.  Maybe it’s there  to provide the dancer with a run-up into the first jump (the vamp-like nature of the music telling the audience that what’s happening isn’t yet dance, just preamble to be ignored.

Once you start thinking about Rothstein’s theory (see other posts here and here) it makes something apparently as unimportant as an introduction suddenly fascinating, and it opens up all kinds of possible discussions about metre, grouping, phrasing, accent, and so on. For me, dance makes those questions particularly obvious because you’re dealing with accents and trajectories that happen in time, but they aren’t “musical” in the sense of being tied to time signature or accent. It’s like seeing a landscape compared to an ordnance survey map.



The schottische and the chotis, and other dances


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

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

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

New metre and rhythm page


After 11 years of having odd articles about rhythm and metre all over my old site at jsmusic.org.uk, I decided it was time to reduce it all down to a page of the books and articles on rhythm that I got most of it from, rather than try to rewrite it to a standard that I’ll be happy with.

Although it might not seem like much, it’s a significant day in my life, and of my online life, because it signals the end of my belief that there is anything simple to say about meter and rhythm as soon as it gets outside of its comfort-zone of music notation for the purpose of reproducing music (mainly of the Western art music tradition).  That’s not to say that you couldn’t teach the subject from an elementary entry point upwards  – but what you’d start with would be very different to conventional music “theory” in the sense of time signatures and so on (I’d probably start with the tensions between time-discrete and time-continuous concepts of meter).

Anyway, if you’re interested, you can read some of it yourself, on my Metre and Rhythm page.