Tag Archives: musicology

More on “truly triple meter” – are Chopin’s waltzes really mazurkas?


After a previous post about triple metre and waltzes, some pianist colleagues and I had an ongoing discussion about particular pieces. According to our (my) definition, for a waltz-like piece to be classed as ‘truly triple’, cadences have to fall on the second main beat of a 6/8 bar, or, in 3/4, on the 8th bar of the phrase (otherwise it’s 3/4 “masquerading”, so to speak, as 6/8).

One musician cited Chopin’s Grande valse Op. 18 No. 1 (the finale of Les Sylphides) – is this truly triple, she asked? Well, yes it is. And so are most of the other waltzes. As I mentioned in our Facebook discussion, my composition teacher Malcolm Williamson once praised Chopin’s treatment of the harmony in his waltzes, that is, he’s careful to make sure that it changes in every bar. At the time, I don’t think either Malcolm or I knew enough about waltzing to discuss this from a metrical point of view, the point he was making was about maintaining harmonic interest.  One of Malcolm’s own great waltz tunes (he would probably not thank me for that, since he didn’t want it extracted from the opera as a single number), Thank You, Saint Seraphina, from Our Man in Havana was itself truly triple, which probably reflected his concern for both metric and harmonic interest.

From the little I know from having worked with him, the last thing he wanted was to have to wait in music – harmonic or metric inertia. And that’s the thing about 6/8s, once you know that you’ve arrived on 7, all you’re doing is just waiting for that extra beat. That can be OK sometimes, but in allegro, it’s not great.

Which brings me back to Chopin and the waltz. The  epigraph to chapter 6  of Eric McKee’s Decorum of the Minuet, Delirium of the Waltz is an interesting quote from Chopin

“I have picked up nothing that is essentially Viennese. For example, I can’t dance a waltz properly – that speaks for itself! My piano has heard nothing but mazurkas.”

I’m not saying that Chopin couldn’t write a waltz, or that his embodied sense of what waltzing was was too fragile to be able to incorporate it in music. But I wonder if the inherent tripleness of his waltzes is not a question of autonomous compositional technique in the ways that I’ve described it above, but a difficulty in shaking off an ingrained Mazurka habit.



What Schenker, Nicholas Cook & a food processor taught me about piano fingering

"Beyond the Score" and the implement that helped me understand Schenker's complaint about piano fingering

“Beyond the Score” and the implement that helped me understand Schenker’s complaint about piano fingering

By what turns out to be a happy coincidence, I managed this week to combine reading Nicholas Cook’s Beyond the Score: Music as Performance with an accident in which I sliced the end of the fourth finger on my right hand while I was washing up the blade of a food processor (see illustration on the left).  I picked it up and turned it so I could make it really nice and clean, and of course, in doing so, I made a little manual food processor in the sink, to which my finger fell victim. Needless to say, for a pianist, this is bad news. Since it hurt so much to put any pressure on that finger, I didn’t even try until I really had to, which was a class & rehearsal last Thursday night.  One attempt to play on it during pliés  was all it took to realise that I’d have to change my usual piano fingering so that I could play everything without a fourth RH finger. That made quite a difference to tunes that I usually play almost the same way every time: a lot more clarity and power in the phrasing, because you’re not weakening your tune-playing fingers by trying to do other stuff at the same time.

Schenker and piano fingering

As I was playing, I thought of a passage in Beyond the Score where Cook describes Schenker’s disdain for the ‘cult of velocity’ and the 19th century idea of all-purpose fingering systems. Schenker argued that each piece had it’s own ‘special fingering’ and ‘special dynamics’ (Schenker 2000:77, cited in Cook 2013: 41). His own style of piano fingering was apparently aimed at bringing out the sense of the music rather than being convenient physically. He (Schenker) was critical of Broadwood’s English action, saying that

perfect evenness of touch has arrived. Simultaneously, music training has for decades striven for perfect evenness also of the fingers. Thus, we are faced with evenness of fingers and keys. We could be pleased by this development if – what irony! – precisely the opposite were not the crux of the matter: unevenness! The fingers, by nature uneven, must play unevenly: all effort in practicing is in vain if it does not aim at unevenness in performance. (Schenker 2000: 77, cited in Cook 2014: 42) [scroll to the end for references]

I remember having a mental jolt when I read that, given that my entire pianistic life has been spent in the pursuit of exactly what Schenker criticised. I don’t think my teachers drummed it into me – two of my teachers, Trissie Cox and Antony Saunders, would often suggest unusual fingerings like playing a motif in the left hand with your thumb to give it oomph, or sliding from a black key to a white one with the same finger, and then there’s the trick of fingering mordents 1-3-2.  But the aim for evenness of touch is all around you – Czerny, Hanon, and those endless scales and arpeggios that you learn for ABRSM exams.

Schenkerian piano fingering – an example from La Sylphide

I thought no more of it until last Thursday night when I had to play the reel from La Sylphide, which, I can tell you, is pretty hard without a fourth finger. When it got to the B flat section, I realised with the clarity that only having sliced your finger with a blade gives you, that Schenker was brilliantly right about this. Previously, I’d have done the physically convenient thing, and fingered the opening D-Eflat-F in the right hand with the fingering 3-4-5, which makes the whole bar lie under one hand position. But there was no way I could do that this time, and in the heat of the moment, I came out with the fingering below:

Reel from La Sylphide

How I fingered this bit of the reel without a fourth finger. It works.

This section looks so much fun on paper, but it never sounded as good as I wanted it to until I put this “emergency” fingering into action. It’s a bit messy – especially the hopping over your own thumb to play the quaver B flat on the second half of the second beat in the first bar – but it sounds a whole lot better musically than starting with 3-4-5 and using the same hand position for the whole bar. If you finger the slide up to the F with 1-2-3, you get a real punch out of the F and a lot of ring out of the appoggiatura. By hopping from 1 to 1 on the C and D on beats 3 and 4, you get a much better staccato than fingering it 2-4-3-5.  And that hop over the thumb to play the B flat with 2 results in a light staccato for that note – whereas with the ‘convenient’ fingering, this relatively weak beat/note gets the whole weight of your thumb.

Chord voicing and piano fingering

Another insight was chord voicing. The standard pattern for a big chord in the RH is an octave with two filler notes. By the time I’d accidentally hit my injured finger a few times during the piece, there was no way I was going to hit it again for the sake of a major third that was already present in the bass (the chord was a first inversion F major in the right, ACFA, with an octave F in the left) so I missed it out. I realised then that trying to play four-note chords because you can is pretty pointless. Including the fourth finger weakens the attack that you can give to your fifth. The 4th is weak, so you don’t get a lot of sound out whatever note is under it. So, frankly, why bother? Why not try different voicings, and if missing out a note actually sounds better, do it.

Piano fingering in Snowflakes from The Nutcracker

Next on the playlist was “Snowflakes” from The Nutcracker, and for the first time in my life, those twiddles in the right hand actually sounded like a piccolo, because I had to play all of them 1-3-1 rather than sort out how to avoid using my 4th finger. Interestingly, one of the only places where Taneev indicates fingering is during this massive countermelody in the bass – for which he suggests a thumb on every note. Combine that with 1-3-1 for the right hand notes (forget about the lower octaves – they add little, compared to what leaving them out enables you to do, I discovered), and this begins to sound a lot more like an orchestra.

Taneev's fingering for part of Snowflakes.

Taneev’s fingering for part of Snowflakes.

So the happy part of the coincidence is that this embodied-knowledge encounter with a food processor blade, combined with Cook’s wonderful scholarship,  made Schenker’s thoughts on pianism come to life in fascinating, practical ways. It’s rather a messy, bloody and painful way to enlightenment, though. Save yourself the trouble – take Schenker’s word for it, and discover what relying on the unevenness of your fingers can do for making your playing sound more musical.


Cook, Nicholas. 2013. Beyond the Score: Music as Performance. New York: Oxford University Press.

Schenker, Heinrich. 2000. The Art of Performance. Heribert Esser, ed., Irene Schreier Scott, trans. New York: Oxford University Press

More on the rareness of the truly triple waltz


In my last post, I said “Truly triple waltzes are an impossibility. They shouldn’t exist, and they don’t”. Less than 48 hours later, while I was playing Ich weiß nicht zu wem ich gehöre for a warm-up tendu, I realised I was wrong. There are examples of waltzes in truly triple metre, and I’d just played one. These useful, slow, “English” waltzes are very common in German 1930s songs for some reason – Vom Kopf bis Fuß (Falling in love again), Ich weiß es wird einmal ein Wunder geschehen,  Leben ohne Liebe kannst du nicht. Truly triple songs in English include The boy next door (from Meet me in St Louis), Would you? (from Singing in the Rain), What’ll I do. 

But how many of those examples can we say are truly truly triple metre? If you take the position of cadences as the giveaway (i.e. for it to be truly triple, they must come on 8, not 7), then only Falling in Love Again qualifies (though Would you? meets the criterion in the first three lines). Their feel is more triple than other waltzes, but it’s only a feel, not a structural fact.  Look more closely at Vom Kopf bis Fuß, the only truly truly triple ‘waltz’ of the ones I listed, and you’ll see that the cadences fall on the second beat of the bar, mazurka-style (or more appropriately, given the tempo, kujawiak-style). So the truly-triple-waltz turns out, in fact, to be more like a kujawiak, which we knew was triple already.

Adieu - Romance sem palavras by Ernesto Nazareth. Bars 6-8 of the tune.

Adieu – Romance sem palavras by Ernesto Nazareth. Bars 6-8 of the tune.

So apart from the waltz-which-is-really-a-kujawiak, are there any truly triple waltzes, contrary to what I said in my earlier post? One very strong contender is Nazareth’s Adieu – Romance sem palavraswhich we used for pliés in the RAD’s new Grade 5. It works wonderfully for Adages in a very slow 3, because it’s calm and measured, and wears its three-ness on the surface, so you get a clear sense of timing. And it really is in three – the cadences are on 8, not 7. Adieu is a strange example, though. The first four bars of the melody strongly suggest a 6/8 hypermeter, but the next four emphasise each bar individually, and reverse the accentuation of the hypermeter established in the preceding phrase, so that the weakest bars now receive the strongest accent. What’s more, whereas the harmonic change happened over two-bar spans in bars 1-4, in bars 6 and 8, that change is compressed into a single bar in a weak position. That’s a lot of metrical interest for an 8 bar phrase, and is perhaps why it works so well for complex ballet exercises where a lot is happening in a short space of time.

Update (26/9/14) Re-reading what I’ve written about Adieu, I think it’s hard to make a case for it being “truly triple” except for the fact that the final cadence is on 8 rather than 7. Otherwise, though, it’s hypermetrically duple. The feeling that it is triple comes, I think, from the fact that the harmony frequently changes every bar, or at times, within the bar at quarter-note level.

The chorus of Feed the Birds from Mary Poppins is truly triple, apart from the middle eight, but I can’t think of many more – can you?

The rarity of truly triple metre

The male solo from 'Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux' - a truly triple 3 (despite the 6/8 time signature)

The male solo from ‘Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux’ – a truly triple 3 (despite the 6/8 time signature)

If you’ve been following this blog recently, you know that I’m a little obsessed with time signature and metre in the 18th & 19th centuries (see Compound errors and  Counting Tchaikovsky). Today, it paid off in company class, when I managed to play about 5 minutes of pirouette exercise in 3/4 without getting a single tempo correction. That’s rare for me. I speed up in pirouette exercises.

This is how learned to stop doing it: I wondered whether it would help if I deliberately thought in 3 – maybe I inadvertently think in 6 when I’m playing waltzes.  3/4 bars never stand alone in waltzes, they’re always in pairs, and usually in pairs of pairs. It had never occurred to me to make a connection between this and my acceleration problem. But my speeding-up was cured instantly when I made an effort to think in 3 rather than 6. That is, I made sure my cadences were on ‘8’, not ‘7’, and that every bar was a closed circle of 3, rather getting sucked up into an imaginary 6/8. It was hard work. I’m correcting a habit of a lifetime, made worse by playing all that waltz music which is by nature in hypermetrical duple compound metre, not ‘truly triple metre’ as I call it. 

I coined the term ‘truly triple metre’ when I wrote the RAD’s Music in Focus and Dance Class Anthology books (2005). I’ve recently repurposed some of this for Dance rhythms for ballet pianists on the RAD website. The hardest rewriting was about ‘truly triple metre’ for grand allegro, because all the truly triple metres I can think of are polonaises, mazurkas and so on, which of course aren’t right for grand allegro. So what’s wrong?

Truly triple waltzes are an impossibility. They shouldn’t exist, and they don’t. What teachers mean by a ‘big waltz’ or ‘grande valse’, is usually that big balletic waltz-type variation that you only get in ballet, and while they’re in 3/4 and they’re reminiscent of waltzes, It would be better not to use that name for this type of music except as shorthand for something that we all know is really something else. The only trouble is, we don’t have a name for it. I call them ‘waltz-type variations’, and I think Galina Bezuglaya does in her book about ballet accompaniment (in Russian), but I can’t find the page right now.

Truly triple allegros are not waltzes. Think of the male solo from Tchaikovsky pas de deux, the cabriole variation from Bayadère, Flower Festival male solo, the E major solo from La Source that is used in Australian ballet’s Coppélia, and the Act 1 pas de trois male solo from Swan Lake (C minor), the coda from Diana and Acteon pas de deux, and one or two of the Paquita solos. Then there are waltz-ish variations that have a really marked three in a bar, even if they have their cadence on 7 rather than 8 (the giveaway for not-really-triple-metre*) – the Bayadère and Diana and Acteon male solos, for example.

The reason I get faster playing pirouettes is because I’m treating every other bar as a weak hypermetric beat, which I then tend to swallow up or slightly snatch (something I do in 4/4 as well, I’ve discovered, listening to recordings. Sometimes that can be just right, but if there’s stuff happening within the bar, like the finish of a pirouette, then the dancer needs all the time that’s available in the bar. That’s what real 3/4 would sound like, it’s just that it doesn’t happen very often.

* The exception (I think) is where you get a cadence on 7, but then 8 is a proper thump of a final chord – not an afterthought, but an autonomous accent that isn’t an appendage to the bar before.

Counting Tchaikovsky


Prince’s solo from Act 3 of Sleeping Beauty. A metrical mess.

On the weekend, I was playing the tarantella-ish Prince’s solo from Sleeping Beauty. Then, as every time I play this music, I panicked half way through the introduction – how many duh-da-da’s have I played? How many should there be? Is it 5? 3? 6? 4? Getting it wrong is enough to completely floor the poor person doing the solo.  I know in my heart that it’s really just ‘four in’ with a two quaver anacrusis, but if I look at the score and try to play it like a ‘proper’ 6/8, I flounder.

But now that I’ve read those the two articles on metre in 18th century music by Danuta Mirka and William Rothstein that I mentioned in my last post, my panic is over. I don’t try to inflect the solo with the metric rules I learned at school (i.e. it’s in 6/8, so therefore the upbeat must be light), and I just play it as if it was in 3/8, or in 6/8 but starting on the half bar. I don’t try to convey the duple metre of the 6/8 bar,  or try to make the ‘2’ of the first bar lighter than the 1 that I haven’t played because there’s a rest there (!)

Although Rothstein and Mirka are writing about 18th century music, I think the theories work for this, and for a lot of Tchaikovsky, particularly when it comes to the French songs in Nutcracker (like Cadet Rousselle or Bon Voyage Cher Dumollet and others). Not surprisingly, they comply with the ‘French compound metre rule.

This Desiré solo is an odd case, somewhere between an Italian and a French conception of 6/8 in Rothstein’s terms.

  1. It’s Italian (Rothstein) or compound 6/8 (Mirka), because each bar is a compound of two 3/8 bars, not a ‘duple compound’ metre in the modern sense. It could easily be written in 3/8, because it’s not that duple at a higher level.
  2. At the same time, it seems to lean towards a French compound metre in Rothstein’s terms, because it has a half-bar anacrusis, and the cadence (i.e. when it resolves to a root position chord at the end of a phrase), is on the first beat of the bar.

I think it’s more of (2) than (1), and it helps when playing it is to think less about the notated metre and the metrical accent it implies, and more about the way the melody is aiming towards the final cadence, like one of those end-accented Italian words in a line from an operatic aria (e.g. “Fortunatissimo per verità!” from “Largo al factotum” from The Barber of Seville).  

So why not write it in 6/8 but displaced by half a bar? Because of (2) above –  it must resolve on the downbeat according to the ‘French compound’ rule.  Why not write it in 3/8? Because the composed metre alternates between simple and compound  versions of 6/8 (in Mirka’s terms), and Tchaikovsky needs the larger-sized bar for when he wants a duple metre feel. When he shrinks the melody into double time, you can’t bar it any other way without it looking weird.

These bars are effectively in 4/4, even though the notated metre is 2/4.

These bars are effectively in 4/4, even though the notated metre is 2/4.

So Rothstein’s thoughts on national metrical types and Mirka’s discussion of ‘composed metre’ versus ‘notated metre’ make for an interesting two-pronged analysis of this piece that has annoyed and intrigued me for so long. For example, the bars with the semiquaver flourishes over the Neapolitan sixths near the end turn the composed metre into 4/4, and then immediately after, the cadential bars turn it into what you could consider a series of 1/4 bars – since you get a repeated half-bar figure that resolves every half bar (of the notated metre), a diminution by a factor of 4.

As for what’s going on in the middle section, Lord only knows. The resolutions now come in the middle of the bar, so what’s happened? It’s not in some kind of composed 3/8, because the cross-rhythms make for a longer composed/perceived metre – one way of looking at it is to see the final bar of the previous section being in 9/8, followed by two bars of 12/8. But not for long. Or maybe the first section is effectively in 3/8, the second effectively in 6/8 with the ‘real’ barline halfway through the bar. But what happens between that and the tune coming in again, it’s a bit of metrical mess, with Tchaikovsky just vamping garrulously between two chords (nothing new there) till he’s ready.

Is it clever? I’m not sure. All these metrical shennanigans make the piece awkward to play, and difficult to regulate in terms of tempo, and – for heaven’s sake – it’s only a 45 second solo, how much more detail do you want to cram in? But thinking about the music in terms of composed metre rather than notated metre, and as a ‘French’ or ‘Italian’ 6/8 rather than what we now call ‘compound duple’ time, makes playing it easier: you’re not trying to force a compound metre onto musical material that is doing something else.

Update on 6th August 2015

I’ve revised my opinion on this: Rothstein is absolutely right, but I am wrong here – what I find difficult is precisely the point of the music, the interplay between the vocal phrase and the notated meter. It is as if there is in fact a continual cross-phrasing at work. I had tried to simplify it for myself by trying to underplay the metrical accents, but in fact, I think what is required is to aim to be able to play both lines with their metrical implications against each other. I’ve managed it a few times in class with this piece, and noticed that ballet exercises often do the same: they’re “cross-phrased” against the music, but without the same kind of metrical accent as the accompaniment: there are fewer metrical implications. That probably isn’t very clear, but what I’m saying is, with music like this, there isn’t an easy way – you have to suck up the implications and try to do it, I think.


Mirka, D. 2008 Metre, phrase structure and manipulations of musical beginnings In D. Mirka & K. Agawu (eds.) Communication in eighteenth-century music. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 83–111.

Rothstein, W. 2008 National metrical types in music of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries In D. Mirka & K. Agawu (eds.) Communication in eighteenth-century music. Cambridge UK; New York: Cambridge University Press, 112–159.

Compound errors


Alkan’s ‘Barcarolette’ in 18/8. Don’t try asking for one of these in your ballet class

Someone asked me last night what made me want to do a PhD in music in ballet training. I explained that one of the reasons came out of trying to teach time signature to trainee ballet teachers. It’s not that I think they ought to know about time signature, but I was filling in for someone who thought that they did. Trying to teach time signature did my head in, literally (you could say) to the extent that nothing but a PhD would really sort out the mess.

In the first class, I realised that the students knew more than I did about music theory, because they were studying for their ABRSM Grade 3 theory.  In decades since I did that exam, I’d forgotten about terms like ‘melodic and harmonic minor’ (someone later  asked me what ‘harmonic minor scales’ were for, and to this day, I don’t know). I’d also forgotten about simple and compound time signatures. As a musician, you look at a piece, see that it’s in 6/8, and play. There is no need to categorise it as ‘simple’ or ‘compound’.  I bluffed my way through the first class, and then went away to quickly mug up on all the theory I’d forgotten.

I was confused. What is a compound time signature? Why is it called ‘compound’? What is simple about a simple time signature?  Why does dividing a beat into three, rather than two, make it ‘compound’ rather than ‘simple’ (as most theory books tell you)? That leaves 3/8 in a rather odd position, because according to half of the theory, it should be compound, and to the other half, it should be simple. People argue about this on the internet, and one theorist says ‘Better to just remember that 3/8 is simple triple, for the exam’.

If (as other theorists tell you) compound time signatures are called compound, because they’re a compound of two or more bars of 3/8, then why logically, isn’t 4/4 also a compound time signature? It didn’t make sense to me, so how would I explain it to someone else?  Then in 2002, I bought the newly published Cambridge History of Music Theory, and read Caplin (2002, p.661), where I discovered that some theorists in the 18th century did claim that 4/4 was a compound time signature, for exactly the reason that I thought they should. The main thing is, they argued and disagreed about what ‘compound metre’ meant, and which metres were compound.

In the years I’ve spent dealing with scores and music notation, and working with dancers, metre and time signature has never gone away as a problem or an interest, because contrary to appearances, it’s culture, not arithmetic. My latest joyful discovery is two articles on metre in Communication in Eighteenth Century Music, one by Danuta Mirka, the other by William Rothstein. Mirka’s article is about the way that composers in the eighteenth century would manipulate the metre of music without changing the time signature (she differentiates between the ‘notated’ metre and the ‘composed’ metre – ‘notated’ is what’s on the page, ‘composed’ is what you hear, after the composer has played around with your sense of metrical accent).

Here’s the bit that I like a lot: Koch and Marpurg (18th century theorists) say that if you’re listening to something that has been notated in compound metre (remember, that’s either 6/8 or 4/4), you can tell whether it’s  ‘simple 4/4 or compound 4/4’ or ‘simple 6/8 or compound 6/8’ depending on whether caesuras (roughly speaking, the end of a short musical statement) come in the music. If the caesura comes in the middle of the bar, then it’s compound, if it comes at the beginning, it’s simple. Mirka’s article has several examples from Haydn that demonstrate this principle. One of them is the Adagio from Haydn’s string quartet in B flat major, Op. 50 No. 1 (arrangement for piano/cello from IMSLP here) where the first four bars are (in Koch/Marpurg’s terms) in simple 6/8 (because you only have one downbeat), and the last two are in compound 6/8 (because you’ve got two downbeats, and it’s effectively two bars of 3/8, notated as 6/8). The fascinating part here is that this can be construed as ‘balancing’ (in an aesthetic/theoretical sense) what appears to be an unbalanced (6 bar) phrase, because the first section is four bars of 6/8, the second is (effectively) four bars of 3/8. Whether you completely buy into that is a matter of theoretical position and interpretation – and Rothstein takes issue in his article in the same book (p. 114) with an analysis along the same lines by Maurer Zenck of a mid-bar cadence in Beethoven. Whatever position you take, the idea that there can be times when 6/8 or 4/4 are simple, and times when they’re compound, makes more sense than categorising 6/8 as “compound”, and 4/4 as “simple”.

Rothstein’s article “National metrical types in music of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries” is probably one of the most fascinating and enlightening articles about metre and time signature I’ve ever read. His theory is that barring music is a matter, to some degree, of what he calls ‘national metrical types’. ‘Broadly speaking’, he says:

Italian and French composers were more likely in the nineteenth century to place cadences on the first beat of a bar, whereas German composers often placed them later. Conversely, phrases in German music were less likely to begin in mid-bar, beginning instead on the the downbeat or with a short anacrusis, one-third of a bar or less in length. (Rothstein 2008, p.113)

I’ll try to summarise as briefly as possible, with inevitable loss of detail and accuracy – better to read the article yourself, don’t take my word for it: In compound metres, he distinguishes between French, Italian and ‘neutral’ barring. French compound metre is where you get half-bar anacruses, and cadences on a downbeat, and it’s rare in the late 18th century onwards. Bach’s Badinerie from the Suite in B minor is written in 2/4, with a half bar anacrusis, but he could have written it as a French compound 4/4, i.e. so that you have a 3-beat anacrusis – because that’s effectively what the music does. German compound metre  is where you get a short or no anacrusis, and cadences are on the second beat of the bar. ‘Italian‘ is where you might just as well have written it in 3/8 or 2/4 (what Mirka calls compound 6/8 or compound 4/4, in reference to Marpurg & Koch).

This has finally solved a mystery for me that bugged me all the time I was preparing the scores for the RAD’s new Grades 4-5 syllabus. There were two pieces, one by Verdi (E03b, Canzone Greca from the ballet music from Otello), and one by Bizet (E5a, prelude to l’Arlèsienne) where the melody begins on the half bar, where I nearly rebarred the music so that the downbeats fell on ‘one’, because it sounds like ‘one’. But then I realised that this made the cadence land in the middle of the bar, and that looked wrong. So I ended up having to just write a big ‘1’ underneath the half bar in the music, so that there wouldn’t be any arguments in the studio. I can’t say for sure what the answer is, but in the case of l’Arlèsienneit seems to me that this is a clear case of French compound metre  – the point is to get that final cadence on a downbeat (just as many French words are end-accented), and not make such a big deal about the metrical accents in between: it’s long jump, rather than hurdles.  Otello, I’m inclined to think is somewhere between French and Italian compound, in Rothstein’s terms, because you could rewrite the beginning in 2/4, but when the long legato melody that comes in in the middle, it begins with almost an entire bar anacrusis, and it cadences on the downbeat. If you rewrote this in 2/4, you’d lose those long lines. It’s precisely the ambiguity of this music that I suspect makes it so effective for fondus, because you never got a strong sense of either up or down, it’s in a constant state of fluid tension.

So, 15 years after I started teaching, and now that I have stopped teaching, I finally know something about compound metre that makes sense. Unfortunately, I don’t think we’ll ever escape the tendency on teaching courses to reduce knowledge about time signature to a catechism of partial truths, like the notion that there is a fixed, categorical difference between 2/4 and 4/4, or that 6/8 always sounds different to 3/4.  The answer to the question “What’s the difference between a 2/4 and a 4/4” for the moment will have to remain “What does your teacher say you have to say it is to pass the exam?”

If you’re a music theorist (like Mirka, Rothstein or Caplin) and you’re reading this thinking “Why on earth is someone who doesn’t understand all this, trying to teach music to ballet teachers?” then you’ve got a good point. Hands up, people like me shouldn’t be trying to teach time signature when they don’t understand it themselves, but they do.  Or maybe we shouldn’t be trying to teach about time signature at all, if in fact it’s so darn complicated that you need a PhD to understand it properly.  Or maybe we should just stick to basic ‘facts’, and not get into this kind of detail. But you can’t do that with dancers, because they’ll ask the kind of awkward questions that lead you straight back into complex theory of metre. And that, roughly speaking, is one of the things that got me into this PhD.


Caplin, W.E. 2002 Theories of musical rhythm in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, In T. Christensen (ed.) Cambridge History of Music Theory. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 657–694.

Mirka, D. 2008 Metre, phrase structure and manipulations of musical beginnings In D. Mirka & K. Agawu (eds.) Communication in eighteenth-century music. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 83–111.

Rothstein, W. 2008 National metrical types in music of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries In D. Mirka & K. Agawu (eds.) Communication in eighteenth-century music. Cambridge UK; New York: Cambridge University Press, 112–159.

See also:

Rothstein, W. 2011. Metrical Theory and Verdi’s Midcentury Operas. Dutch Journal of Music Theory, Vol. 16 No. 2, pp 93-111.  Available online at http://upers.kuleuven.be/sites/upers.kuleuven.be/files/page/files/2011_2_1.pdf 

A list of ballet music surprises


Another list-on-a-page post – this time, it’s a collection of my 2009 Advent Calendar posts which were ‘musical surprises’ from the world of ballet music. The ‘surprises’ are probably one of my favourite lists of all, this one, and there have been plenty more since, so I’ve added a few on the end that I discovered after 2009.

  • Advent Calendar 2009 It’s become something of a habit for me to do an ‘Advent Calendar’ of posts on music and dance topics, so this year, I’ve decided it’s going to be musical surprises from the ballet world or broadly related to it.  They’re things which surprised me, if they don’t surprise you, then I invite you to ...
  • Musical surprises #1: La cumparsita is not a tango Nope, you heard right. The tango that for most people defines the genre, the dance, the music, the rhythm and everything else about tango, was composed as a little march for marching band – in Uruguay. That’s right, Gerardo Matos Rodriguez, the composer of La Cumparsita (that’s a march, not a tango)  wasn’t from Argentina ...
  • Musical surprises #2: Chopin’s mazurkas aren’t mazurkas Or to be more precise, Chopin uses the term ‘mazurka’ as a blanket term for a family of dances which include the kujawiak, the mazur and the obertas. Maya Trochimczyk’s article on the mazurka spells it out nicely – or rather, unravels it and lays all the components on the table. The fact that Chopin’s ...
  • Musical suprises #3: Tico-Tico is not a rumba If you’re thinking ‘I never thought Tico Tico was a rhumba’, then don’t read on. But in the rather strange world I work in, it’s very common  for dance teachers to say ‘rumba’ and then  sing a bit of Zerquinha Abreu’s Tico-Tico  (made famous by Carmen Miranda). The  cruellest thing I ever witnessed in a class ...
  • Musical surprises #4: There’s a cuckoo in the Nutcracker Well, a toy one anyway. If you look at the instrumentation for The Nutcracker over at www.tchaikovsky-research.org  (possibly the best resource about any composer on the web), you’ll see that apart from the famous celesta in the Sugar Plum Fairy, Tchaikovsky also includes a toy trumpet, drums, cuckoo, quail and cymbals. Either I’ve been asleep ...
  • Musical surprises #5: Mirlitons are cakes OK, so I’ve posted about this before, but hey it’s Christmas, and it’s still one of the great mysteries of musical life: why in the Kingdom of the Sweets in The Nutcracker do you get chocolate, coffee, ginger, sugar plums, and er….reed pipes? Although the mirliton is some kind of instrument (the nearest thing to ...
  • Musical surprises #6: The ‘Theme slave’ in Coppélia is not by Delibes Friends from Coppélia: a borrowing from Moniuszko Friends from Coppélia, the set of dances in Act 1, usually danced to the Thème Slave varié, is not by Delibes at all. Or at least the main tune isn’t: it’s a song called Poleć, pieśni, z miasta by the Polish composer Moniuszko (1819-1872).  This is not just a snatch of ...
  • Musical surprises #7: Jingle Bells doesn’t go like you think it does Jingle Bells is  a song you’ve known ever since you were a child, and you hear every christmas. The chorus has a shape and a direction that is so simple and obvious, you think it could only go the way it does.  Well think again. James Lord Pierpont, who composed The One Horse Open Sleigh ...
  • Musical surprises #8: Petrushka’s not all by Stravinsky Well, not exactly, but the point is that one of the big tunes  in the Wet Nurses’ dance in Stravinsky’s Petrushka is a Russian folk song  (Я вечор млада во пиру была | I was a young maiden at the feast) which had already been published in piano duet form by Tchaikovsky between 1868-9.  In fact, if you play ...
  • Musical surprises #9: Hornpipes are in 3… …sometimes. For many people, especially dance teachers, ‘hornpipe’ is synonomous with 2/4 time. But there is another hornpipe in 3/2, particularly common in English baroque music, an example being Purcell’s Hole in the Wall (see below). Another example is the Scottish tune ‘Dance to your Daddy‘, the rondeau from Purcell’s Abdelazer that’s used in Britten’s Young ...
  • Musical surprises #10: Le Corsaire doesn’t go like you think it does Here’s a nice Christmas ‘spot the difference’ quiz: listen to the music of the two clips below and see how many differences (apart from tempo) you can identify.  Corella’s is the original, Nureyev’s is Lanchbery’s re-orchestration – and is it turns out, a bit more than orchestration.  Until last year, I had never heard the ...
  • Musical surprises #11: Listen long enough, and words become a melody We often talk about a language being ‘musical’, or a speaker having ‘sing-song’ tones when they talk. But we mean this only in a vague sense: we don’t mean that people are literally singing when they speak, just that their intonation has the quality of music. But music psychologist  Diana Deutsch has illustrated an extraordinary phenomenon: ...
  • Musical surprises #12: The ‘tango’ is a maxixe is a polka with a habañera rhythm The maxixe was a lower-class dance that caused outrage in upper and middle class society in late 19th century Brazil. Not only did partners hold each other by the buttocks, but – horror of horrors – white women danced with black partners. Nonetheless, the music became very popular in all levels of society. But you couldn’t, ...
  • Musical surprises #13: The male variation in Sugar Plum was originally in C minor Tchaikovsky has a reputation for  bringing high production values to the composition of ballet scores  by conceiving them architecturally and symphonically. But in practice, he’s as likely to borrow, copy and paste from himself as much as anyone else, if not more. He was perhaps a bit better at disguising the joins. For example, when the ...
  • Musical surprises #14: ‘Let it snow’ is not a Christmas song There is not a name for the precise mixture of rage and musical indigestion I feel when I have to put up with Sainsburys christmas music. When I was in Parma recently, I rejoiced when I realised that with the exception of two excellent buskers,  there was no music in cafés, bars, restaurants, hotels, lobbies; ...
  • Musical surprises #15: It’s musicians who count weirdly, not dancers The term ‘dancers counts’ is often used in a rather perjorative way – as if they’re incapable of seeing and hearing the world normally.  Even dancers use the term against themselves sometimes: teachers sometimes say ‘You’ll probably think I’m counting this all wrong but…’ Now there are times when a dancer’s choreographic map laid over ...
  • Musical surprises #16: The skating in Les Patineurs is nothing new I wasn’t going to post this since I thought it was no longer surprising, but then I overheard an announcer on Radio 3 only this morning give full credit to Ashton for the skating in Les Patineurs, and decided I should do it after all to set the record straight. Let’s start with the music. For ...
  • Musical surprises #17: Sometimes a strathspey is a reel is a jig It’s not just the tango that’s complicated or misleading: Scottish music is apparently prey to the same terminological confusion. Writing about naming conventions in collections of dance tunes dating back to the 18th century, Pat Ballantyne writes: What to us is clearly a strathspey, with its jerky, dotted rhythms, might be called a reel. What to ...
  • Musical surprises #18: 5/4 isn’t that odd in the 19th century There’s a fairly common belief  that until Stravinsky came along, everything was either in 4/4 or 3/4.  When I was at school in the 70s, I remember one music lesson in which we had to listen to the second movement of Tchaikovsky’s 6th symphony (which is in 5/4), and marvel at how avant garde he ...
  • Musical surprises #19: That Russian sound is Italian When you think of Russian folk music, what do you hear in your head? Probably the sound of someone playing a tune on a balalaika with that heart-rending tremolo on each note, as in the beginning of the Youtube clip on the left.  How much more Russian could you get? What other country could this ...
  • Musical surprises #20: The end of Sleeping Beauty is a French song That’s not the whole surprise, because it’s a fairly well-known fact that the big tune in the apotheosis of The Sleeping Beauty is an old French song, the pre-revolutionary national anthem, no less,  from the 16th century called Vive Henri IV . Gerard McBurney on “Vive Henri IV” in Discovering Music  The reasons for this are discussed by ...
  • Musical surprises #21: If you want to play for children’s ballet, study semiotics Thanks to the musical semiotician Raymond Monelle and his wonderful book The Sense of Music, I am happily aware that there is a concept in music of a horse which is unique to music – it’s not a representation of a horse, but a musical idea, a musical topic. Hear a certain kind of 6/8, ...
  • Musical surprises #22: There’s a psychopomp in my barcarole Next time you get to a slow bit of a ballet where there’s something a bit wafty and barcarole-ish in 6/8, look out for a psychopomp. A psychopomp, explains the scholar Rodney Edgecombe in a fascinating article ‘can be either a spiritual guide or a figure who conducts the soul from the zone of this life ...
  • Musical surprises #23: Vauxhall, Strauss & Tchaikovsky Although the light and popular dance rhythms of Johann Strauss II seem a sociocultural world away from the ‘classical’ Tchaikovsky, they’re not. It’s our own snobbery that obscures the connections in the music, for what is Tchaikovsky most famous for if not the Waltz of the Flowers, and the waltzes from Sleeping Beauty and Swan ...
  • Musical surprises #24: What Rumanian dances sound like without the Bartók I love Bartók’s Rumanian Dances, and indeed, I’ve just recorded them with the violinist Gillon Cameron on the album  After Class 2. But I was gobsmacked when I heard my favourite band, the Romanian Taraf de Haïdouks playing them as they might have been before they got turned into 20th century concert repertoire, or ‘re-gypsifying’ ...
  • Musical surprises #25: A bit of Tooting history Happy Christmas! Today’s revelation is not strictly a musical surprise, except that it vaguely concerns me and I’m a musician. But it’s quite surprising all the same, and I love it. I came across this old photograph of my paternal grandfather’s cornchandler’s shop at 759 Garratt Lane a couple of years ago.  The site doesn’t ...
  • Musical surprises #26: The Csárdás from Coppélia is not by Delibes A bit unseasonal this, since ‘musical surprises’ was the theme of my 2009 Advent Calendar. But I just couldn’t wait til next year to share my excitement at this one. It seems that not only is the theme of the “‘Friends” dance in Coppélia Act I  not by Delibes (called “Thème Slave varié in the score) , but ...
  • At last: a picture of a mirliton I can’t tell you how pleased I am about this: Here, on a site dedicated to the iconography of the bagpipe, are two pictures of mirlitons (scroll down to see them), placed as I have always suspected within the general category of kazoo-like instruments, in French termed “flûte eunuque, kazoo, mirliton ou bigophone”. ‘Danse des Bigophones’ has ...
  • On revolution in The Nutcracker and the limits of Google French revolutionary musical borrowings in The Nutcracker —wny? As I said in my last post, where I think I’ve discovered a French counter-revolutionary song as a source for one of Tchaikovsky’s musical borrowings in The Nutcracker, I had a vague recollection of having read about the theory of Nutcracker being an allegory of the French Revolution.  Eventually, ...
  • More on borrowings in the Nutcracker I think most people know that Tchaikovsky got the theme for the Arabian from somewhere – a Georgian folk song or something like that. But it’s only thanks to a post from Lawrence Sisk on the Tchaikovsky research site forum that I came to know about Ippolitov-Ivanov’s use of the same theme in his berceuse in the ...
  • Yet another source for the Nutcracker party scene tune It’s become something of a hobby, finding sources for the tunes in Tchaikovsky’s score for The Nutcracker. I thought I’d had all the surprises there were to be had when I discovered that the source for the tune of  the children’s galop in Act I was not only the French song Bon Voyage, Cher Dumollet, but also the New ...

Answers on a postcard – from Brahms


On Monday I interviewed an expert on Hungarian fiddle playing, so I just loved this article on the Henle Verlag website about Michael Struck’s re-decoding of a postcard from Brahms that had already been (wrongly) decoded once in a book over a 100 years ago. Superficially, this looks like nerdy Urtext stuff, until you read the detail and watch the video of what the re-interpretation of those tiny markings in the Brahms score mean in practice. 

Hurray for Len Goodman’s “Dancing Feet”


dancing-feetI only ended up watching Len Goodman’s Dancing Feet because I’d been stood up, so instead of seeing Life of Pi in 3D in what would have been my first trip to a cinema in almost a decade, I sat self-pityingly at home, trying to decide between Steam Iron Sale Pick of the Day and Alice in Wonderland, the ballet.

In the end, I turned to iPlayer, and Len Goodman’s Dancing Feeta documentary about the golden age of British Ballroom dancing, and within minutes, was hooked. What I loved about this programme is that from the very start, Len Goodman told you without any sadness or regret that what he was talking about was already over, a thing of the past.  Peggy Spencer was talking matter-of-factly about the 1950s and 60s when she said that ballroom went ‘underground’, and became a thing for dancing schools rather than dance halls, whereas the heart of ballroom, years ago, she said, had been to go out and meet people.

Near the end, about 57 minutes in, Mary Lee, singer with the Roy Fox orchestra, smiles warmly and reminisces “it was lovely” in a tone of voice that tells you instantly how lovely it was, but again, with no hint of regret, just a fond and respectful memory. “It was lovely,” she repeats, “You were hearing good music, and with a wee bit of luck, you got a wee cuddle and a kiss on the way home. You know. It was nice.”  You have to hear the way she says ‘nice’, and see the expression on her face to understand that nice can, after all, be full of meaning.

The researchers pulled in musicologists, musicians, dance teachers, writers, singers and dancers, visited dance halls, and included intelligent discussions about changes in music and the social history of dancing over two centuries. It was more intellectual weight and good sense than I have seen thrown at ballet in a long time.  What absolutely no-one did in this programme, was to make any claim for ballroom-dancing as a thing, as some autonomous form that lived independently of wider society.  No-one talked about ‘dance’, it was all about dancing, and what that meant in real terms – the materiality of dance halls, dance bands, going out, meeting people and kissing them.

It was warm and but not sentimental, accessible without dumbing down. I’m not a fan of ballroom, or of Strictly Come Dancing, but I’m a huge fan of trying to make sense of culture. It’s just a shame that the BBC couldn’t have thrown similar resources at a programme that could explain why we still make ballets that portray an upper-class tea party in Victorian Oxford.  I can’t help feeling that the assumption is that we’re supposed to believe that ballet is timeless and autonomous, and hence needs no explanation. I for one would love Len Goodman to investigate.


Playing for ballet class tips #25: respect the ritual


Class has a ritual, liturgical quality to it, particularly in a company. It is daily, it happens at a particular time, with such religious regard for punctuality that a teacher will begin class without music, rather than be late. It must be done regardless of whether anyone feels like it, and there are rules and formalities to be observed. In companies or open classes especially, teachers are more like ‘celebrants’ or ‘officiants’ than teachers in the conventional sense of the word.  Experienced teachers have a way of vocally marking exercises for a class in a way that is both reassuring and instructional, like a priest intoning a blessing.  To ‘take’ class, significantly, can mean both to do it or to teach it.

It probably doesn’t have to have music. People do class without it, if they have to. But music seems as integral to a class as it does to a religious ritual, and probably  for the same reasons. It connects people, it gives them something meaningful to do together; it’s the vital medium through which the ritual is enacted, and it’s part of the ritual itself.

And oddly enough, some of the arguments about what is right or wrong for class have parallels in the ecclesiastical world. Some people  think that popular music has no place in the church, the only way to God is through Palestrina, others think that the church will die unless it embraces the popular. And speaking of death, what classes as ‘funeral music’ these days is whatever people have at a funeral, not a category of music with specific features. Some churches insist on live music, or that you use their particular organist, others don’t have an organ at all. For some, only an organ will take you nearer to God, for others, the guitar, the piano, or the bagpipes will do just as well.

You can probably guess that I think a lot of  similar arguments in ballet are pretty nonsensical – live music won’t automatically make someone a better dancer; children won’t automatically become better dancers  by playing classical music at them; ‘ballet music’ is anything that people use for ballet, it’s not a thing that has universal qualities; there is nothing intrinsically ‘correct’ about using a piano for class.

That sounds like I’m saying that nothing matters and anything goes. I’m not – quite the opposite, in fact. My point is that music matters toomuch to people to reduce playing for class entirely to a system, a set of rules, a technique, a book of ‘suitable’ or legitimate repertoire that you can impose from outside.

So the final tip is this: don’t listen too much to people (like me) who offer advice on how to do it.  Respect the ritual, the people who enact it, and your place in it, and you’ll find new ways of interpreting it, giving it meaning, and making it work.

Happy Christmas!