Tag Archives: notation

Tchaikovsky’s hairpins

Roberto Poli's book, The Secret LIfe of Musical Notation

The Secret Life of Musical Notation

The secret life of hairpins

In The Secret Life of Musical Notation, Roberto Poli examines a number of notational conventions—hairpins, sforzandi, rinforzandi, pedals, stretti and rhythmic values—that have perplexed him as a performer, and led him to investigate the possibility that they don’t mean what we assume them to mean. 

I found the chapter on hairpins very interesting, and the evidence for there being a problem is persuasive: he shows  a number of examples from Chopin’s work where the hairpins don’t make a lot of sense, either because they’re redundant (they show a hairpin as well as a diminuendo, for example) or because they contradict the musical sense: a “diminuendo” hairpin just at the point where you are getting to the high point of a phrase, and to taper off seems expressively illogical. 

When is a hairpin not a hairpin? 

His conclusion is that hairpins, among some composers and in a certain time period, denoted not [simply] increases or decreases in volume, but agogics,  i.e. expressive timing. What we think of as a “crescendo” hairpin would mean pulling out (i.e. slowing down) towards the open end of the hairpin. A “diminuendo” hairpin would mean essentially a tenuto where the open end was, recovering normal tempo towards the end. Two hairpins together, with the open end in the middle, would mean treating the tempo of the bar with rubato. I’m reducing the arguments a little (the chapter is nearly 70 pages long), but that’s roughly it.  Importantly, what appear to be accents might in fact be mini hairpins, and as such, are an alternative sign for what we would normally expect to be represented by a tenuto. 

As convincing as the arguments are, It all sounds a bit too much like an engaging conspiracy theory to be true, but then he quotes Riemann’s Die Elemente der musikalischen Äesthetik (1900), where

hairpins are described as affecting both dynamic and agogic coordinates. Riemann explained that the symbol might serve different purposes, its agogic function only strengthening the dynamic one and vice versa. He formulated that, should the context in which the hairpin is found convey the necessity, one or the other function can be abandoned, as long as this would not incur a great loss of either parameter. (Poli, 2010, p. 66

The Lilac Fairy Attendants’ Hairpins

As it happened, the day after I read the chapter on hairpins, I was down to play the Lilac Fairy Attendants from Sleeping Beauty on an Easter School, a piece that is really horrible to play on the piano, and doesn’t get any less horrible when you’ve done it at every summer school for the last 30 years. I was still in two minds about Poli’s thesis about hairpins, but I thought, let’s see how his theory fares on this piece. 

Whether or not Tchaikovsky fits in to the league of composers or periods when hairpins or “accents”  could mean agogics or not, I am utterly convinced that this is a better way to read the score than any way I have done in the past. 

Using Poli’s analyses, one could interpret the “accents” over those notes as meaning tenuto marks, rather than accents. Do that once, and tell me you’re not convinced: what sense does it make to have accents on those notes when the marking is grazioso, and later pianissimo? For years, I’ve obeyed the music and put a little accent of sorts on that note, but when you get to the hairpin starting in bar six, why on earth would you get louder and accent those notes in music like this? 

But change those accents to tenuto marks, and pull out the music towards the F#, and give slightly more tenuto on the following B, and then on the bottom line, pull out towards the C#, and it all makes beautiful musical sense. You can play this music without any dynamic accents at all, only agogic ones, and it begins to sound like music again. 

Likewise, the accent on the D in voice 2 in the RH in the penultimate bar. A tenuto there makes perfect sense within the waltz, because there would be a slight hold there in the movement, but an accent is neither musical, nor does it give the right tempo feel to the bar that would be appropriate.  As Poli points out, we are so conditioned by later performance practice not to conflate dynamics with agogics, that it’s difficult to imagine a time when it was considered perfectly normal and musical to do so. 

I compared the orchestral score to Siloti’s arrangement. Siloti has a narrowing hairpin in the last few bars, where the orchestra doesn’t, and it makes musical sense to pull out towards the end a bit. A conductor would do this without needing to be told in the score, but perhaps Siloti wrote his hairpin in the score to give an indication of what would be determined in orchestral practice. 

Another rather interesting thing is that the tendency towards metronomic tempi, and the going-out-of-fashion of this kind of agogics, has seeped into ballet as well. It’s a delightful rarity to work with a ballet teacher who lives and breathes expressive timing, but that may be a side-effect of performance practice in music rather than ballet. People my age will remember a time when to slow down at the end of a piece of early music was like wearing brown shoes in the city. We live in less dictatorial times I think, thanks to Taruskin’s diatribes against such things in Text and Act for example, but I hadn’t realised until this Sleeping Beauty experience how much my reading of notation followed such carefully self-policed rules. 

Music theory for (ballet) dancers, the last word for now? Grant’s “Beating Time and Measuring Music in the Early Modern Era”


Roger Grant's book "Beating Time and Measuring Music"

I’ve just added Roger Grant’s Beating Time and Measuring Music in the Early Modern Era as my top choice for books on music theory for those interested in music-dance relationships (see my metre and rhythm page for a brief bibliography on  that topic). I don’t want to say too much, because it figures largely in a chapter in my PhD, and it’s too detailed and scholarly a book for me to summarize hastily. Suffice it to say, if you want to know what think about time signature and meter and movement, it’s all in this book. I’m glad I hadn’t read it when I was writing How Down is a Downbeat?, a journal article on music, ballet teaching and time signature that I wrote a few years ago; it would have tempted me to rewrite the whole thing. On the other hand, I wish I had read it when I first started teaching music for dance teachers back in 2000. However, some of the significant books and articles that Grant refers to in building his theory were published some years later than that. Is theory even the right word? I’m not sure: it’s history, but in order to understand the history, you have to change your ideas about what you thought was music theory. It’s amazing that in the 21st century, we’re still solving the problems unexamined or hidden by “rudimentary” music theory, e.g.—to name but one— why is a 6/8 called a compound time signature? What’s compound about it? 

The biggest problem with what is conventionally called “music theory” is that it presents as simple and straightforward (a matter of counting two or three) something which is exasperating in its complexity, not least because “time signature” as a subject leaves out the people who use it and the way they interpret it, but it is virtually meaningless without the (changing) practice in which it is embedded. I’ve hinted at this in many of my more recent postings on triple meter and Rothstein’s theory of  “Franco-Italian hypermeter.”   Grant discussed the way that the meaning of beat as movement has gradually disappeared, morphing into the concept of time as a endless stream of motionless, durationless ticks. This in fact was exactly how I used to teach music theory and meter, without realising the entailments or history of my own beliefs about what meter or musical time was. 

I am in awe of the way that Grant makes sense of such a complex assemblage of notation, musicians, practice, ideas, primers, teachers, and so on. It’s only when you’ve struggled to sort out some of these problems yourself that you realise how courageous and hard-working someone else has been at grappling with similar issues.  


The perils of video


Two recent conversations have caused me to remember an interview between Christopher Hampson & his long-term notator Caroline Palmer about his ballet Canciones that  I transcribed and posted on the web 12 years ago (see full interview here). If you were around, you may remember that at the last moment, he had to pull the intended score by Manuel de Falla and replace it with something else, because of an issue over rights. It seems like 12 minutes ago.  At the time, I thought the following tale was quite funny – with the passage of time, it seems really rather sad…

CH: I know that people use videos, but a good example of why not to use a video is…

CP: (laughs) Do we have to go down this route?!

CH: We do, because a good example of why not to use a video is that there is one version, which is a rehearsal tape of the Manuel de Falla version

CP: The only one

CH: The only tape, and you know, I just love it dearly because it’s what it was what it was meant to be. I went round, and took Caroline out for her birthday, which… I don’t know if I’ll do again [laughter], because half way through the last section, the jota, she’d taped Lorraine Kelly, GMTV…

CP: Over it…

CH: … interviewing someone from Coronation Street over it. But you know, because the notation is there, that puts my mind at ease.

‘Social loss’, dance notation and Josephine Baker


What do Glaser & Strauss’s grounded theory study The Social Loss of Dying Patients, dance notation and Josephine Baker have in common? Well, I’m making a few conceptual leaps here, but I think it’s worth considering as a theory. I’ll walk you through it.

I was struck by a sentence in this article by Susan McClary & Robert Walser about Theorizing the body in the African American music. Their point, amongst others, is that it’s popular music and dance forms that have had the biggest and widest effect on dance generally, not avant-garde choreography which just borrows  ‘vernacular’ movements to present in ‘legit’ works:

The fanaticism and hysteria that have greeted each new African-American dance in the last hundred years attest to the centrality of this music in contestations over the body. And the dances invariably triumphed over whatever opposition they faced, even in they were toned down somewhat in the transition. It is this music, these dances – not the hot-house experiments of the avant-garde – that have shaped us, body and soul, throughout this century.

When I read that, I thought of a dance teacher friend of mine who was saying how fabulous Josephine Baker was, and how she was sure she did more for dance in the 20th century than….and then named one of the greats, can’t remember – Isadora Duncan? Martha Graham? I tend to agree.

Now skip across a few years to yesterday, when I was reading Glaser & Strauss’s ‘social loss’ study. They looked at what happened when people were dying, and noticed that nurses had a notion of ‘social loss’ that might affect the way they dealt with the patients. Normally, young patients are perceived as high value because you shouldn’t die young, but an old person might gain a few points by being a wonderful character. You get the idea.

Now think about dance notation – why do some works get notated, whereas all kinds of popular dance forms don’t? Could it be that there’s a similar concept of ‘social loss’ here, too? The idea is kind of obvious, but only because we think it’s obvious that some works have ‘aesthetic value’ that’s worth preserving and some don’t. But what if it’s no more than a knee-jerk reaction to the perceived social value of the person doing the dance, disguised as an aesthetic judgement? The  interesting thing for me would be to see if the category of ‘social loss’ provides a good explanation for what happens in dance. That’s got to be a gift of a dissertation or an article for someone, to do a comparative study using Glaser & Strauss’s original study to see how well the categories fit across the two scenarios. Any takers?