Tag Archives: piano music

Diamond fairy variation: new piano arrangement

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My new version of the Diamond Fairy from Sleeping Beauty. Click to download free piano reduction.

I had to play this yesterday at a competition, and surprisingly, it’s the first time I’ve had to do it in public. It’s vile to play. Nowadays, if I’m faced with something like this, I go back to the orchestral score to see if there’s anyway I can make the job easier for myself, or better for the audience. Click here for my new version

Siloti’s pianistic homage versus a workable ballet reduction

The first thing I noticed about the difference between the orchestration and Siloti’s arrangement is that while Siloti’s hovers up the top end of the piano within the span of two hands, in the orchestra, those left hand Gs are in fact octaves, an octave lower: forte bassoons, arco bass and celloThe cost of his accurate representation of detail in the flutes and clarinets is the loss of the off-beat chords played by oboes, cor anglais and three, sometimes four, horns. 

Siloti's arrangement of the Diamond Fairy

Siloti’s arrangement of the Diamond Fairy from Sleeping Beauty (Act 3 No. 23, Var. 4)

Siloti’s transcription works both as a piano piece, and as a credit to what is most compositionally interesting about Tchaikovsky’s work here. But as the accompaniment to a variation, and for the dance accompanist, so help me God, it doesn’t work at all. You feel so utterly ungrounded, and so focused on the wrong things: to accompany a variation you first of all need a beat that is so strongly and safely grasped that if you need to change it, you can. Without it, it’s like trying to throw a pot with one hand; trying to steer your way out of a skid with only one hand on the wheel. 

The flutes and clarinet figure in the Diamond Fairy reduced to a manageable handful.

When I make arrangements like this, I do a constant accounting exercise: how much is lost if I take this out, how much gained? What’s the trade off between having a bass at the right pitch, and hearing the clarinet? I’m fairly convinced that you could get away with reducing it right down to the example on the left, and no-one would be any the wiser. Then it’s literally safe in your hands, rather than your hands being preoccupied with precarious detail, and you can use the other hand to play the bass at the right pitch, or give an impression of the horn chords; give it some weight, some “floor” in the music. 

Forget the clarinets: that’s a pretty thumping offbeat accompaniment in the oboes, cor anglais, bassoons and horns.

Less is more—except when it’s not

Considering how many times pianists around the world have to play the Tchaikovsky ballets in rehearsals and at vocational schools, it’s astonishing that we are still stuck with the first piano reductions, with all their inadequacies and problems and unsuitabilities. To my knowledge, my version of the Black Swan variation is the first publicly available reduction of one of the most famous solos in the repertoire. We all struggle along in our corners, doing our own ill-informed thing, assuming the score is right or the best possible, and only thinking about alternatives when problems occur.

Galina Bezuglaya, head of the Vaganova Academy music department is one of the few people to have committed anything to print about this   Amongst other things, she points out that it’s mainly other pianists rather than composers (or ballet accompanists) who make arrangements, which will bring a particular perspective to the reduction; Glazunov piano reductions are difficult because he tends think orchestrally, not pianistically (on the other hand, sometimes less is less: in the Raymonda Act 3 Hungarian coda, you really want to hear a good thumping bassline in the correct (low) octave); Tchaikovsky spent half a summer simplifying Taneev’s piano reduction of The Nutcracker, because—as he said in a letter to Ippolitov-Ivanov—”Taneev’s is so difficult that it’s impossible to play” [сделал облегченное полное переложение балета, ибо С. И. Танеев настоящее сделал до того трудно, что нельзя играть]. I’ve been typesetting a lot of Nutcracker recently for a job, and every time I go to put back in something that Tchaikovsky took out of Taneev’s arrangement, I end up taking it out again when I try it out on the piano.  Piotr Ilich knew what he was doing. 

Tchaikovsky and Franco-Italian hypermeter once again

On a different point, what continues to flummox me (which I can do nothing about) is trying to find the harmonic, melodic shape of the opening phrase. If you place the centre of it in the wrong place, you can wrong-foot yourself badly, and be tempted to miss out a beat. I am increasingly convinced that what’s happening here is a factor of Tchaikovsky’s tendency to write in what Rothstein calls Franco-Italian hypermeter . There is a very subtle interplay here of meter and grouping that will fall apart if you try to think only of a single metrical accent. There are (at least) two, and they are in counterpoint with each other (see also this post and the one’s branching out from it). I still haven’t worked out a fail-safe way to think of this phrase, I can only get through it safely by not thinking about it. All offers of advice gratefully received. 

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If you’ve suffered at the hands of the Diamond Fairy variation before, I’d be interested to know what you think of my arrangement. I deliberately didn’t post this until I’d actually done it in performance. It seemed to work for me, the best proof being that I felt able to adjust the tempo from the corner of my eye, something that I’d not been able to do with Siloti’s. Don’t take the notes in the right hand too literally: anything that approximates the harmony will do. You can steal and copy some notes from the harmony in the left hand, leave things out. I have no idea what I really played in the heat of the moment. 

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

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

Click to download the score of this chameleon-like music

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

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

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

How fast is a march in music for ballet class?

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

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


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The arrangement

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

The manuscript of the Military March by Granados

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

 

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

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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.

 

 

A year of playing cards #33: A deathly slow waltz (7c)

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A very slow waltz for ballet class: Death of Nikiya from La Bayadère

Click to download score

Thanks to Grant Kennedy in Australia for this as an idea for adage/ronds de jambe, anything turgid, anywhere that you need a very slow waltz for ballet class. As it’s from the ballet La Bayadère, you’d want to avoid it for company class if it’s currently in the rep – but as it’s a principal solo, I reckon you could get away with it as long as it’s not a recent memory (especially if it’s in a men’s class).

The threeness of the very slow waltz for ballet class

Over the last few years, I’ve become increasingly convinced that ballet classes require just about every kind of triple metre  under the sun except what most of us know as a waltz. Polonaise, mazurka, polka mazurka, kujawiak, sarabande, chaconne, redowa, to name those I can remember. But even things that look like waltzes on the surface in ballet often have non-standard features: slow tempo, 8th note rather than quarter note motion, and here’s an odd one: a lean towards the second bar of each two-bar unit, not weight on the first. For the prime example of that, think of the famous Act 1 waltz from Swan Lake – it’s all about the first beat of the second bar, and there’s nothing at all on the first beat of the first bar. I can think of several other examples in the ballet repertoire. (For more on my obsession with triple metre, see earlier post).

I reckon that this waltz from La Bayadère is marginal to the waltz repertoire by virtue of  its extremely slow tempo. There are, it’s true, several valses lentes in the concert repertoire, but La plus que lente by Debussy is only just a waltz, and not really that slow. The nearest relative of the waltz in today’s “playing card” would be Sibelius’s Valse Triste. But even that has livelier moments. Nikiya’s death waltz is deathly slow, and every darn beat in the bar has weight.  This is a bar where you’ll wait forever to get served.

And if you’d like to see what they do in the ballet.

A year of ballet playing cards #32: A Scottishy-Czechishy-minuettishy thing by Boccherini

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32-boccherini

Click to download score

The magic of Boccherini for ballet class

This is only a short piece, but it’s going to be like the magic key to open a dastardly exercise box somewhere on Planet Ballet – probably in some intermediate class where they’re trying to teach ballonné composé or a pas de basque glissé.  I discovered it after recommending Boccherini’s  Passa Calle from Musica notturna delle strade di Madrid (Night Music of the Streets of Madrid), Op.  30 No. 6 (G. 324) to a friend for a short film he and a friend were making. When I finally saw the film, I realised that they’d also used the Minuetto dei Ciechi from the same piece in the opening scene, to great effect: it’s quirky, atmospheric, physical music, and that’s exactly what the film was.  Because I’d skipped over that track before, I’d forgotten just how bizarre and lovable it is, and so here it is.  You might only get to play it once in a ballet lifetime, because there isn’t a name for this rhythm, but I am pretty certain that it’s perfect for something, it’s just a question of what that something is.

Check out the difference between Ciechi and Cechi

Minuetto dei Ciechi means “Minuet of the Blind People” which is translated as “blind beggars” elsewhere. I have a theory about this, that maybe, just maybe, this is a mis-spelling on Boccherini’s part, and what he meant to write is “Minuetto dei Cechi” which sounds the same, but means “Minuet of the Czechs.” Rather bizarrely, he marks this “con mala grazia” (with bad grace). So was he taking the mickey out of blind people stumbling around trying to dance in the street? Or did “mala grazia” simply mean in a folkish style? It’s a complete stab in the dark, and I have absolutely no evidence for the idea, except that this scotch-snap  (or “lombardic rhythm” – see this article) in a 3/4 is characteristic of no other music I can think of, except some Czech folk dances that I’ve heard, including the sousedská from Dvořák’s Czech Suite, and some Mozart minuets.

sousedska

 

Boccherini turns out to be a much more interesting composer than I ever thought, and for that we have to thank Elizabeth Le Guin, and her fabulous “carnal musicological” studies of the composer  .   Cook  mentions one of these in Beyond the score, in what is the first acknowledgement I’ve seen  of the connection between dance training and musical pedagogy:

“…following the pedagogy of dance, the late eighteenth century saw ‘a huge increase in the production and publication of instructional treatises for every instrument. Here mechanical processes, not just of instruments, but of the bodies operating them, began to be conceptualized and systematized (2002:243).”

I doubt that any teacher will ever ask you for a piece of music like this, so I suggest you just play it to yourself in their hearing, and see if they go “Oh that’s great, what’s that?” or “That’s perfect for…” I’m afraid it’s more likely they’ll look at you, smile, put their hands above their head in a gesture that means “Scottish dancing” and smile, and then ask you for something else.

Update on 5th August 2015: 

Well I was wrong. I was playing for Nehemiah Kish at the Balletmasterclasses in Prague, and he came out with this exercise that seemed to be crying out for a bit of this Boccherini. Here’s the result:

A year of ballet playing cards #31: A polka mazurka by Verdi (5c)

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Piano score of the polka mazurka by Verdi

Click to download this polka mazurka

Another polka mazurka? Yes, and here’s why

After I posted the two pieces by Ziehrer, the Fächerpolonaise and the Wurf-bouquet polka Mazurka, I doubted myself – were they just too uninteresting to be worth inputting and posting online for other people to play?  Well, they may not be the world’s most exciting pieces, but they have been lifesavers in recent classes. The polonaise works because it’s simple. By contrast, I sometimes detect dancers stuck in a kind of cognitive traffic jam when I play something that’s what you would normally describe as musically “interesting” – it’s just too much to try and process the music and the steps of the exercise at the same time. As for the polka mazurka, using that for class in one of the dreaded slow mazurka pirouette exercises  that I blogged about last year enabled me to play for about 10 minutes without a single tempo-correction, and that is a record for me.

That’s why I’m serving up another polka-mazurka this week, because you can never have enough of this stuff when there’s a dozen groups coming from the corner on both sides. This is form Un ballo in maschera. Incidentally, nearly every clip that I tried to load had been disabled for copyright reasons, so I don’t know how long this one will be there. This is a fine example of how classical music is killing itself through hating its public, whereas the pop industry seems to be awake to the fact that letting people hear stuff online is a good way of letting them get enthused about it. Don’t be put off by the speed in the clip – it’s fine as opera, but you’d have to pump it up a bit for class.  I’ve done a kind of medley version of it, to stretch it out as long as possible. You don’t have to play all the tiny notes, but some of them help.

While we’re on the subject of polka mazurkas, my favourite clip of the week is this, just for the mis-spelling (but also, because a polka mazurka features in a detective story). Long live the Porka Mazurka!

 

A year of ballet playing cards #30: A useful Polka mazurka

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Segment of the polka mazurka for ballet class

Click to download the free piano score of Ziehrer’s polka mazurka

“Such serviceable flowers” The polka mazurka as the chrysanthemum of the ballet class

You’ll probably look at this and think it’s a bit dull. I can live with that, because I know you’re going to thank me one day when you get some really awkward exercise that needs to be like doing a hill-start at traffic lights every bar. As Miss Brodie says of chrysanthemums in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie “Ah chrysanthemums. Such serviceable flowers.” A withering remark, but nonetheless, if serviceable is what you need, then a polka mazurka (or a bunch of chrysanthemums) is the thing.

Truly triple meter and the polka mazurka

I’m very glad that I made the distinction from the start in this series between 3s that were really more like 6/8s (hearts) and 3s that are really 3s, because this is a perfect example of truly triple meter, and why polka mazurkas, twee and 19th century as they are, are often much better for  pirouette exercises than waltzes. See previous posts on triple metre, and waltzes and mazurkas.

I’m making up all the articulations in this transcription, because I have no score to refer to, so I’m just writing down what I can hear. Listen to the recording, because everything about this piece is about articulation and tempo, rather than notes (and that’s why it looks a bit dull on the page).

Wurf-bouquet means a “throwing bouquet” (presumably like the one you throw at weddings), and my guess is that there’s some musical gesturing going on in the melody, where the three-note motif (and the way the anacrusis is held back in performance) is meant to represent the preparation and throw of a bouquet. It’s the kind of thing we get used to doing in music all the time if you play for class. I haven’t transcribed the ending of the piece – it goes back to the beginning, and then spends about a minute winding down, which is not much use to anyone in class.

There are some interesting similarities between this and the opening of the Grand pas classique in Paquita, which will tell you pretty much for certain that what we have in the ballet is a polka mazurka. That being the case, as lovely as the production below is, I’m guessing it’s probably a bit racier tempo-wise than the original might have been. I could be wrong – one of the useful things Zorn told us was that Russians waltzed faster than most of the rest of Europe at the end of the 19th century, so maybe that applies to the polka mazurka too. The long-short-short-long pattern in some of the bars is identical, and is worth keeping in your tool-box as a means of slowing down waltzes for pirouette exercises.

I’m a week behind, as I was at the 2nd Music and Consciousness conference in Oxford last week. Given that other people manage to con prisons into releasing them by setting up email accounts using an illicit mobile phone, you’d think I ought to be able to blog my way through a conference, but I needed a midi keyboard and more time and brains than I had at the end of the day. I’ll catch up soon.