Tag Archives: piano

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: 

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


Click to download the score

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

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

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

A year of playing cards #19: A medley of (double) jigs (6h)

Image of the double jig medley

A medley of double jigs: click to download the score

I’m a few weeks behind, not least because it’s that time of year when everyone has a show, or is preparing for one. I thought that while I had O’Neill’s 1001 open (see previous post), I’d fill another gap: jigs. Good job I did, because I ended playing for a lot of children’s classes recently, and boy, do you need jigs for that. Skips, galops, horses, they all need jigs (particularly the kind called the “double jig”). I hadn’t quite finished this set when I suddenly needed it for a skipathon, and – as has happened a few times already – I became one of the most grateful users of my own 52 cards project.

Make mine a double: the difference between a single and a double jig

If you need jigs at all in a class, double ones seem to be better than singles almost all of the time (double jigs are the one with the continuous 8th notes and slightly slower than single jigs, which—like Humpty Dumpty Sat on a Wall—alternate between long and short notes). I think it’s because they are (sorry about this) truly triple. By that I mean they’re not just 4/4 with a bit of a lilt, the melody actually moves in 3 (see an earlier post, And now for something completely sextuple for a fuller explanation). I can’t really identify what my criteria are for choosing these jigs rather than the many, many others in O’Neill’s 1001, except I like the ones that sound a bit like a The frost is all over that I heard on a friend’s album when I was a teenager – I think it was Planxty, but it might have been The Chieftains. I couldn’t resist including the jiggy version of Green Sleeves. The Vaughan Williams version is lovely, but it could do with a rest.

Harmonising these tunes for the piano is not as easy as it you’d think it ought to be, and I change my mind several times no sooner than I’ve put down a version. It helps to listen to some bands playing the tunes. Guitarists often use fewer chord changes than you’d be tempted to make on the piano, and bassists make particular shapes with their bass lines. Here’s a version of the first of the set The Joy of My Life. 

A year of ballet playing cards #28: Fächerpolonaise Op. 525 by Ziehrer (2c)

First line of sheet music for Ziehrer's polonaise

Click to download the score of the polonaise for free

In search of the serviceable polonaise for ballet class

A commenter on a previous post about polonaises asked me – since I’d said so many polonaises were unusable – which ones I would choose.  I realised I didn’t really have much of an answer, so it was clearly time to go on a polonaise hunt. I can’t pretend I’m that thrilled by this polonaise, but I’m no great fan of the polonaise to start with, and everyone needs a polonaise or three in their repertoire: so this one, which as Miss Brodie said of chrysanthemums (“such serviceable flowers”) is serviceable, so why not. “Serviceable” is no bad thing for class, for nothing is worse than music that draws attention to itself so much that it’s distracting.  If nothing else, the Fächerpolonaise is a good model of just how little one needs to do when improvising around a dance rhythm: as I’ve written before, less is usually more when it comes to harmony in dance rhythms.

Another reason I chose this music is because it has still has a  currency at Viennese balls. The clip below is from the Regenbogenball in Vienna (the “Rainbow Ball” for LGBT people and friends). If there’s a reason to hang on to these strangely antique traditions perhaps it’s to give people who were previously denied participation a chance to join in now. Dance and music might be a metaphor for this kind of thing: you keep the music going for long enough (i.e. over a century and a half) for the last couple in the room to get to the front.  There’s an essay to be written on that that would include a  reference to Elias’s Society of Individuals, but I haven’t got time. There’s also an essay to be written about the way the Habsburg Empire lives on (at least culturally) with extraordinary resilience – this also happens to be one of André Rieu’s greatest hits.

About Carl Ziehrer, composer of the Fächer polonaise

I ought to have heard of Carl Ziehrer before, but I hadn’t. The fact that this polonaise is Op. 525 will tell you something about his output – he actually wrote more dance music that Johann Strauss II. The more you listen to the music of Strauss’s contemporaries, the more that composers like Minkus and Pugni – and even Tchaikovsky – fall into context.  If, as Taruskin has said, leaving out ballet music from music history is a “scandalous omission” [zotpressInText item=”{MEXKRI58,131}”] then leaving out light music is a double scandal, because it conceals the extent to which composers like Tchaikovsky were surfing a much more popular wave.

You can add in or take away as many notes in the chords as you like – I’ve added a few from the piano transcription to thicken it up, but they’re not compulsory.



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A year of ballet playing cards #43: A csárdás-like Nocturne by Schubert (D4)

Schubert Notturno for piano solo: click to download the free score

Schubert Notturno for piano solo – click to download the file

A csárdás by any other name, almost

I didn’t mean to keep finding csárdáses everywhere, it just seems to have happened. I don’t know if anyone else would call this Schubert Notturno (nocturne) a csárdás, but even if it isn’t, it fills that slot in class where a csárdás can work really well: battements fondus, or one of those slightly ceremonial walky adages. The opening chords sound like the Raymonda principal girl variation, or the Monti Csárdás, which is how I made the connection. That introduction makes the meter indubitably a four of some kind. That lack of ambiguity is quite rare in introductions.

This is a piece that you’ll probably only find a use for once a year, but when you do, it’ll be gorgeous. It has obsessed me all week, the first 16 bars playing on repeat in my head everywhere, like a meditation (I can do without hearing the rest of it, that’s how obsessional I’ve become about it).  I first came across it when Christopher Hampson used it for a pas de deux for Thomas Edur and Agnes Oaks. At the time, it never occurred to me to use it for class, probably as I’ve explained before, slow music and me don’t really get on.

The importance of the turnaround – even in a Schubert notturno

It has a lot of things that are hard to find: restful yet with a forward drive, grandeur without being bombastic, dramatic but relatively simple and concise, and – this is the really big one – it has a lot of action at the end of the bar. Now, they teach you in music classes that 4/4 goes 2 3 4 2 3 4, with a fat accent on the beginning of the bar. What they don’t tell you, is that most of the music that we like has a lot going on at the end, not just the beginning of bars or phrases: think of the “turnaround” at the end of a phrase in a song, the dramatic drum solo announcing  the EastEnders theme, the famous drum fill In the Air Tonight – they all happen at the end of a phrase, anticipating the big tune. Although “1” has an accent, think about the energy you invest in the “8” when you count “5, 6, 7, 8” into an exercise.

One of the problems of finding music for fondus is that you need something that has equal energy in the second half of the bar as in the first, rather than a dead, flaccid sink after the initial accent while you wait for the next bar to come along. This nocturne by Schubert is almost the opposite of that, and hence great for fondu exercises, I think: there’s energy and drive right on what is supposed to be the weakest beat of the bar (supposed to be, but don’t believe everything they tell you in theory classes, unless those theory classes are taken by top-notch theorists – see my Meter & Rhythm Page for some names to look out for).

Cutting options

The theme is beautiful, but it doesn’t resolve conveniently for class. I’ve given several options for ending it. The more dramatic version – using the coda – retains more of Schubert’s composition, but it might be just a bit too dramatic, and in addition, the rhythmic flow changes in a way that might work for some exercises, but not all. Handle with care. In the second part, I’ve put the violin pizzicato chords up an octave to get them out of the way of the tune, and so make it easier to differentiate between tune and accompaniment. I’ve also put in more notes than you might want to play, but I prefer to have them there so you can choose what to play and what to leave out.

Confessions of an anxious ballet pianist day #21: The grand battement “march”


gazzaBallet classes seem to be full of things that aren’t quite what they should be: polonaises that are really boleros, waltzes that are mazurkas, mazurkas that sound like minuets, rhumbas that are choro. Then there’s the what you might call the “fondu tango,” that thing in habañera rhythm that is so slow, it’s hard to know how anyone ever thought it was a Thing in the first place. Little by little, I’ve managed to collect pieces that will get me out of these messes: you can, for example, play the Monti czardas instead of a “tango,” and it sounds like the kind of thing they want.

But when it comes to the “grand battement march,” I still draw a blank. Is there any music in the whole wide world really goes “aaaaaand a one…” as the marchy grand battement demands? How and when did anyone think that the overture to La Gazza Ladra would “do” for grands battements, just as long as you reduce the speed by about 400% and put accents in places that should be illegal? The trouble is, I can see exactly why teachers want music that goes like this: it wouldn’t be better on a 3/4, or faster, or as a completely different exercise. There’s a point to doing a grand battement like that.

Unfortunately, I don’t think there’s a piece of music in the world that fits the template without ruining it. You’d think that any high-kicking number from a musical would do it, but no. There’s nothing worse than picking your moment for Springtime for Hitler, only to find that by the time the teacher’s flagged down the tempo to the speed of the exercise, you’ve killed one of the funniest moments in musical theatre, right there in your ballet class.  If anyone’s thinking, “Dance of the Knights” from The Apprentice, think again. It doesn’t go like that, trust me, get the CD and listen to it.

I’m still hunting, and still open to suggestions. Until I find something that works, the marchy grand battement is going to make me anxious for a long time yet.

Confessions of an anxious ballet pianist day #3: Pop songs


Crossing Battersea Bridge today. One of the best things about cycling is crossing bridges. It’s 6 years, 10 months and 6 days since I had similar thoughts in another blog post.

I’ve got to be very careful how I put this, for fear of being taken the wrong way (see, I’m even anxious about that). So let’s get one thing out of the way: I have limitless admiration for people who’ve got a load of pop tunes in their class repertoire. I’m even going to give a plug to my friend and colleague Andrew Holdsworth’s double album Reimagined for Ballet (Pop) Volume 1 and Reimagined for Ballet (Pop) Volume 2. What’s more, I’m well aware of how much dancers like it when you play things they know from the charts.

The trouble is, I can’t do it.  It’s not just that I don’t know enough songs in the first place. I could learn some if I put my mind to it, but I’d feel as self-conscious as if I’d turned up to class with a tattoo and flourescent PVC hot pants. You need to live in a world of this music to make it sound convincing, and I don’t.

It’s not just that, it’s also that I don’t actually want to hear or play the music any other way than it comes out of the radio.  I don’t mind cutting any old piece of classical music til it bleeds, just to make it fit for class, but I wouldn’t want to do that to any song in the charts that I liked. Take Ed Sheeran’s Thinking out loud, which I’ve had on a loop either in my head or on my iPod for weeks. I couldn’t bring myself to change anything about it, not one detail of the arrangement or production, and I want to hear the voice, and the words. For me, this music belongs in a completely different realm than the kind of thing I play for class, I don’t want to hear it denuded by being translated into piano music. That sounds like I’m saying other people shouldn’t – I’m not. I think it probably just shows that I’m not at home enough with it to refashion it and make it my own.

I was fretting about this to a colleague the other day, and saying that I had a feeling that maybe playing for class is a young person’s game after all. “But that’s nonsense,” he said, and told me about a pianist who’s 10 years older than me (which is pretty old) and plays everything in the charts. He was kind, though, and reminded me that I have a shedload of tunes that other people don’t play.

And that, I suppose is the solution to the anxiety: thank God we class pianists do have different styles and repertoires. It means we can leave the stuff we can’t–or don’t want to do–to other people. Once again, it seems to be about teamwork.