Tag Archives: polonaise

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


Screenshot of the polonaise from Dubrovsky by Eduard Nápravník

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

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

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

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

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

Now get this: 

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

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

Enter Nápravník, on an isochronous triple meter

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


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

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

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


A year of ballet playing cards #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”  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.



Confessions of an anxious pianist day #10: The Polonaise


Things you can do with a polonaise if you’re Tchaikovsky, and you’ve got time to think.

About once a year, I buy a Fry’s Turkish Delight bar, a slab of faintly fragrant sugary pink jelly covered in chocolate. It has no nutritional value, no crunch, no layers, a single, slightly weird flavour, and so there’s nothing new to experience after the first bite. I’m faintly disgusted by it, yet I have a compulsion to keep trying it now and again, because I’m not quite sure whether secretly, I rather like it. I still can’t be sure. I feel the same way about the polonaise.

I dread having to play polonaises because a) my left hand doesn’t have enough strength or stamina to play the characteristic rhythm pattern more than a couple of times without seizing up, b) like the slow mazurka, if you’re improvising, it’s easy to get lost inside a six count phrase and forget where you are, and screw up the exercise for everyone, and c) it’s hard to invent the kinds of things that make polonaises interesting off the top of your head, like tricking the listener into thinking the music’s in two, then falling back into three, or cramming dozens of fast notes and dotted rhythms in between the beats as Tchaikovsky likes to do.


The polonaise from Cherevichki Act 3 No. 19 used in Cranko’s Onegin. Brilliant, but virtually unusable, because it’s just too darned clever to throw your legs up to.

Chopin polonaises are generally too fancy and pianistic to do barre exercises to, the Tchaikovsky ones (Swan Lake, Sleeping Beauty, Eugene Onegin (the opera), Cherevichki (used in Onegin the ballet, the finale of Suite No. 3 used in Theme and Variations ) don’t go on for more than 8 bars without some change in the phrase structure that means you can’t use them. Operatic ones can be quite good, except that they tend to be faster than what you need for a grand battement exercise, and they’re not called “polonaise,” so you can’t hunt them down easily.  It seems to me that the more suitable for a grands battements exercise a polonaise is, the less interesting it is as music. There are couple of exceptions, and I’ve worn them threadbare playing them for class.

Then there’s the fact that when teachers want a polonaise for a jump, what they need is nearer to a bolero than a polonaise – though, annoyingly, boleros usually have a two bar vamp in the middle that make them unusable (like the Spanish in Swan Lake, for example). Occasionally, you get a cross between a bolero and a polonaise (a bolernaise?) that does the trick nicely – the “tempo polacca” on page 35 of this pot-pourri from Esmeralda is a good example (though it’s a bit dull, frankly).  But usually, if you play a polonaise for a jump, it’ll be too heavy, and if you play a bolero, the chances are it’ll be too fast or light. Most of the time, a triple jig works just as well, if not better, but it’s not a good idea to go there, because it sounds too different to what the teacher marked, and they’ll think you’ve misunderstood.

Oh, and then there are those awkward moments when a teacher says “Mazurka, please” and marks the exercise with a mazurka rhythm sung at polonaise speed, or “Polonaise please” and then proceeds to do the exercise on a mazurka.  If you play what they meant (and showed in their voice), rather than what they said, you risk showing them up, or making them think that you didn’t understand. To save face, I usually play the introduction in the rhythm that they asked for, and then start playing what they meant when the tune comes in, by which time it’s too late for them to start a discussion, so we’re safe. I don’t care what anyone calls it, by the way – I’m as prone to misnaming dance rhythms under pressure as any dance teacher.

The trouble with the polonaise is that it has overtones. It’s grand, it’s marchy, it’s processional, it’s sparkly. It’s an opportunity for metrical tricks and conundrums. It wasn’t designed to do ballet exercises to, and by the time you’ve trimmed off all the things that you need to to make it work, you’re left with its rather dull, boxy three-ness and not much else, like a tailor’s dummy.

But for all that, I’ve grown to rather like polonaises in the same weird way that I can’t keep away from Fry’s Turkish Delight. There’s something icky about them that make you want to keep going back and having another look. When you get an exercise that is at just the right speed to make an operatic one retain its operatic excitement, it’s exhilarating. If nothing else, they’re a refreshing change from playing wall-to-wall duple meter As Kath and Kim would say, it’s nice, it’s different, it’s unusual. 

Polonaise and mazurka: the ultimate internet resource page


This is probably the most wonderful site I’ve ever come across in the very specialised world of music for dance: a page of links to the the content of Polish Dances, the complete written works of Raymond Cwieka. Hundreds and hundreds of pages of detailed research on the mazurka and polonaise.  I can pretty much promise you that you will never, ever find another resource so large and comprehensive and informative on the topic.

The route by which I found it is interesting. I don’t know how long it’s been up there, but I’m shocked at myself for not having discovered it before, considering that I spend a lot of my life researching this subject.  I found it because I was trying to find a the original German version of Paul Nettl’s The Story of Dance Music, given that the translation is poor in parts. I searched for <“the story of dance music” german title>, and one of the links that appeared was Cwieka’s book on the polonaise (all 410 pages of it) linked to by Jason Chuang. There’s a moral here: if you want to find good resources on the net, it helps if you put in another good source as your search term, because a well-researched page will have references. If you don’t know about a subject, then it stands to reason that you’re not going to know the kinds of terms that will bring up the best sources. References are a good place to start.

The generosity of Cwieka is overwhelming. It’s all up there for you and me to read and enjoy and learn from. I’m oscillating between joy and despair, though – it’s such a great resource, but it just shows that  I don’t know shit about the polonaise really, and I know just how many hundreds of pages I am away from being well-informed.

Update, January 2017

Further to all this, here’s a nice comment left by Raymond Cwieka on my site: 


Go to the internet; type-in “Raymond Cwieka – Academia.edu”.


Go to the internet; type-in “Raymond Cwieka| Papers – Academia.edu”.


(to open www.academia.edu, you may need an account with
them/have a google/facebook account)

r. cwieka