Tag Archives: sheet music

A year of ballet playing cards #17: A six eight allegro (4h) from Verdi’s “Jerusalem”

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A six eight allegro by Verdi (piano score)

Click to download this six eight allegro

There’s a kind of allegro that’s in 6/8 that needs music like this. I don’t really know what to call it,  except “a six eight allegro.”  The canonical example for me is “Sempre libera” from La Traviata (below):

The trouble is that there’s only about 16 useful bars of that aria, and for this kind of exercise that comes forward in multiple groups, you need at least a hundred. Most of the things I know that fit the bill are equally short, or turn out to have too many notes to keep up the necessary speed without wilting. Also, the exercise usually needs lift and movement in particular places, so I usually end up improvising – until I found this piece from Jerusalem. 

Tip: Useful is not always interesting, and interesting is not always useful

I was going to skip this in favour of something that looks more interesting on paper, but when I came to play it, it felt and sounded better as performed music than it does on the page, and it’s also very handy because it goes on for ages. Even though I can hear a score in my head by reading it, there is often – as with this piece – a chasm between what it feels and sounds like as a physical experience, and what it looks like on paper. I’m certainly influenced by just how useful this is, so maybe a normal pianist (rather than a ballet pianist) wouldn’t feel that way.

What I love about this piece, the more I hear it and play it, is its constantly changing rhythmic shape. I wouldn’t have noticed this so much, or had the words to talk about it, had it not been for two instances recently where I was supposed to be teaching pianists, and learned something myself.

The first occasion was in Ljublana, (photo gallery here) leading a weekend seminar for ballet teachers and pianists at the Conservatoire for Music and Ballet. A  question came up about battements tendus with the accent in or out: how much does that affect the music that you should play? I wasn’t giving answers, it was a discussion between teachers and pianists. After nearly 30 years of playing for ballet, I noticed something for the first time: teachers, when they want to stress the accent in, appear to give more “accent” to the out preceding it. That figures logically, because if you want to chop a log harder, you lift it higher before it falls, and you have to show that the leg is out before it comes in on one. But it really messes with your metrical head, because you hear “accent in” as a verbal instruction, then you hear “AND a 1″ as a musical cue. Also, “accent in” doesn’t (I think) mean accent in the sense of chopping logs, but of where the close is in relation to the musical metre.

Franco-Italian hypermeter in the ballet class: try it, you’ll like it (and so will they)

So maybe this is a case for pieces that exhibit what Rothstein explains as “Franco Italian hypermeter” (see previous post)  I tested the theory by playing this piece (playing card 46) which has more than half a bar anacrusis (which is one of the requirements), and asked teacher Tom Linecar-Boulton during a London Amateur Ballet class to see if it did the trick. It seems to, and it illustrates a fascinating thing about the incommensurability (in my view, at least) of musical accent with ballet accents. There’s a lightness and accentuation about this which has a very different kind of body to it than non-ballet music, and “anacrusis” in music has too many implications about downbeat that may not work for dance.  What it has is a long “and,” not a heavy one, and the one has an accent which is not to do with volume or weight, but – I don’t know how to describe it – where it is. It’s like saying “I’m going to put this here, and that there,” without shouting about it.

Try this (at a slow speed) for tendus with the accent in. It's fun, and an example of Franco-Italian hypermeter

Try this (at a slow speed) for tendus with the accent in. It’s fun.

Franco-Italian hypermeter in a six eight allegro

The second occasion was yesterday, when I was talking to some music students who were going to have a go at playing for ballet classes. They were asking if it’s acceptable to have a stock of chord sequences that you improvise over. I said yes it was, and that it’s surprising how much a simple repeated sequence can be masked by the detail that you hang over it. I took this Verdi piece as an example. It’s in 6/8, but as Danuta Mirka would say, the “composed meter” varies – that is, the first two bars are indeed in duple with triple subdivision, but then the next bars, with the little grace notes, and the emphasis on each beat, are effectively in 3/8. As the piece goes on (I’ve sewn two together and done a bit of reworking to try to make enough for several groups), there are many variations on the rhythm of the phrase (with an anacrusis, or on the beat, with a half-bar anacrusis, or a short one) even though the basic duple structure is maintained. My favourite is this one:

17-4h_0003

That triple forte is the upbeat to the next “1”

“A bit lighter please” — try meter, not dynamics

This to me solves a conundrum with a certain kind of jump that jumps before the 1, yet mustn’t be heavy. When a teacher I played for recently kept saying “a bit lighter” I thought he meant just “quicker” but I think he really did mean lighter – but in the sense of not thumping either downbeats or upbeats, but maintaining a kind of tension between the two, as in this wonderful example.

You’d have to pick your moment to play this – if the dancers need the music to tell them what to do on every step, then avoid it – but if they know what they’re doing, the subtle shifts of grouping over the phrase bring all kinds of lightness and accent to it, in a way which is definitely Franco-Italian, and not German: what you have to avoid is obeying the (Germanic) rule that every downbeat has to have an accent. Think about Italian or French poetry, with its end-accented lines, and swoop over the bar lines, resisting the accents until the final bar.

I can’t find a recording of this that is at a tempo which I think would work for class, so I’ve done a very rough one here – my apologies for the botched job, but I’m sight reading, and the piece has only just come out of my musical oven.  Teachers, I’d love to know what you think about this, and whether I can give a name to this (is it particularly good for a certain kind of jump?).

If you can’t play this, or want to download it, right-click (or command click on a Mac) this link

The point of posting stuff like this is not to bring back Verdi’s Jerusalem because it’s the best thing for allegro, but to offer models for either improvising or finding other repertoire, and the changes of accent, metre, phrasing, rhythm, grouping and so on in this offers all kinds of ideas.

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

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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.

 

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.

 

A year of ballet playing cards #29: A Chaconne and a grand dance (3c)

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Image of the chaconne by Purcell

Click to download the score of Purcell’s chaconne

Why is the chaconne so rare in ballet class culture?

I’ve no idea. Given that ballet’s history is supposed to have its roots in Italy and France, it’s odd that things like minuets, chaconnes, bourrées, sarabandes, gavottes and so on are some of the rarest things ever to be heard in a ballet class.  If there’s any cultural hegemony going on, it’s Austro-Hungarian: the waltz and the polka.  Of all the music that isn’t played in classes, it’s the chaconne that seems to miss out most. I don’t think there’s a reason why, except that the only kind of three people can think of in a hurry is the waltz and the mazurka, and those rhythms get embedded in the technique, I suppose. Can there really be something about ballet that requires the waltz? Or is it that chaconne requires learning a new rhythmic trick, and ballet habits are remarkably resilient?

Install a new chaconne instead of your old waltz

I discovered a while back that if you’re lucky, and the exercise isn’t too slow, you can replace the thick, porridge-like stir of a waltz played too slow for ronds de jambe with a Chaconne like this (albeit played rather too slow for a chaconne). It has a push on 1, but not the feeling of a wellington boot sinking into mud that the slow waltz has. The dotted rhythms and true triple metre (see earlier posts on the topic of triple meter) keep the music moving.

There’s something hypnotic yet interesting about the variations on the ground bass: it’s amazing how  much harmonic interest Purcell squeezes out of a single 8-bar bass line.  It’s also handy that there’s loads of it – 16 eight-bar phrases. I’ve put rehearsal marks on each one so you can pick and choose depending on the length of the exercise, but beware of – it’s the only time the phrase ends in a dominant.  There are some great recordings available, but I chose the one below because it has some baroque dance in it as well – which helps to give an idea of what a central tempo for this could be, even though it bears playing more slowly.

By chance, I started to input this just before going to a wonderful concert of the Shostakovich 1st violin concerto at the Barbican, and I was thinking of how the first of Shostakovich’s 24 preludes and fugues is a little chaconne, rather like the one in Purcell’s The Fairy Queen. Then In the violin concerto there’s also a kind of chaconne-like passacaglia in 3, which I felt peculiarly prepared for, as if inputting the Purcell had been a kind of mental warm-up.

On wikipedia there’s a wonderful list of other compositions that have used the chaconne as a basis. Well worth looking at for other ideas, if you liked this one.

 

The Lanner in the Stravinsky

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The Steyrische Tänze Op. 165 by Lanner - source of one of the ballerina tunes in Petrushka

The Steyrische Tänze Op. 165 by Lanner – source of one of the ballerina tunes in Petrushka

It’s well known that Stravinsky borrowed tunes from Lanner for the ballerina in Petrushka. I knew about the Schönbrunner waltz Op. 200 [link to score], but I was pleased to find the other tune on page two of the Steyrische Tänze Op. 165 [link to score].   This is why I love IMSLP – it gives you a chance to recover sources like this. I can remember reading a book or programme note about  Petrushka that said in a supercilious tone Stravinsky was caricaturing the facile melodies of Lanner’s waltzes, and in a sentence like that, Lanner gets pushed further to the bottom of the heap of composers that one is not supposed to like, or even look at – you can just rely on some secondary source to tell you what to think. I’m not saying that when you look at it again, you realise that Lanner was a master composer and this is a wonderful piece – but I do like to have the opportunity to hear this music without the modernist composer’s, musicologist’s or critic’s sneer all over it (hear it for yourself here.) It opens with a waltz in 3 bar phrases (like the Glinka Valse Fantaisie), and is really rather nice.

The only reason I found it was because I’ve realised that the Steyrische (or “Styrian”) has got just the right degree of turgidness for a certain kind of ronds de jambe exercise, so I was hunting around IMSLP to see if there were any good ones to add to the repertoire. I’ve played the Schönbrunner waltz several times in class, and no-one’s ever said “That’s Petrushka!” so I wonder if they’d notice if you played this. Of course, if they did, the nice thing is that they’d think you were playing Stravinsky, so you could put on your Stravinsky face and make out that it was really hard.

I’ve also played “Po dikim stepyam Zabaikalya” which is also quoted in Petrushka, and no-one’s ever noticed either the folk song or thought it was from Petrushka (they’ve not noticed the other folk tune – Я вечор млада во пиру была –  that I play sometimes, either).

 

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

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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.

More… 

References

A year of ballet playing cards #15: A rumpty-tumpty waltz (Oh! Oh! Antonio)

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Oh! Oh! Antonio - first line of the music

Click to download the score of Oh! Oh! Antonio

I like it when teachers set grands battements on what I call a rumpty-tumpty 3.  My favourite pieces for this kind of exercise is the Zarah Leander song Davon geht die Welt nicht unterand Hands, knees and boomps-a-daisybut all good things must come to a brief pause, and so it was time to find another one, and Oh! Oh! Antonio is just what I was looking for.  If you’re wondering why I’m suddenly bringing music hall into this game, after all that Schubert and czardases, I have to point out that rhythmically speaking, behind every balletic variation, there’s a tarty music-hall number dying to show its frilly knickers, and a bit of decorum (which flies out of the window once you put some swing into a waltz) is the only thing that divides these songs from Paquita or Bayadère.  

How I discovered Oh! Oh! Antonio

I wonder what the chances are of anyone knowing this if you played it for class? I didn’t know it until last week, when it was used in Indian Summers, set in 1932:  Cynthia Coffin (Julie Walters) proprietor of the English Club in Simla leads the singing as the local English gather for the club’s re-opening. You never can tell: someone on a forum remembers his great grandfather (Welsh, who spoke no English) singing it to him as a child. Songs have a way of travelling through time. I always thought the Teddy Bears’ Picnic was a song from the 60s (because I heard it as a child) yet the tune was written in 1907, and the words in 1932.

In fact,  this song is also about the way songs get transmitted. You may have noticed that it begins almost note-for-note like Strauss’s Kunstlerleben (Artist’s Life) waltz Op. 316, written in 1867, and regarded as the “twin” of the Blue Danube. Now listen to the words of the second verse:

Her old hurdy-gurdy all day she’d parade
And this she would sing to each tune that it played.

So what you’re hearing are new words to an old tune. But there’s a third temporal layer to this: the third verse (not on the recording, but available here) has the line (just before the chorus)

She faded away, but they say in the streets
The ghost of that girl in Italian repeats…

So this is a song about people talking about the ghost of a girl singing a song that she made up to an old tune playing on her hurdy-gurdy. A Pathé newsreel film clip from 1923 of the “first wireless barrel organ” playing this song adds yet another layer to the story: here is a kind of hurdy gurdy playing, ghost-like through the ether, a song about people talking about the ghost of a girl singing a song that she made up to an old tune playing on her hurdy-gurdy. Incidentally, it’s wonderful to see people waltzing in the street as they hear the music. I nearly wrote “spontaneously waltzing” until I wondered whether perhaps Pathé had placed those people very carefully there to make the clip more interesting. Sadly, there’s no audio on the film.

Reanimating ghosts: songs and musicians

When Florrie Forde sings Oh! Oh! Antonio, she brings that ghost of a song back into the physical present (in 1908, that is).   That’s one of the things we do as musicians  –  let songs breathe a bit longer, or, if you like, plant them in ground where they’ll suddenly flourish again just when they were in danger of expiring. There is no natural process by which “great” songs stay hits purely on their own, it only happens by transmission, and the processes can be unpredictable and strange (and expensive, in the case of Pharrell Williams and Robin Thicke). They are “broadcast” both in the TV/Radio/Internet sense, but also in physical form as sheet music and records. They travel with people as carriers of songs, geographically and temporally.

Last week, I saw a 101-year-old woman teaching Are you lonesome tonight? to a young Filipino nurse in a care home in Streatham. I thought, that’s odd, she would have been 46 when Elvis Presley recorded it – surely this isn’t her generation of songs? But when I looked the song up just now, I discovered that in fact, it was first released in 1927, when she would have been 13 – which makes a lot more sense.

So let’s keep Oh! Oh! Antonio  going a bit longer—why not?  Sing along if you know the words (which you do, because I’ve put them in the score). It would of course be wonderful in any class where there’s an Antonio teaching or dancing, or maybe just for remembering your own Antonio-related history. There’s not an app for that, but there’s a song for it.

Update on 26th April 2015

As proof that the Internet’s power is limited by your diligence and ingenuity as a searcher, I’ve now come across a site that has the original sheet music for Oh Oh Antonio! Fuller and probably easier to read and play than mine, all credit to the person who put this site together.

Update on 31st Jan 2016

…and if you’d like to hear it or play it on the Ukulele, visit Colin Tribe via Youtube