Thanks to Kathie Brobeck who commented on one of my favourite posts, about the origins of the children’s galop in “Tchaikovsky’s” Nutcracker, saying that Steamboat is a Scottish tune. I have to say I’m still keeping my options open as to where the tune originated, and whether maybe it came to Scotland first via Spain/France. But Kathie’s observation that the tune is just called Steamboat in Scottish music circles sent me searching, and here, for fun, is another version of the tune. I have now heard so many versions of this tune in folk music contexts that it seems exotic when I hear it in The Nutcracker.
The result? Though I say it myself, I was delighted to find that I actually forgot I was playing this variation at all—I usually hate it—to the extent that I enjoyed the rehearsals without any dark interior monologues. There is something about the way that you get to spread your hands properly over the keyboard that literally helps you to “get a grip” on the solo; when it’s thin and whiny like the piano version, it has no body, it runs through your fingers, away from them.
The design of everyday things: including orchestral reductions
As I was playing it and thinking about these things, I was reminded of a section in Donald Norman’s The Design of Everyday Things about the importance of physical constraints in design, and how these enable us to take the right actions without having to think about it:
“Why the apparent discrepancy between the precision of behavior and the imprecision of knowledge? Because not all the knowledge required for precise behaviour has to be in the head. It can be distributed—partly in the head, partly in the world, and partly in the constraints of the world.” (pp. 45-55)
There are four reasons, Norman says, that precise behaviour can emerge from imprecise knowledge: information in the world, great precision is not required, natural constraints are present, cultural constraints are present. Of natural constraints he explains:
The world restricts the allowed behavior. The physical properties of objects constrain possible operations: the order in which parts can go together and the ways in which an object can be moved, picked up, or otherwise manipulated. Each object has physical features—projections, depressions, screwthreads, appendages—that limit its relationship to other objects, operations that can be performed to it, what can be attached to it, and so on. (p. 55)
An arrangement of Black Swan plots out specific combinations of piano keys that have implications for how hands can move around in time. My arrangement is much more constraining physically than the original piano piece. The presence of Drigo’s countermelodies, for example, introduce a secondary web of semiquavers that keep time, keep the fingers occupied in finding a way to play the melody and countermelody, keep the brain occupied by introducing the difficulty, and keep your spirit challenged and alert. All of this automatically constrains the possibility of rushing individual beats or moving too fast generally. (Conversely, though, my simplified version of the final chords—without those ridiculously unnecessary repeated spread tenths—frees up your mind and eye to concentrate on the much more important task of seeing how the dancer is doing on her diagonal.)
The extended mind
It’s taken me since August to actually go to my shelves and find the book and page, so I could write this post. The impetus for doing so is probably because I have recently bought and started to read Andy Clark’s Supersizing the Mind: Embodiment, Action and Cognitive Extension. Clark’s book is a huge elaboration on this idea that some of our “thinking” is in the world, not entirely in our heads. It’s at once rather mind-blowing, yet persuasively simple.
In turn, I finally bought Clark’s book because I was re-reading my notes in my computer on Tia DeNora’s work where she introduces the notion of musical affordances, and the musically extended mind (for a recent conference paper on this concept, see Joel Krueger’s “Musical Worlds and the Extended Mind.” (published in 2018, from a conference in 2016).
And as it happens, the reason I’m writing this post, the reason I have a website at all is increasingly because it’s a useful place to offload things like this into the world, so my brain has more room to remember where my glasses are, and which bit of my bag I put my umbrella in. I also get tired of thinking “It’s like that bit in that book by whatshisname, it’s a concept called I can’t remember, I’m not sure where the book is.” Occasionally, when I go back to look, I find that I have misremembered or misinterpreted, but in this case, I’m delighted to see that it’s not the case.
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. 1 2 3 4 5 6—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 thatNápravník conducted the first performance of that opera, and would have known it well, the similarity is perhaps not surprising.
I’ve just had an email from a teacher, asking me what I understand by the term “Lyrical Waltz.” Short answer, I don’t understand anything by it, but the long answer is that I’m rather fascinated by how a term like this can gain such currency over a long time, without apparently having much meaning.
Lyrical waltz: a potted personal history
The first time I heard the term “lyrical waltz” was when I started work at the RAD back in 1986. I think it was something that teachers had been told was a meaningful musical term to use to pianists. I used to improvise waltzes that started with a dotted quarter note + three eighth-note pattern (as in the Sleeping Beauty lilac fairy attendants example below). I soon ran out of ideas. I think the reason I associated this pattern with “lyrical” was because somewhere in a syllabus book there was an exercise that had “lyrical waltz” as a tempo indication, and that’s roughly how the music went.
Lilac fairy attendants from Sleeping Beauty (Tchaikovsky). When I hear “lyrical waltz” I think of this rhythmic pattern of dotted quarter note + three eighth notes. But I’m not convinced that’s good enough.
What—if anything—is a lyrical waltz?
Over the years, I have tried to work out what, if anything, a “lyrical waltz” is in musical terms, but have only come up with more questions.
Does it mean something that has the quality of a song? That doesn’t really work, because there are plenty of songs that have a bombastic quality.
Does it have a melody that is song-like, rather than being motif-based like the Act 1 waltz in Swan Lake, or the opening of waltz of the flowers in Nutcracker, where you can hear the composer at work, rather than the singer. However, as soon as you start singing these tunes, they have a song-like quality, they’re singable. Back to square one.
Does it mean something that has more eighth-note motion than 1-in-a-bar feel? Not an infallible criterion, because there are 1-in-a-bar waltzes which could be described as lyrical, and eighth-note ones which aren’t.
Does it just mean slow? I don’t think so, because teachers who have ever asked for this didn’t (I think) want something ponderous
Does it mean something where the melody takes precedence over the accompaniment, i.e. something like La plus que lente by Debussy? Up to a point, but if teachers use the word “waltz” at all, I presume they’re expecting more rhythmic predictability than this.
Lyrical waltz—a pedagogical category only?
By “pedagogical category” I mean a term that has arisen from a teaching context, but has little relation to the world outside, but has somehow stuck. Whoever started using it may have had a particular waltz in mind, like the “Lyrical Waltz” of Shostakovich, from which they extrapolated a category, without giving it much thought. I think this happens a lot—where people like a single tune, not realising that what they like about it is particular, not generic. Take La cumparsita which people have sometimes used as a generic template for “tango” — when it’s about the only tango that goes like that, and in fact, was never a tango in the first place, but a march. As an illustration of this in practice, a colleague told me of a class where the teacher had sung a tune while she marked the exercise, and then said “But don’t play that. Play something similar.” You guessed it: after a few try-outs, she said “You know what, just play what I sang.”
Incidentally, this is the opposite of that odd, ballet-only scenario where a teacher will ask for “The same thing” by which they don’t mean literally the same thing, but something that is in metre, tempo, style and feel the same, without being, you know, the same. This is where the everyday German distinction between das Gleiche and dasselbe is useful. There might be an interesting intersection here between musicology and everyday ballet class practice. In Music, Imagination and Culture (1991), Nicholas Cook writes of the tendency to “hear works as individuals rather than as exemplars of a type” (p. 147) and that this is a “defining principle of the aesthetic attitude,” citing Dahlhaus’s Analysis and Value Judgement (1983, pp. 13-14). In my experience, ballet pianists are much more attuned to attuned to what dance forms are as a genre than classically trained musicians. Ask the latter for “a polonaise” and they’ll play an exemplar, of which they probably only know a couple of the Chopin compositions, without being aware of the things that make it a polonaise in the first place.
Lyrical waltz—or little waltz?
One teacher I play for often asks for “A little waltz” and for some reason, I know exactly what she means, though it could also be the tone of voice and gesture that conveys the idea. “Little” to me here suggests something in moderate tempo, moderate volume, not bombastic, not grand, with a smooth melody line, perhaps like the Tchaikovsky E flat major waltz Op. 39 , or the Little Waltz by Teresa Carreño. A piano piece, rather than an orchestral number reduced for piano. A miniature. Little is a more productive and meaningful term for me than lyrical, though I’m still not convinced it helps. I’m also referring mentally to particular pieces that have an overall quality elicited in performance more than composition.
Lyrical—just a name, rather than a category?
I searched around for “lyrical waltz” on Google, and then for Valse Lyrique. Once you exclude Shostakovich or Sibelius, it’s not a huge list, so the idea that there was once a whole category of waltzes called “lyrical” is suspect (though you’ll find quite a few of them on ballet pianists’ albums, which supports my theory that it’s a pedagogical term, not a real-life one).
In the US Library of Congress Catalog of Copyright Entries 1945 (Music) New Series Vol 40 Pt 3 No 10 there are more compositions in the index with the word “Valse” in the title than “waltz,” and only a handful with the term “lyric.” When you look at the list of adjectives associated with “valse,” (see below) apart from lyrique including erotic, beige, parfumée, you begin to wonder whether any of them have much meaning, except as a way of flogging a generic composition as if it might be particular. Perhaps lyrical is doing the work of organic, natural, new, advanced, healthy, free-from! in food-labelling. If we’re fooled by food labels, I’m sure we can be taken in by sheet music covers.
Extract from the Catalog of Copyright Entries (Music) 1945, compositions with the title “Valse”
Postscript: Is “a lyrical waltz” something to do with the body, not music?
Once I’d written this, I began to wonder whether the term “lyrical” has some purchase with dance teachers because of the genre of lyrical dance, in which case maybe it means “the kind of music I can do emotionally charged slow bendy dance to.” That opens the field up more, without the need to get too metrical-technical about the music.
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 cello. The 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 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 safein 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.
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.
If you know my site, you’ll be aware that I’ve been trying to find pictures of and information about “mirlitons” the title of one of the divertissements in Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker (see earlier posts).
On that subject, there is also a postcard of an artiste at Les Mirlitons, the cabaret opened in Paris by Aristide Bruant, which has a woman in candy-cane stripes with what look like mirliton pipes in her hair. Probably just a coincidence, but it adds a lovely confusion to the story.
Something about this galop for ballet class is so similar to a piece by Shostakovich (I think it’s in Moskva Cheremushki) that if I’d heard snatches of this on the radio, I would have sworn it was by him, not Adam. That sold it to me, because sometimes you need something long and jolly for those fast exercises at the barre, and to be honest, nothing beats an accented G flat in the middle of a sea of B flat major: it’s the musical equivalent of a whoopee cushion, and I expect composers will still be doing it a hundred years from now when they want a laugh at the Proms. In the clip below, it begins at 51:00 – clicking on it should take you there automatically, but if it doesn’t, drag the slider to that time.
Recipe for a galop for ballet class: 95% diatonic blandness, and 5% fun
To me this is a text-book example of how to be cheeky, funny, good-humoured, or call it what you will, in music. It requires 95% diatonic blandness spiked by the occasional funny face poking out from behind a doorway (accented wrong notes, or syncopations), sudden changes of direction (key or dynamics, but not at the same time – less is more), mock-seriousness (minor keys), sleight of hand (repeating the same thing so many times you know what’s coming next – and then changing the ending), and then – how can I put this? – there even seems to be a little bit of national stereotyping going on, when a krakowiak suddenly appears just when you thought the whole world was a galop. This music has to be at a silly tempo – not show-off speed, but just slightly too fast. I reckon about 121 bpm should do it. Too slow and it’ll sound leaden, too fast and it’ll just sound like showing off. Fast is rarely funny, unless it’s this kind of fast (thank you Gavin Sutherland for drawing my attention to it), the Circus Galop by Marc André Hamelin for player piano:
Bet you haven’t seen this before: a piano reduction of Drigo’s orchestration of Black Swan. Click on the score to download your free version.
As it’s the first day of a new year, I’ve decided to do something about one of the greatest annoyances in my list of ballet-pianist anxieties: the Black Swan femalevariation from Swan Lake (see earlier post for the full version of why it’s annoying). After 28 years of only ever knowing the bits that are missing from the score by guesswork, hearsay, memory and oral tradition, I’ve done a piano reduction of Drigo’s orchestration, and here it is as a free download (pdf file). Eduard Langer – who did the piano reduction of the 1895 Swan Lake – put this and other interpolations at the end of his piano score, but left them as Tchaikovsky wrote them (i.e. as piano pieces), rather than as reductions of Drigo’s orchestrations, so they are missing vital detail.
It wasn’t as easy as you might think: although the Drigo orchestration is a published score, and Drigo is out of copyright, the orchestral score isn’t yet available at IMSLP. This is when you need a friendly orchestral librarian to help you, so I asked Lars Payne at English National Ballet, if I could scan the relevant pages from their orchestral score to make the reduction. While I’m at it, let’s just pause to give an internet round of applause to Lars.
Matthew Naughtin’s book on Ballet Music: essential
The anomalies of Swan Lake that I blogged about very briefly in that earlier post are multiplied over and over again in ballet music. It’s one of the curious things about ballet that the more well known and popular something is, the harder it is to find the score. Most of the things we know so well from galas are pimped up diverts interpolated in earlier, less interesting 19th century ballets, and if you can find a score of those at all, it doesn’t have any of the interesting bits in at all, or they’re in the wrong place. The pimped-up, hand-written version has to be faxed to you from a cupboard in Minsk, or you give up and get someone else to orchestrate it for you.
Or you ask Lars, because if anyone knows where it might be, it’ll be him; except, don’t waste Lars’s time until you’ve checked whether Matthew Naughtin’s Ballet Music: A Handbook hasn’t already answered your question. Naughtin is music librarian at San Francisco Ballet (see interview with him in the Music References Services Quarterly. All those questions that no-one else bothers to ask about ballet scores are answered in here, and the answer is often “Lars Payne” (see all 24 mentions in the Google books version for an idea of what I mean), because Lars has been gradually cleaning up all these problems and making decent scores for the ballet world for years. To anyone who has enjoyed the orchestral music on RAD’s Grades 1-3 or Grades 4-5 (if you haven’t seen it, here’s a link to an 8 minute documentary about the making of the music for that project), you should know that had Lars not been in the middle of it all, answering questions, providing scores, knowing everything, it would never have happened. To you it’s just a CD, but actually, in librarianship terms, it was a bloody miracle.
And finally… I wrote that it was Julia Richter who taught me how to play all the bits that are missing from the Black Swan variation, when I played for my first Genée ballet competition back in 1987. By coincidence, on Monday this week I passed by the RAD on my bike on my way to ENB to play Swan Lake. It was a clear, bright and freezing cold day which brought back memories of that occasion 28 years ago. By even greater coincidence, when I got to ENB, Julia (who was there too) said “Of course, it was about this time all those years ago we were doing the Genée competition,” and we got chatting about the Black Swan – and I discovered then that Don (Anthony) Twiner was the one who taught her how to play it. So here, 28 years later, is the score, in case you don’t have anyone to tell you how it goes.
One of my worst ever wrong notes. I haven’t completed the second bar, because I can’t remember how I got out of it. It wasn’t pretty.
“You should play more wrong notes, then people wouldn’t notice so much.” That was the kind, but impractical advice given to me by a good friend in a company many years ago, after I’d played for class, and accidentally hit the most spectacularly wrong note in the middle of a very well-known tune. There was a ripple of laughter, and half the room turned and looked at me with a grin, as if I’d done it on purpose for the comedy factor. There was something in what my friend said: the price of a tendency to be accurate is putting a spotlight and a gold frame around your mistakes.
The way to play a really terrible wrong note for comic effect is to be utterly convinced that you’re going to play the right one. It’s hard to do on purpose, because all your training will guard you from attacking a wrong note with the confident authority that you’d give to the right one – only the genuine accidents is truly funny. I’ve played the Nutcracker pas de deux probably thousands of times over the last 25 years or so, and while I’ve missed a lot of notes (or not aimed for them in the first place, which is the key to being accurate) I have never, ever, done what I did in a rehearsal the other day, which was to play the whole three bars preamble, and then place a fortissimo F natural at the beginning of the cello tune. It could have happened any one of the thousands of times I’ve played it, but no, it had to happen while I was playing for one of the most famous ballerinas in the world.
Musicians amongst musicians (i.e. when they’re not playing for dancers) find this kind of thing funny – they’ll grin at each other, maybe even quietly applaud it. But the trouble with playing for dancers is that ballet is just too hard and serious to muck about with. They’ve usually heard the orchestral version of the music more than you have, and so they’ll be more aware than you are if there’s something wrong or missing. I have a theory that the less diatonic the score, the worse it is: play one wrong note in a complex chord in Romeo and Juliet and everyone know’s that there’s something wrong, even if they can’t tell you exactly what it is. As the musician, you’re often the last person in the room to know, if – as often happens – you’re (mis)reading a score that everyone else knows by ear.
I’m glad I’m not playing for any rehearsals today. After my post about getting lost in phrases yesterday, I got horrendously lost twice in the same class, as if blogging about it was a self-fulfilling prophecy rather than, as I’d hoped, an inoculation against future danger. On that basis, my guess is that today would not be a good day for accuracy. I’m staying in.
The original piano piece, Op. 72 No. 12, orchestrated by Drigo for the 1895 production of Swan Lake.
The music that is harder to find than a black swan
Let’s start with a few facts. Although this solo, and the Black Swan pas de deux that it comes from, is one of the most famous bits of the most famous ballets in the world, the chances are that if you pick up a score of Swan Lake, you won’t find it – either the solo, or the pas de deux. There was no such thing as “Black Swan Pas de Deux” in Act 3 of the original (1877) score of Swan Lake. Most of it was taken from a pas de deux for “two merry-makers” in Act 1 (No. 5). Not only is Siegfried’s solo not there in the form that we generally know it today (most of that extended, light, chirpy, and playful violin solo in Act 1 was removed, leaving only a bleeding chunk of tutti for the later “Siegfried” solo), but Odile’s solo isn’t there at all. That’s because it was only added in 1895, after Tchaikovsky’s death. It’s a piano solo (Op. 72 No. 12, L’Espiègle) orchestrated by Drigo, along with other interpolations and changes, documented on this Wikipedia page about the 1895 version of Swan Lake.
The original source of the black swan variation music
L’Espiègle, the subtitle of Tchaikovsky’s piece, means something like “Sprite,” “Demon,” or “Prankster.” It’s apparently related to “Eulenspiegel.” You get the idea. It’s a little novelty piece that should be cheeky, irreverent, playful, elusive, naughty. You can see why they might have chosen such a piece for Odile’s solo. Accordingly, it’s marked Allegro moderato (con grazia, in modo di scherzo. Stokowski’s Richter’s recording will give you an idea of what I mean: [many of the YouTube videos I embed get removed, which is a shame. Stokowski’s recording is orchestral, so it’s more fun to listen to and compare: listen to it here on Deezer, or here on iTunes or just use the relevant terms to search for it elsewhere]:
But you’ll be in trouble if you play it like that. To accompany this solo, you have to ignore just about everything that’s in the score, and add things that are not there, and still aren’t printed in any version of the score that I’ve seen. Versions of the score that include the solo just reprint Tchaikovsky’s piano version (you can download one here, from IMSLSP, though it doesn’t contain the cut), not a reduction of the Drigo orchestration. Let me list just a few examples of what I mean.
Time signature: No. it’s marked C, but really needs to be re-barred as 2/4 (a classic case of compound duple time – see an earlier post for more on that).
Allegro moderato: No. Think Air on the G String instead as your tempo ball-park.
Con grazia, in modo di scherzo: No. Oh no, no, no. Put such thoughts right out of your mind
Stringendo, ritenuto, a tempo: No. Don’t even think about it. While you’re playing this, there’s so much stuff going on in that solo, if you don’t keep a rock-steady slow tempo, you’ll be in trouble, and so will Odile.
Did I mention the cut? You’ll be in trouble if you try to use the original piano solo. In the ballet, there’s a cut before the tune comes back again.
Now let’s talk about this:
Ballet’s best kept secret: this is NOT how it goes.
Don’t play what’s written for the semiquavers: find the chord that each pair creates, and repeat them in pairs (F#F# G#G# A#A# etc.)
Don’t play what’s written for the big fortissimo chord: that actually needs to be rhyhmically performed arpeggios. There is stuff going on there that needs a beat.
If you were thinking about pausing for dramatic effect on that chord – don’t. Count like crazy.
The middle of the piano solo is cut. Sometimes, the cut is wrongly marked, or maybe there was a version that had a different cut in. The cut includes a funny half-bar.
When the tune repeats, ignore all tempo markings, except that it’s going to be slightly faster this time. Possibly.
At the end, keep it in tempo. Or at least, play it as if you’re keeping in tempo, but make adjustments just in case she’s a little bit late. But be sure not to sound as if you’re slowing up, because otherwise that might make it sound like she’s late and we don’t want that.
Get used to the idea that you’ll probably miss the G# in the left hand chord 80% of the time, because you’re trying to watch the end of the solo.
As with the White Swan of yesterday’s post, it doesn’t get any easier, no matter how many times you’ve played this, for how many ballerinas. If it hadn’t been for my colleague Julia Richter, who initiated me into the secrets of this solo (like the arpeggios) when we were playing at a ballet competition together in 1987, I wouldn’t have known, and would have made a fool of myself for I don’t know how many years before someone told me. 27 years later (and 119 years after the first production), we’re still playing it, and there’s still not a proper piano reduction of it floating around – and Drigo’s orchestration isn’t available online to do the work yourself (if I’m wrong about that, let me know).
And finally – a dodgy comedy version of the black swan variation music
A little bit of unknown, or rather, just forgotten ballet history. Back in about 1992 (I think?) I was so sick of this solo, and so captivated by my new Yamaha SY35 keyboard and MIDI technology, that I did the only thing that would save my sanity: I turned it into a silly kind of ballroom number. Christopher Hampson made a solo to it for that year’s ENB cabaret that he called a TBA, that was danced by Alex Foley. I don’t remember anything about the solo (he probably doesn’t either) except that she had long black gloves on. It was made on an Atari computer over 22 years ago, and I no longer have any of the files, but it was on a cassette tape somewhere. I thought it had been lost forever, but then in 2008, Chris found it in a box he hadn’t unpacked since moving house several years before. Here it is. Dodgy timing, and restored to MP3 after years in a box.