Tag Archives: Tchaikovsky

Diamond fairy variation: new piano arrangement


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

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

Siloti’s pianistic homage versus a workable ballet reduction

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

Siloti's arrangement of the Diamond Fairy

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

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

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

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

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

Less is more—except when it’s not

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

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

Tchaikovsky and Franco-Italian hypermeter once again

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


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. 







What is a mirliton? The best link so far


The mystery of Tchaikovsky’s mirlitons

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). 

Now today I’ve found a great page on the mirliton on the “Bard of Cheshire” site that is one of the best so far. It brings together pictures and reliable information about the instrument called the mirliton.  I still like the possibility that Tchaikovsky was referring to the cake, the Mirliton de Pont-Audemer, rather than the reed-pipe as an instrument, given that the divertissements are supposed to represent sweets (and that was always the biggest mystery—why are these reed-pipes in a bag of sweets? (see also this page on the topic from a recipe book) And “candy canes” make even less sense, until you’ve seen a picture of a 19th century mirliton that’s decorated like a barber’s pole). 

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. 

A year of ballet playing cards #44: A long, jolly polka/galop from Le Diable à quatre (5d)

galop for ballet class by Adam

Click to download the score of this galop for ballet class (pdf)

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:

Happy 2015: A new year’s ramble about Black Swan and other ballet anomalies

Bet you haven't seen this before: a piano reduction of Drigo's orchestration of Black Swan female variation

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 female variation 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 ask him, buy Matthew Naughtin’s Ballet Music: A Handbook published last year. Naughtin is music librarian at San Francisco Ballet (see interview with him in the Music References Services QuarterlyAll 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.

Creative Commons License
Black Swan (piano reduction) by Jonathan Still after Tchaikovsky/Drigo is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.

Confessions of an anxious ballet pianist day #12: Wrong notes


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.

Confessions of an anxious ballet pianist day #6: Playing the Black Swan variation music

The original piano piece, Op. 72 No. 12, orchestrated by Drigo for the 1895 production of Swan Lake.

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 (it’s a chirpy, playful, and much longer violin solo, by comparison with the galumphing machismo of Drigo’s re-orchestration that most people know as “Siegfried”), 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 recording will give you an idea of what I mean:

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.

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).

Update February 2015:  where to find a piano score of the black swan variation music
I did do it myself in the end – see my Black Swan page if you want some background, or just download it from IMSLP.

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.

The rarity of truly triple metre

The male solo from 'Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux' - a truly triple 3 (despite the 6/8 time signature)

The male solo from ‘Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux’ – a truly triple 3 (despite the 6/8 time signature)

If you’ve been following this blog recently, you know that I’m a little obsessed with time signature and metre in the 18th & 19th centuries (see Compound errors and  Counting Tchaikovsky). Today, it paid off in company class, when I managed to play about 5 minutes of pirouette exercise in 3/4 without getting a single tempo correction. That’s rare for me. I speed up in pirouette exercises.

This is how learned to stop doing it: I wondered whether it would help if I deliberately thought in 3 – maybe I inadvertently think in 6 when I’m playing waltzes.  3/4 bars never stand alone in waltzes, they’re always in pairs, and usually in pairs of pairs. It had never occurred to me to make a connection between this and my acceleration problem. But my speeding-up was cured instantly when I made an effort to think in 3 rather than 6. That is, I made sure my cadences were on ‘8’, not ‘7’, and that every bar was a closed circle of 3, rather getting sucked up into an imaginary 6/8. It was hard work. I’m correcting a habit of a lifetime, made worse by playing all that waltz music which is by nature in hypermetrical duple compound metre, not ‘truly triple metre’ as I call it. 

I coined the term ‘truly triple metre’ when I wrote the RAD’s Music in Focus and Dance Class Anthology books (2005). I’ve recently repurposed some of this for Dance rhythms for ballet pianists on the RAD website. The hardest rewriting was about ‘truly triple metre’ for grand allegro, because all the truly triple metres I can think of are polonaises, mazurkas and so on, which of course aren’t right for grand allegro. So what’s wrong?

Truly triple waltzes are an impossibility. They shouldn’t exist, and they don’t. What teachers mean by a ‘big waltz’ or ‘grande valse’, is usually that big balletic waltz-type variation that you only get in ballet, and while they’re in 3/4 and they’re reminiscent of waltzes, It would be better not to use that name for this type of music except as shorthand for something that we all know is really something else. The only trouble is, we don’t have a name for it. I call them ‘waltz-type variations’, and I think Galina Bezuglaya does in her book about ballet accompaniment (in Russian), but I can’t find the page right now.

Truly triple allegros are not waltzes. Think of the male solo from Tchaikovsky pas de deux, the cabriole variation from Bayadère, Flower Festival male solo, the E major solo from La Source that is used in Australian ballet’s Coppélia, and the Act 1 pas de trois male solo from Swan Lake (C minor), the coda from Diana and Acteon pas de deux, and one or two of the Paquita solos. Then there are waltz-ish variations that have a really marked three in a bar, even if they have their cadence on 7 rather than 8 (the giveaway for not-really-triple-metre*) – the Bayadère and Diana and Acteon male solos, for example.

The reason I get faster playing pirouettes is because I’m treating every other bar as a weak hypermetric beat, which I then tend to swallow up or slightly snatch (something I do in 4/4 as well, I’ve discovered, listening to recordings. Sometimes that can be just right, but if there’s stuff happening within the bar, like the finish of a pirouette, then the dancer needs all the time that’s available in the bar. That’s what real 3/4 would sound like, it’s just that it doesn’t happen very often.

* The exception (I think) is where you get a cadence on 7, but then 8 is a proper thump of a final chord – not an afterthought, but an autonomous accent that isn’t an appendage to the bar before.