Tag Archives: waltzes

Playing for ballet class tips #22: With harmony too, less is more

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Swanilda's famous waltz. The first harmonic change comes only at the very end of the phrase.

Swanilda’s famous waltz from Coppélia. The first harmonic change comes only at the very end of the phrase.

If you’re improvising or harmonising a melody, there’s a lot to be said for just sticking to simple harmonies, and avoiding chromaticism or excessive modulation for the sake of it. It’s not a competition to see who can fit the most chords in. On the contrary, dance music depends on a certain amount of harmonic simplicity for its dance quality and feeling of lift and lightness.

It was one of my dissertation students who first drew my attention to this: if you look at some of the most famous and well-loved waltzes you can think of, many of them of them follow the pattern of Swanilda’s variation, which is to stay on the tonic for 6 bars, and then move to the dominant only in bars 7 and 8. In the case of Swanilda, what then happens is the reverse, like a harmonic palindrome – 6 bars of dominant 7th, followed by 2 bars of tonic.

Strauss does it, and Tchaikovsky does it. Another variant is to stay four bars in the tonic, and four in the dominant. Whatever happens, you get very simple harmony with a bass line toggling between the 1st and 5th degrees of the scale, little more. I looked at Oskar Nedbal’s Valse Triste for ages, trying to work out how he had achieved such subtle and unusual beauty, only to find that most of it was down to what he doesn’t do – he never moves from a bass line of G and D in the first 8 bars;  and again, the harmony is tonic for 6 bars, dominant(ish) for 2.

Likewise, two of the most famous codas in the ballet repertoire, the one in Don Quixote pas de deux and the one from Black Swan pas de deux, sit on a tonic pedal for ages, and modulate properly only right at the end of the phrase.

Yet the temptation when you’re improvising or composing is to try and throw as many tricks as you can into 16 bars of music, like you’re loading your plate at the salad bar.  I’ve seen 16 bar compositions for tendu exercises that have already modulated to a remote key by bar 4 (with a change of key signature), chromatic inner voices and bass-lines, interrupted cadences, and hardly a simple tonic or dominant chord in sight. I’d like to say that the result is a real dog’s dinner, harmonically, but in fact, dogs’ dinners I’ve seen tend to make more culinary sense.

If there’s a principle to follow, it’s to remember that 16 bars of music in a dance class have to be imagined as being a ‘clip’ of something larger, not a self-contained miniature. In fact, who writes 16 bar miniatures? There isn’t enough time to develop and resolve musical tension, so don’t try.

The Scotch Snap: everything you needed to know, and a hundred more questions

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This is probably the most interesting video I’ve ever seen on a musical question. If you want to know why, read on below the clip. As it happens, I’ve posted this on Robert Burns Day/Burns Night, so the topic of the Scotch snap couldn’t be more appropriate.

Philip Tagg: making sense of the Scotch snap at last

Philip Tagg and his articles have kept me sane since the day I discovered him somewhere around 1999.  He gets inside the same questions that perplex me about music, and is one of the few musicologists that make much sense when it comes to understanding dance and music.  One of the things that has intrigued me for years and years is the ‘Scotch snap’.

I’ve probably thought about it daily for about 10 years, mainly because of the Waltz in the ballet Giselle (1841) and that Mozart minuet in E flat, both of which exhibit scotch snaps in 3/4 time, and because my yearly trips to Prague have given me occasion to overhear Scotch snaps in Czech music, or at least folk music that’s played in Prague (which might be Slovakian or Hungarian, or Romanian, depending on who’s playing it, and when your maps were drawn).  One pianist I know deliberately plays the scotch snaps in the Giselle waltz as if they’re before the beat. When I asked him why, he said he’s always thought that bit ‘sounded silly’ if you play it like it’s written. Sometimes I’ve wondered whether some scotch snaps in classical music are  just notational errors:  I seem to remember reading that there are  instances where copyists would write a dotted rhythm using the semiquaver first as a kind of shorthand meaning the opposite. Can’t remember where I read that, unfortunately.

The Scotch snap and stress patterns in Croatian

And there’s more: as a student of living in Zagreb, I remember being fascinated by the comment of a Croatian translator who noted that since all stress in Croatian is on the first syllable, there was no iambic poetry in that language. Considering that iambs are so common in English (think of all those children’s skipping songs) the idea that a language could just exist without an iamb to speak of seemed bizarre. But I speak Croatian, so I know that it’s not.  Then there’s the added fact that Croatian/Serbian have accents of length as well as of stress, sometimes it’s really difficult to tell whether someone’s elongating a vowel, or stressing it – so someone could tell you that the accent is on the first syllable of a word, but to me it sounds like it’s on the second, because it’s a long vowel (the same is true of Czech sometimes).

The great thing about this video is that Tagg has done all the work that I knew needed to be done, but I wondered if I’d ever live long enough to start doing it. It’s a wonderful advert for the kind of interdisciplinarity that makes me get up in the morning, and which Tagg himself advocates in his 2011 article Caught on the back foot.  By the end of the video, there are just even more questions to ask, which to me is what good research is all about. And Tagg’s conclusion – that you should be looking for class divisions before ethnic ones if you want to understand issues like this in music – resonates hugely with a great article I read yesterday on the concept of the ‘ballet boy’ (Time to confront Willis’ lads with a ballet class?) – in which the author says that it’s class, not gender that’s the issue in ballet & Billy Elliot, but gender’s an easier issue to tackle if you’re trying to pretend that you live in a classless society.