Daily Archives: December 6, 2007 12:00 am

Battements jetés: Giselle Act I Galop

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This is day 6 in my 2007 Advent Calendar. This year, I’m giving the
story behind some of the music that I’ve collected for ballet classes.
All the pieces are on Studio Series Vol. 4 published by RAD.

I like this piece for two reasons.

Firstly, it’s another illustration of the Keep It Simple principle – this is one of those pieces that I spent years (nearly decades) avoiding for class because it is so well known.  But it’s precisely because it’s so well known that it’s a good choice.

When you happen on a really good invention (like those mirrors in Japanese hotel bathrooms that have a face-sized rectangle in the middle that never steams up after you’ve used the shower) you tut-tut and say ‘Now why didn’t I think of that?!’ Well, famous bits of famous bits of music are a bit like that. They’re so deeply and clearly etched in everyone’s brain that it’s invigorating. This particular one is so darn simple, it’s almost ridiculous – but it takes courage and flair to be that simple. Think ‘Vindaloo’ or ‘I’m a Barbie Girl’ – they didn’t get to the top 10 because of their retrograde inversions or metrical dissonance.

Secondly, I like the fact that this Galop is a perfect example of what the 19th century galop is, and that those kinds of galops are just wonderful for exercises where other music simply doesn’t do the trick. True galops have a little ‘kick’ on the first beat (diddy-DUH DUH DUH, diddy-DUH-DUH-DUH) which create a forward propulsion at the same time as a very compulsive but steady beat. If you hold the Giselle one up like one of those ultra-violet banknote checkers and test other examples (Gottschalk’s Tournament Galop, for example) you begin to see the family resemblance. And the funny thing is, even though these are little dances from 19th century ballrooms, they still get people going because they have the all the right ingredients of dance music. 

This was just a vague feeling & unformed thought in my mind, until I read a brilliant paper called From Refrain to Rave: The Decline of Figure and the Rise of Ground’ by that wonderful musicologist Philip Tagg   which gave me some clues as to why, possibly, those funny old galops, polkas and other dances still get your juices going. I admire Tagg’s work so much because he studies the things that people spend the most time listening to (which most academics think are too simple, popular or uncool to be worthy of study). We could do worse than adopt the same principle with ballet music – and study Pugni or Minkus, for a change, rather than Tchaikovsky.