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This is day 9 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

Elizabeth Sawyer, in her book about dance accompaniment Dance With The Music tells a story about Antony Tudor disparaging a pianist who dared to play the theme tune to ‘Around the World in Eighty Days’ in his class. To paraphrase, it was a case of ‘play that vulgar stuff again once more mate, and you’re out’. 

The story doesn’t endear me to Tudor, and if it’s as bad as it sounds, in my view it’s the Shibboleth that refuses him (and others like him) entry to any league that includes Balanchine, Mark Morris, Bob Fosse, Jerome Robbins, Leonard Bernstein, Shostakovich and the friends and colleagues that you’ll find in these advent calendars.  All these people seem to have an easy, earthy connection to the popular – what Constant Lambert, in Music Ho! called ‘healthy vulgarity’ , while being able to create and appreciate the most complex, esoteric and sublime art. My own friend & composition teacher Malcolm Williamson (see previous entries) was a perfect example.

Ich wollt’ ich wär’ ein Huhn is the heartening proof, I think, that you can’t get too serious about music for class exercises. It’s a silly song – silly tune, silly lyrics, silly speed, silly rhythm (all those things need to work together for the full comic effect), but for all that, it usually matches a typical petits battements exercise ‘word for word’.  My point? If you want music for an exercise that goes that speed, with that phrase structure, that articulation, those dynamics and that rhythm, then don’t blame me if you end up with Ich woll’t ich wär’ ein Huhn. Or Stick A Deckchair Up Your Nose. Or My Old Man’s A Dustman. Or Officer Krupke.

If you want anything more subtle or serious, you’ve got a bit of a problem, because everything that implies comedy and popular song is already in the exercise itself. Likewise, Tchaikovsky’s Mirlitons from The Nutcracker was just waiting for someone to write ‘Everyone’s a fruit and nut case’ because everything about that tune suggests ‘comic song’. The fact that people still sing those words to that tune is not proof of 21st century man’s shallowness and lack of respect for art, it’s evidence of Tchaikovsky’s humanity and understanding of the genre he was writing in.

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Jonathan Still, ballet pianist