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This is day 13 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

One of the worst experiences in playing for ballet classes is when a teacher has set an exercise for which you can find no suitable music, but as a pianist, you can’t just say ‘It’s OK, I’ll sit this exercise out, if you don’t mind’. No, you just have to play whatever bad rubbish you’ve got, hating yourself, the music & the exercise as you go. It’s like being stuck in a queue behind someone who can’t find their Nectar card, but feeling as bad as that person at the same time.

Top of my list of audio nasties is the excruciating slow but butch waltz for pirouettes that some (particularly male) teachers sometimes use – imagine the male solo from Don Quixote slowed down to half speed. How on earth do you maintain any kind of rhythm, momentum, interest, vigour, elasticity in music at that tempo? If you slow a waltz down, it sounds ghastly; yet the exercise is too fast to be replaced by a polonaise, too slow for a mazurka, and even La plus que lente wouldn’t be lente enough, and has completely the wrong feel.

Well, just as Herminia solved my fondu-tango problem, so the Redowa from Meyerbeer’s l’Étoile du Nord, featured in Ashton’s Les Patineurs, solved the ‘waltz’ problem. The problem is that what’s required isn’t a waltz, so as soon as you start thinking ‘waltz’, you’re already on the wrong track. The ‘redowa’, polka mazurka and ländler are what Zorn calls ‘three step waltzes’, and don’t figure in most people’s musical education at all – how can you know that a redowa would fit an exercise when you’ve never come across one or see how they work?

Such things – elaborate, filigree melody lines strung tautly between the main beats of the bar, creating strength and  resilience without the need for force or extra weight – like lily pads, perhaps – are difficult to improvise off the cuff, because there is just too much detail at high speed. The Redowa from l’Étoile du Nord is a wonderful piece, with such variety in each section that it makes a long exercise a pleasure to play for because you can look forward to different parts of the musical landscape. It gives pirouettes much a more interesting dynamic and feel than a bog standard waltz. I only wish I’d discovered it earlier.

 * Zorn, F. , trans. B.P. Coates (1970) Grammar of the Art of Dancing, theoretical and practical. [Burt Franklin research and source works series, 543] New York: Burt Franklin. [Translation of Grammatik der Tanzkunst]

Friedrich Zorn (1820-1905) was a dancing master, who lived – as you can see by the dates – right through all the significant dance crazes of the 19th century, and is therefore an expert eye witness, as well as a methodical and detailed documenter of dances and styles. The Grammatik der Tanzkunst was first published in 1887, and is a fantastic source of just about anything you want to know about 19th century social dance and its music – in other words, the huge gaping hole in most music texts books, despite the enormous influence of these dances on our musical life.

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Jonathan Still, ballet pianist