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This is day 24 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

poppies.jpgThe way I’ve been banging on about trying to avoid the waltz for class, you might think that I’ve got something against waltzes.  Nothing could be further from the truth. I love them, and in fact yesterday I spent a lovely morning playing class for Christopher Hampson and his happy band of dancers for the Raymond Gubbay Strauss gala, and stayed to watch a bit of Chris’s choreography for the exquisite Sphärenklänge by Josef Strauss. If you want to know what I do when I’m on holiday, that’s it. My point about avoiding waltzes is that
they’re gorgeous for waltzing to, or to listen to, but it’s rarer than you’d think that a waltz is really a good choice for an exercise, particularly in grand allegro.

It’s Denzil Bailey that first made me aware of this, coming over to the piano during allegro in an ENB class and saying very diplomatically and helpfully that what I was playing would be nice for pirouettes, but not really for allegro. I was quite surprised, because until then, that’s what teachers had always seemed to ask for.  But at the risk of being shot down by my teacher colleagues, dancers are often much better than teachers at saying what works and what doesn’t, because they’re the ones actually doing the darned exercise, and they’re the ones you’re doing it for, so their feedback is rather more urgent & expressive.

You won’t be surprised, after all this, to hear that the reason why “Valse des Bluets & des Pavots” from Glazunov’s The Seasons works so well is because it does a lot of things that waltzes don’t normally do.

  • Principally it frequently displaces the accent off of the first beat, which has the effect of steadying the tempo, and offering a natural prophylactic against becoming one-in-a-bar with a Viennese swing.
  • The harmonies often change significantly on each beat. This tends to push the melody in a forward, narrative direction rather than bouncing it up and down on a metrical trampoline.
  • It has all kinds of chromatic and dynamic journeys & diversions, which lend drama and emotion to even the simplest repetitive movements
  • Through a variety of means, it retains a nice fat accent on every bar, should you want it, rather than every other bar.

But this is ridiculous – valid and true though all those reasons are, the main thing is that it’s one of the most sumptuous, glorious waltzes I know, and in just three pages, it goes on a musical journey that makes you feel you’ve gone round the world to get home. The turnaround from the middle section into the reprise would be one of my first choices on Desert Island Modulations. Far from thinking ‘Oh god, how many more groups are there?’ during the exercise, you hope that there will be enough groups to allow you to do the whole thing, favourite modulations included. And if you can, it turns what is superficially a repetitive exercise into what seems like a wonderful story. 

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Jonathan Still, ballet pianist