Monthly Archives: December 2009

Why are dusters yellow?

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Here’s something to mull over before the year goes out. Why are dusters yellow? And why has it never occurred to me to wonder why until now?

It seems I’m not the only one who’s puzzled. The Guardian featured this question in their Notes & Queries section (Why are dusters yellow? Notes & Queries, The Guardian)

I imagined that there’d be a simple answer, but there doesn’t seem to be a definitive one. The one I find most convincing is the one about dusters once being recycled butter muslin, which absorbed the colouring used in the butter it once wrapped.

Snow and rainmates

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Since installing some site-stats software on my blog, I’ve been able to see how and why people end up at my site: by checking out the stats page, I can see what magical collection of search terms someone put into Google (or whatever search engine) to arrive at a page on my site. Some of the searches are real Googlewhacks, since I write about such arcane stuff most of the time.

But now that I’ve been looking at the stats for a month, it amazes me that in all the five-and-a-half years that I’ve been blogging, the only topic that has consistently caused any interest, if you judge ‘interest’ by people leaving comments, or searching regularly for a particular term, it’s rain-mates, and snow.

Believe it or not, over the last month, someone has visited my site every day to read about rain-mates. I am considering giving up music and becoming a rain-mate importer.

Musical surprises #25: A bit of Tooting history

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My grandfather's cornchandler's shop in Garratt lane, a bit of Tooting history

My grandfather’s shop in Garratt Lane, late 1930s, I think.

Happy Christmas! Today’s revelation is not strictly a musical surprise, except that it vaguely concerns me and I’m a musician. But it’s quite surprising all the same, and I love this bit of my family’s part in Tooting history.

I came across this old photograph of my paternal grandfather’s cornchandler’s shop at 759 Garratt Lane a couple of years ago.  The site doesn’t exist anymore as it was bombed in the blitz, but I believe it was at the junction with Franche Court Road, opposite Summerstown. It’s strange that after being born in Bournemouth, moving to London, and over 20 years of adult life, working my way down a succession of residences on the Northern line, I should end up where I live now, which – entirely by chance and without knowing about it  – is only a few minutes walk from where my grandfather had a shop. 

If there’s a point it’s this: this Advent Calendar has often been about pointing out the realities behind abstractions, ideals and false unities in music.  So it’s rather appropriate that I point out the realities behind the author of these posts.  I rather like the idea that this blog, however metaphysical at times,  is just the ramblings, from Tooting,  of the grandson of a Tooting grocer.

Musical surprises #24: What Rumanian dances sound like without the Bartók

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I love Bartók’s Rumanian Dances, and indeed, I’ve just recorded them with the violinist Gillon Cameron on the album  After Class 2. But I was gobsmacked when I heard my favourite band, the Romanian Taraf de Haïdouks playing them as they might have been before they got turned into 20th century concert repertoire, or ‘re-gypsifying’ them as it’s called elsewhere. Enjoy.If you’re a speed junkie, the best bits are from 6’35” onwards.

Musical surprises #23: Vauxhall, Strauss & Tchaikovsky

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Vauxhall Gardens Estate: A long way from Vauxhall, Strauss and Tchaikovsky, but not that far

Vauxhall Gardens Estate. The name lives on, if not the splendour.

Although the light and popular dance rhythms of Johann Strauss II seem a sociocultural world away from the ‘classical’ Tchaikovsky, they’re not. It’s our own snobbery that obscures the connections in the music, for what is Tchaikovsky most famous for if not the Waltz of the Flowers, and the waltzes from Sleeping Beauty and Swan Lake? But there is a physical and geographical connection too.  For in 1865, Strauss – who was a regular guest conductor at summer concerts at the Pavlovsk station in Russia – conducted the first public performance of Tchaikovsky’s Characteristic Dances.

At a station? Well yes. The station at Pavlovsk was no ordinary railway terminus – it had been fashioned on the magnificent Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens in London, and included a concert hall in formal gardens, amongst other Imperial extravagances.   And it’s that connection with Vauxhall that, to this day, gave rise to the Russian word for ‘train station’ – vokzal. By the strangest of coincidences, I’m now off to Vauxhall to play for class for the Strauss Gala.

And as someone has wittily pointed out since reading this post, Tchaikovsky would have been very at home in today’s Vauxhall, which is gayer than Old Compton Street.

Musical surprises #22: There’s a psychopomp in my barcarole

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Standing on bridges makes me all spiritual and contemplative. A psychopompic moment if ever there was one.

Next time you get to a slow bit of a ballet where there’s something a bit wafty and barcarole-ish in 6/8, look out for a psychopomp.

A psychopomp, explains the scholar Rodney Edgecombe in a fascinating article ‘can be either a spiritual guide or a figure who conducts the soul from the zone of this life and the putative next.’ (2001, p.259).  And to illustrate the point, he cites a host of examples from opera and ballet where barcaroles underscore or signify the transition between two worlds, including the opening tableau of La Sylphide (1832), the ballabile of the Wilis in Act II of Giselle (1841), the beginning of the ‘Kingdom of the Shades’ from La Bayadère (1877), the ‘Panorama’ in Act II of Sleeping Beauty (1890) and the opening of Act II of The Nutcracker (1892). You can add several others to this list, including the ‘Rose Adage’ from Sleeping Beauty, ‘Prayer’ from Coppélia, the ‘White Swan’ pas de deux from Act II of Swan Lake, to name but a few.

So when Drosselmeyer takes Clara to the Kingdom of Sweets at the beginning of Act II of The Nutcracker, it’s not chance that the music is a barcarole, and it’s not chance that we sense we’re going on a journey. It’s part of a web of references in music that have a textual significance for us, even if we don’t recognise it consciously. What I love about articles like this, and books like Raymond Monelle’s (see yesterday’s post) is that they tease out the text beneath ostensibly ‘absolute’ music, and uncover a much more interesting world.

Edgecombe, R.S. (2001) On the Limits of Genre: Some Nineteenth-Century Barcaroles. 19th Century Music Vol. 24 No. 3 (Spring 2001) pp. 252-267. Get article from JSTOR here

Bits of this post were first published in the Dance Gazette a few years ago. I’m not lazy, it’s just that I still find it interesting.

Musical surprises #21: If you want to play for children’s ballet, study semiotics

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The Musical Topic

Thanks to the musical semiotician Raymond Monelle and his wonderful book The Sense of Music, I am happily aware that there is a concept in music of a horse which is unique to music – it’s not a representation of a horse, but a musical idea, a musical topic. Hear a certain kind of 6/8, and you think ‘horse’. It’s not really horsey, of course. There is an important distinction between the sound of real horses in music (like in The Surrey with the Fringe on Top or Horsey Horsey Don’t You Stop) and the cheval écrit or literary horse, noble horse, horse as musical text.

The musical horse is usually noble and male (though dysphoric women on horses like the Valkyries are another topic), and gallops along in a certain kind of 6/8 which then becomes, of itself, a musical topic which you find littering the musical field of the 19th century. And it is quite definitely a 19th century topic, part of the Romantic landscape, so to speak. Anyway, Monelle devotes 22 pages of the book to the subject (pp. 45-67), and I can’t do justice to the extraordinary depth and detail of his work, so if you’re interested, get the book or read a section of it on Google books.

I was lucky enough to discover The Sense of Music just when I was desperately struggling to find horsey music (in the musical sense) for picked-up gallops in a dance syllabus I was working on.  (Interestingly, the fact that the noble horse is a 19th century topic might explain why picked-up gallops are still de rigeur in children’s ballet – it’s a throwback to the topic of the literary horse in the Romantic era. Who knows.)

Here was a person who had wrestled with precisely the same questions as I had, albeit for different reasons, and here, oddly enough, was more useful information about selecting music for dance classes than I have ever read anywhere else.  I rushed to buy a related book by Monelle called The Musical Topic: Hunt, Military & Pastoral which goes into extraordinary detail about the those topics in music, and the social, cultural and historical context that gave rise to them.

And to celebrate this bizarre connection between semiotics and picked-up gallops, if you look really closely in the DVD extras of the RAD Pre-Primary in Dance & Primary in Dance where musical co-producer Andrew Holdsworth & I are talking about the process of creating the music for that syllabus, you’ll see that I had placed a copy of The Musical Topic on the MIDI keyboard in the background.

Musical surprises #20: The end of Sleeping Beauty is a French song

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That’s not the whole surprise, because it’s a fairly well-known fact that the big tune in the apotheosis of The Sleeping Beauty is an old French song, the pre-revolutionary national anthem, no less,  from the 16th century called Vive Henri IV .

Gerard McBurney on “Vive Henri IV” in Discovering Music 

The reasons for this are discussed by Russian music specialist and composer Gerard McBurney in a terrific programme  for the BBC’s Discovering Music series on the music and context of Sleeping Beauty (last broadcast on 15th September 2002 on Radio 3, it was once available from the BBC’s Discovering Music archive, but sadly no longer. Shame – it’s one of the best things you’ll ever hear about the piece, and one of the best things the BBC have on Tchaikovsky ).  The inclusion of Vive Henri IV and all the other neo-Versailles stuff was, he suggests, aimed at flattering the right-wing Alexander III, who was eventually paying for this production, as head of the Imperial theatres. Listen to the whole section if you’re interested (from around 39:00 minutes onward) but here’s the gist:

By the late 18th century that tune was virtually the Bourbon national anthem, and by the  19th century,  it had become the hymn of the legitimist, monarchist absolutist cause everywhere. In other words, it’s the torch song of the far right.[Source: BBC R3]

Vive Henri IV as air parlant in French theatre music

This is echoed by the ballet music historian Marian Smith  in  Ballet and Opera in the Age of Giselle (p. 108). She points out that it was already a tradition in Paris to use this tune as an ‘air parlant’ in French ballets when scenarists wanted to convey the grandiose.  One example is the ballet Acis et Galathée from 1805.  (The air parlant was a device from 19th century French ballet where the tune of a well-known song would be used in a scene, so that the unsung words – which the audience would know – would convey the meaning of the action. The idea that there was a golden age when everyone understood mime is a fiction – it was aided along by devices like this).

So there it is – a curiously French, and curiously anachronistic apotheosis to a late 19th century Russian ballet.  I suppose it would be like going to the opera house in 2010 to see a defilé choreographed  to Land of Hope and Glory — which in fact, does not seem so unlikely at all.

Musical surprises #19: That Russian sound is Italian

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When you think of Russian folk music, what do you hear in your head? Probably the sound of someone playing a tune on a balalaika with that heart-rending tremolo on each note, as in the beginning of the Youtube clip on the left.  How much more Russian could you get? What other country could this sound possibly represent?

Well, Italy, it seems. Far from being a technique evolved over centuries by peasants in the Steppes, this sound, and the whole concept of a folk orchestra such as you see in Russian folk music displays goes back to the 1890s and one Vasilii Andreev who set about creating a ‘sound’ for Russian folk music.  Later scholarship casts doubt on whether the ‘domra’, a staple in folk orchestras, is an authentic Russian instrument at all, and proposes that it was a new invention fashioned on the mandolin. Which brings us to that ‘Russian’ sound:

One of the most characteristic and widely copied features of the Russian folk orchestra – its rendering of the song’s melody in the form of a sustained tremolo on one string…is in fact not a Russian manner of playing at all. According to Boiko [a musicologist] it was borrowed by Andreev from the Neapolitan mandolin orchestra.

All this and more fascinating facts about Russian folk music are in Laura J. Olson’s fabulous book Performing Russia: Folk revival and Russian identity. The quote above is on page 17. And if you listen to the Youtube clip, you’ll hear one of the folk songs Stravinsky borrowed for Petrushka, sung by the Red Army Choir (see earlier post).

Musical surprises #18: 5/4 isn’t that odd in the 19th century

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There’s a fairly common belief  that until Stravinsky came along, everything was either in 4/4 or 3/4.  When I was at school in the 70s, I remember one music lesson in which we had to listen to the second movement of Tchaikovsky’s 6th symphony (which is in 5/4), and marvel at how avant garde he was to have written it in 5/4.  This kind of narrative still persists today – as this quote from a site about the symphony illustrates

The second [movement]  is a “limping waltz,” boasting the near-miracle of a melody so smooth you’re hardly aware it’s in 5/4 time and missing a beat. The 5/4 signature occasionally surfaces in jazz (Dave Brubeck’s “Take Five”) and rarely in rock (Ginger Baker’s “Do What You Like”), but was unheard in classical music, until this. Typical of Tchaikovsky, it pulsates with doubt – brimming with grace yet constantly off-balance enough to cast a pall over the otherwise elegant mood. (Source: Classical Notes)

But this simply isn’t true. The valse à cinq temps was developed in Paris in the 1840s, and was danced by the eponymous heroine in Catarina by Perrot to music by Cesare Pugni in 1846. It may not have been that popular in the ballroom, but it still appeared in American dance manuals in the 1880s. In ballet, perhaps the most famous one of all is the dance of the Golden Idol from La Baydère, an interpolation of a piece titled ‘Persian March’ from an 1874 ballet by Minkus called Le Papillon (follow the link to see the source for this information).  There are about a dozen  ‘five step’ waltzes listed among the music in the American Memory collection of the Library of Congress, and Tchaikovksy wrote another valse à cinq temps in his 18 pieces Op. 17 (it’s No. 16), which is used by Cranko in his ballet Onegin.

Not only that: 5/4 is common in Russian folk music (and English, if it comes to that), and there are examples in Tchaikovsky’s folk song collections. The promenade from Moussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition from 1874 is also in 5/4.  The ‘Fée Sapphir’ from The Sleeping Beauty is in 5/4, but this is a different kind of 5: at this speed, what’s really happening here is a variation in the length of the underlying pulse. The same thing happens in the 3rd of  Alkan’s Air à cinq temps from Deuxième recueil d’impromptus. Published in 1849, this set also included a piece in 7.

In several of these cases, you can see a dotted line between the ballroom, dancing masters, ballet, folk music, and the concert repertoire.  Whether or not you think the 2nd movement of the 6th symphony is a valse à cinq temps or an evocation of Russian folk song doesn’t really matter – far from being the first time such a thing had occurred in Western music of the 19th century, the concept was already almost half a century old.  And as for the idea that 5/4 has a ‘missing beat’, or ‘limps’, this seems like just one of many possible readings. Why not an extra beat? Or why not just the right number of beats because you decided to write in 5? Look at it this way, for example: by writing in 5, Tchaikovsky allows himself to start a scale passage on the 3rd degree of the scale, and end up on the tonic on a strong beat. What do you get? A perfect arc of a 6th as your first statement. How appropriate for a 6th symphony.