Playing for ballet class tips #9: for ‘waltz’ read ‘mazurka’ for pirouettes

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Image of sheet music of a mazurka for piano Even though teachers often ask  for a ‘waltz’ for pirouettes on a 3, sometimes (in fact, most times) what works much better is a mazurka.   Not the character-type mazurka that you get in Swan Lake or Coppélia, but the ballroom type that is slower than your average waltz, and has a more marked three-in-a-bar as opposed to the swaying feel of the late Viennese waltz. In particular, a mazurka for pirouettes works much better if there are any balancés involved.

Don’t look to Chopin for this type, or to many of the early 20th century composers who wrote ‘exotic’ mazurkas on the model of the folksy ones, because these are fast, and have a hold on 2, they’re not very triple. You have to look to the popular sheet music of the 19th century, where ‘mazurka’ meant the ballroom kind by default. ‘Polka mazurka’, while a different dance, has the same kind of feel.  It’s closer to the three-step ländler type of waltz that you find in Giselle. 

It’s a curious thing, this, the way that a long-forgotten dance form gets embedded in the conventions of a contemporary dance class. I discovered this trick by accident, by playing one of these that I’d found online for class one day. Try some of the 1062 mazurkas listed at the American Memory Sheet music collection for your next pirouette exercise and I think you’ll see what I mean.  Go to the search page, and type in ‘mazurka‘. You’ll get a bunch of pieces back, some will be the folksy type with the held second beat – ignore those. Go for the ones called ‘polka mazurka’ or the ones which are rhythmically close to the polka mazurka, like the Falling Dew Mazurka for example.

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13 thoughts on “Playing for ballet class tips #9: for ‘waltz’ read ‘mazurka’ for pirouettes

  1. Morgan

    Thanks for this invaluable tip, and link to the website.
    This is the Mazurka chosen by Harriet Cavalli in her book ‘Dance and Music’ where none of the many excellent music examples are attributed to the composers which inevitably sends out all the wrong messages about the relationship between dance and music!
    Additionally, there are certain pieces which can be altered quite effectively into being this type of Mazurka eg. slow moevement of Brahms Sextet

    Reply
    1. jonathan Post author

      Thanks for the tip about the Brahms! Yes, agree totally about the Cavalli book – don’t understand why she didn’t attribute them to their composers. It would have helped people find more repertoire.

      Reply
      1. Morgan

        Infact, the Brahms is courtesy of Michael Finnissy who used to accompany ballet classes….he transcribed a number of pieces including the Brahms which i’d not immediately have assosciated with the dance class.
        However,it has the clear harmonic structure which you mention in some of your other posts.
        Another good idea of his, being the slow mvt. of Paganini’s 2nd Violin Concerto (lovely for Adage).
        I just notced that the un-named Cavalli Mazurka is in the same vein as the one you quote, but not the same.

      2. jonathan Post author

        Although I don’t know Michael Finnissy personally, I do know that both he and used to play for the same teacher, John O’Brien. Wonderful person and teacher, who I count as the person who taught me most about playing for dance.

  2. Constant

    Hi Jonathan. Great tip. Always a problem knowing what to play for pirouettes as the tempo can be sooo slow. Ditto on the Cavelli thing; perhaps there should be a Cavelli name that tune page as there are some good tunes but I don’t know what they are. All the Best

    Reply
  3. Pingback: Using a Mazurka in Ballet Class: Grand Battement at barre

  4. rudy

    —jonathan, i know that this issue of what kind of 3/4 best suits pirouettes across the floor has probably been long settled for you and your readers, but i want to respond to this post with my 2-cents
    —like every other ballet pianist, early on i was stumped and annoyed by pirouettes across the floor because the teacher always wanted a waltz that’s too slow, and i just soldiered through it with the promise of petit allegro to come—i did notice, tho, that there seemed to be 2 types of theses combinations: one “lyrical” and one which i came to think of as “character” (it has pas de basque in it, etc)—it was the “character” ones that i dreaded, because all waltzes and even mazurkas felt utterly wrong
    —about 2-3 years into my career (more than 40 years ago) a singer asked me to work up the accompaniment for the show man of la mancha—working with the vocal score i discovered for the 1st time “tempo di paso doble” (the title song)—i’ve written a little essay on this for my czerny blog so i’ll make it brief here:
    —the basic feature of tempo-dpd is that each 4ter in the LH is equal and is divided into 2 8ths—there may be many different nuances that go to taxonomy (polka mazurka, etc), but the point for us accompanists is that this rhythm is always in a fairly narrow range of tempo and is exactly suited to the “character” type of pirouette combination, especially in advanced classes where the dancers will be doing multiples
    —and that’s another thing i soon realized: almost always the teacher will put the pirouettes in one measure, and the tempo of the combination is determined by the “triple spots” in that measure
    —paso doble rhythm calls for a strong LH and arm that can move in continuous 8ths for the whole piece and deliver not just the bass but the harmony on the offbeats, but it’s a technique that i quickly developed (and if i can do it…), and it’s a rhythm that you can immediately put under any waltz (with more or less tasteful results)
    —for about 20 years i was the only accompanist who knew about this, at least in the bay area, and i got rather famous…—now i’m something of a back issue

    Reply
    1. Jonathan Still Post author

      Hi Rudy,
      I know exactly what you mean by this, and I also found The Man of La Mancha rhythms were a good solution to the problem you are talking about. I used to do this quite a lot about 30 years ago, but more recently I have sensed that the rhythmic accompaniment of this type of music is too precise, too measured-out, and that although such a thing is almost impossible to find, what the teachers/dancers wanted was something that had the requisite amount of space/time in between the beats, but without overspecifying when stuff should happen, so that if you wanted luxuriate in your balancé you could. Yeah, I know, virtually impossible musical task, and perhaps over fussy.

      However, there are a couple of teachers who specifically ask for and use this paso doble rhythm: one of them actually spelt it out precisely in terms of wanting quavers between the beats in the accompaniment. It was a great exercise, too!

      I am coming to the conclusion that the problem is that teachers mix up the generic and the specific, i.e. they think that there is a whole genre of music out there with the characteristics that they need, whereas in the back of their minds, something very specific is playing. A prime example (though not in the waltz area) is Giselle’s entrance in Act I (the 6/8 G major tune) — if you sing this as the model for your exercise, I think you’d be hard pressed to find something else that is similar enough to it: what are taken to be be generic features are in fact specificities (the melodic contour, the rhythmic pattern, the tempo, the harmonic rhythm, the bass line etc. etc.). I actually love it when teachers say “Do you happen to know. . . ” because they’ve set an exercise with a particular piece in mind. It’s very unfashionable in a world where improvisation and supposed novelty are so highly prized, but it gets the job done much better, sometimes.

      Reply
  5. rudy

    point taken, jonathan–while the paso doble almost always works for “character” pirouettes sometimes i get a signal that it doesn’t–the teacher will say to the dancers (not to me) “it sounds fast with all those notes, but it’s not”–that’s a signal

    the class responds with a ripple of excitement with the preparation and the launch of the 1st group, but sometimes during the break before the 2nd side the teacher gives notes about the music, not the steps–another signal

    “too precise, too measured out” seems exactly right–more pejoratively i’ve begun to think “too overbearing”–this goes to the important point you’ve made elsewhere about space in the music for the dance

    no, the paso doble isn’t a solution to every character combination, but it often is, and when it works it’s better than being given money for playing for class

    Reply
    1. Jonathan Still Post author

      Sorry, I hadn’t had enough coffee when I answered your post. What I meant was that I feel less inclined these days (with an exercise like this) to play something that seems to fit in the metrical space, but does not have exactly the feel that the teacher specified. The question is always, how do you know whether they were underspecifying in order to let you fill the gaps how you pleased, or did they really want what they appeared to ask for? That’s why I drifted off repertoire. It’s a nice change when you get asked for something specific rather than generic. But that is another topic, and I agree, as so often, finding something that works is almost better than being paid.

      Reply
  6. rudy

    i’m glad you went to the trouble to add to this, jonathan, because it made me re-read your 1st reply–you were quite clear; i was just on my own groove about how perfect paso doble rhythm and texture is for most character pirouettes–what’s great about this last reply of yours is that you pin-point an issue, “another topic,” that’s exactly to the point not only about pirouettes but about working with a teacher on every combination: “generic” and “specific”–that’s it–i would never have been able to analyze and formulate it so succinctly: “generic:” a waltz, a march…”specific:” “i made this combination up listening to…”

    when i started in the 70’s there was a reaction against ballet repertory and we all played non-ballet and i got good at it–not until the 90’s did i start really learning and respecting ballet music (especially the bournonville music books) for class, ie the “specific”

    your blog is magnificent–“generic” and “specific” is just the latest insight i’ve learned from you (last year you pointed out to me the very useful word “topic” in music)–i’m hoping that your phd dissertation will be commercially published

    and yes, of course, you’re right: a great class is in itself only almost as good as being paid

    Reply
    1. Jonathan Still Post author

      It’s very nice and encouraging to hear someone knowledgeable enthuse about my (hopefully!) forthcoming thesis. What keeps me going is those rare moments where mainstream musicology can shine a light on some everyday problem of class-playing, and I must say, the generic/specific thing (I presume you’re referring to this post?) was a lightbulb moment for me, so it’s good to hear that it was for someone else too.

      It would be so interesting to examine the periodic and geographic trends in class playing with some good empirical studies. Anthologies don’t tell you much, because a lot of them are filled with improv in order to avoid having to seek copyright/licensing permissions, and to return maximum profit (if any) to the producer, and those that do contain rep will tend towards public domain works. Having done print licensing myself, I know that when you find a publisher who’s easy and reasonable to deal with, you go with what’s in their catalogue, rather than have a wish-list of favourite works. Looking at the very first RAD books, you can see that they must have gone to Augener and said “what can we have?”—a clever strategy. Talking to pianists and dancers is a different story. I remember talking to a lovely lady, a veteran of this field, who composed the most bizarre atonal stuff for one of the awarding bodies in the 1970s. I said to her that I was surprised at the choice of style, given that this was for what we in the UK call “modern” dance, where you’d expect show tunes or jazz. She said “it was what they seemed to want at the time.” And of course, it was the time when no serious composer could hope to write anything except serial or atonal music.

      Reply

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