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From Kosloff's "Russian Ballet Technique, As Taught", published 1921
From Kosloff’s “Russian Ballet Technique, As Taught”, published 1921

[update on 26/4/2018—broken link mended: click here for the full book at]

I just love simplicity like this – here’s a page, that’s right, a single page,  that tells you about as much as you need to know about what music goes with exercise in a ballet class. It’s from Russian Ballet Technique, As Taught, by Alexis Kosloff, and published in 1921, now made available for all by the wonderful Forgotten Books website. For teachers and pianists, it’s the quickest rough-guide I’ve ever seen. It’s very interesting, too, to see that the first thing Kosloff identifies is “3/4 (waltzes etc.) with mazurka feeling”. I wish someone had told me about that when I started out. As it is, it took me years to work it out (see this post), probably because the ballroom mazurka on which so many exercises are based, died out long ago without being revived: you have to dig it up to see what it looked like. I guessed you’d call that a kind of musical skeuomorph, would you?

Russian ballet technique, as taught fascinates me, because I’ve always been curious to know how bits of music end up in ballet classes and stay there. For example, I think there probably isn’t a ballet pianist in the world who doesn’t at some point play Quando m’en vo, O mio babbino caro, or Albeniz’s tango. And while we’re on the subject of tangos, I wonder where and how this thing about tangos for fondus come in? I keep thinking that one day, I’m going to unearth the ballet book that contained this piece, and we’ll know how it got into everyone’s repertoire, teachers and pianists alike. But while there are several pieces in Kosloff’s book that I recognise from my own or other pianists’ repertoires – amazing, after 93 years – that tango isn’t there, nor is the idea of doing a fondu on a tango. 

If you’ve got any clues on this subject, I’d love to know, because it really is strange. At the speed that most fondus go, there’s hardly a tango in the world that would be appropriate. I’m fairly certain of that, because when I was researching music for the RAD’s vocational graded syllabus, I searched through literally thousands of pieces of music, and was thrilled when I finally found two habañeras that work – one by Chabrier, and another by Messager [link to score only]. And that’s about it – there are other habañeras, like the Saint-Saëns one,  or the Ravel one, but you’d be hard pressed to make those work for class. Adios à Cuba and other pieces by Ignacio Cervantes are in the right style, but almost too poetic for a fondu – you’d want to stop and listen. So how did it start? And when? And why?

Meanwhile, if you’re on the hunt for free sheet music for ballet classes, this is a pretty good start.  It’s not foolproof – exercises and classes and terminologies have changed quite a bit in 90 years, but it’s there, and it’s free.

22 thought on “Music for ballet class, circa 1921”
  1. My god, if someone comes up with an answer for this enigma it would make my day! And also this convention of waltzes that are slower than slow for r de j, adage etc. From whence has it arisen? If I hear “that’s lovely, but slower please” again I will scream. Eine Kleine sehnsucht is the piece I am constantly returning to for fondus.

    Anyhow, hope you are enjoying some downtime.

    1. The ‘slower than slow’ waltz I can kind of understand. The ‘English Waltz’ is exactly that kind of dirgy three, and also, there is possibly a small history of a ‘souvenir du bal’ type waltz – i.e. the dream sequence in Raymonda, and the ‘Souvenir du Bal’ waltz, and La plus que lente – a waltz as remembered, rather than as danced. But yes, the ‘tango’ is a mystery. Someone I interviewed for my research mentioned that Nijinska had apparently used a tango for something, and (allegedly) that became a ‘thing’ for teachers to do – but as we’ve already established, tangos don’t go like that. And what’s more, the height of the tango craze was 1913, so it’s not as if they could have forgotten how they go. ‘Eine kleine Sehnsucht’ is also my go-to tango when I’m in trouble.

  2. In class as a dancer, I always love fondu combinations…slow and “melting” and I can really play with the music. It never occurred to me that tangos were the most appropriate music. Then when I started out as a pianist, almost every teacher asked me for a tango for fondu!

    There was a teacher of a beginning ballet workshop who liked tangos for other parts of her class as well!

    Aside from the usual stuff (the Chabrier and Carmen Habaneras, El Choclo, La Cumparsita which I sometimes tie to Hernando’s Hideaway), I also use the Cell Block tango from the movie Chicago, and the Gentlemen In Black tango from the Green Table.

    I get tired of playing these, so when asked for a tango, I provide a 4 count tango intro, and I’ll play one of these as a tango: The Fool on the Hill, My Cherie Amour, Sixteen going on Seventeen, The Way I Am (Ingrid Michaelson). This is what Lynn Inglese (former pianist with SF Ballet School) does.

    That said, I love to play Salut d’Amour for fondu! Also, I am going to try Eine Kleine Sehnsucht.

    1. I do the same thing – use other pieces that aren’t tangos but in a tango-ish style, like Jacques Brel’s ‘La chanson des vieux amants’, ‘Misty’, Brahms Hungarian Dance No 5, and the Monti Czardas. One dancer told me that the reason fondus work on a tango is because they have that elastic stretch at the end of the beat, which is what you want to do in movement terms as well. That makes sense to me, except that no real tangos seem to go like that – we have to make them do it, or find pieces of music that you can pretend are tangos, because they do the right thing. I wonder whether someone, somewhere, had a thing of setting fondus on a tango, but they did it at normal tango tempo, so that the movement was going half the speed of the beat; then, when someone tried to replicate the idea, they got it wrong, and we’ve been stuck with it ever since. Theory number two is that it’s just a simple case of misnaming – what’s wanted is a csárdás in the style of the Raymonda Act III principal female variation or the Monti, but it somehow got misnamed, and it stuck. It happens – when I lived in Zagreb as a student, every time I wanted a hotdog from the stall in the main square, I asked for a ‘Vidikovac’, because that’s what it said on the board in front of the hot dog stall. About six months later, I realized it was the name of the hotel behind the stand, but the hot dog man knew what I meant.

  3. I had this happen in class this morning and decided I’d play Auroras Act 1 variation for the combo as I thought it worked well. The teacher ( who had set the exercise on a tango) came over and said ” I’m so glad you played that, it worked so much better than the tango I sang. In fact I forgot to mention I almost always prefer a blues or czardas or spongey three for fondus but for some reason I always sing a tango, so don’t take any notice of me”. Needless to say I thanked him. This convention could very well have arisen as a result of a very innocent misnaming scenario. The two rhythms are very similiar and I’d have never made the leap of thought, but I agree its a distinct possibility.

    As for the slower than slow three that still has musical interest of some kind:it’s the bane of my life! The evocations of the ballroom you mention have been very handy in my class accompaniment to date, but there aren’t enough of them……:(

  4. Hi Jonathan what a brilliant website! I can say that I don’t ask for tango for fondu – perhaps I am a bit cussed (“A BIT?” I hear you say), but I prefer a straight 4/4 with a czardas feel, as you write below. Both tango and czardas have style implications, and I believe that tango can be a can I put it?…slangy. I usually ask for the 4/4 at the barre and a 3/4 for fondu in the centre, as it is combined with grand pirouettes.

    1. This thread is getting ever more interesting! I get what you mean exactly about the style thing, although the orchestral habañeras like the Chabrier and Saint-Saëns are quite stylish in a classy way. I guess this is another one of my problems with the ‘tango’ thing – what people want out of a fondu seem slightly at odds with the piquant irony, sadness and humour of tango. Csárdás seems about right – it has the right mix of stature and flexibility.

      1. Exactly, “stature and flexibility”: perfect description! Of course, I agree with you that it depends on what particular tango it is (and possibly upon who plays it, too), but yes, a tango can tend to have more narrative than one might want for a simple barre exercise. Tim thinks Piazzola tangos can be good for class. Again, it depends on what class, what students. I am trying to teach a very ‘pure’ style awareness to pre professional classical students, Tim is presently teaching Modern/Jazz students who do ballet to improve their main subject.
        When I studied Maria Fay’s character classes, she was also very clear that there are different ‘divisions’ of czardas music: she stipulates Liszt and Brahms for her character classes in Hungarian Court Dance, and thinks that Monti was on the edge of being ‘café music’ ( a bit third division!). Café music was more suitable for the Hungarian Gypsy Style class than for the Hungarian Court. ‘The thlot plickens’ as my father used to say. (No, he didn’t usually speak like that!)
        About Vaganova class music: I have understood through my studies with my Vaganova teacher in Stockholm, that the Russians have a quite systemized approach to music for school class, believing that the music should be absolutely subservient to the exercises. This means that the youngest children should have simple, rhythmically clear and ‘sparse’ music (not too many notes) in slow tempi in order to support their deep concentration on certain basic principles of ballet technique – especially at the barre. Once these principals have been absorbed into the muscle memory (after about the second/third year of study) then the music then gains in complexity with the dancers as they mature. Company class, however, is quite another thing….

      2. The older I get, the more I can see the logic of the Vaganova approach with simple music. The Hungarian issue is very difficult topic – and one I’m writing about for my PhD, as it happens! Too long to go into here, but if you’re interested, I’ll send you the chapter when it’s done.

      3. Oh by the way, when you say ‘too much narrative’, do you mean it has too many connotations of style, place, period etc? Like someone wearing just a bit too much make-up early in the day?

  5. I really like what you say Jonathan about the czardas having the right mixture of stature and flexibility.

    I had to laugh this afternoon when a teacher marked a pirouette exercise out and then turned to me and requested “just a waltz please”. If I had played any number of waltzy waltzes the whole thing would have been a disaster. I ended up playing the mazurka(ish) number from Don Q. I made a point of talking to her about it after class as she told me she was trying to train a new pianist but “he never knows what to play”. I wonder why!

    Another class convention definitely worth raising on this thread (plenty of potential for disaster here) is the extremely steady foxtrot type ( love and marriage etc). There seem to be very few of these around or at least few that will withstand the snails pace tempo so often required. Where has this come from? Or is it just something strange that Australians do:). Thoughts please people…

    1. I know what you mean. One really useful replacement rhythm for this is the schottische – the dotted rhythm type ones like this

      But my take on this is that some exercises have their own dynamic, tempo, weight & squishiness etc. and can’t necessarily be matched by the musical/traditional dance repertoire. I’ve got a few things that just about work for this from the repertoire (again, Csárdás is a good alternative if you run out of the Love-and-marriage-type) but I also improvise stuff that may not be very interesting musically, but does the job for the movement.

  6. I located a lot of these Scottische types in dance folios from a musical collection bequeathed to me by an Australian examiner. They’re very effective and meet the steadiness criteria but they only very rarely possess any musical interest. So I very often improvise at this juncture too.

    I have found (as I think you have too) the tambourine variation the perfect solution. It’s got the right mix of elastic phrasing with bravura and power. But I’ve struggled to find other pieces that even approach this level of suitability.

    If I’m in a facetious mood, I often play a grand, Argentinian tango ( villoldo etc) for the standard tendus with grand batts etc, but so very few of these pieces seem to cope with the almost brutal steadiness of tempo required.

    While I’ve got your ear, adage is another contentious area. I’m constantly renovating my repertoire and feel like I’ve hit a brick wall here. I’m sick of all the balletic and operatic warhorses. Very few pieces seem to have long, soaring phrases with sufficient space for the dancer to sing the movement. I guess I should be grateful for the pieces that do work! I played the title number from the desert song today for an adage in the centre and it worked well but the slushy, Rombergian schmaltziness grated so much on my nerves for some reason. Although I do find the whole Novello, Coward light musical repertoire useful for Adage sometimes it all sounds so twee and I long for something more profound.

    Am I being an obsessive, musical snob??

    Sorry to lambast you with this (sure you’ve been here many times before) but I’ve gotta moan to someone who cares…..

    1. I feel exactly the same way about this – I don’t think you’re being a snob, because you like the music (as I do) – but there’s only so much musical sticky toffee pudding that you can take in one sitting. However, I think it’s partly unavoidable – you need something that feels grounded, and adage isn’t a good place for weird/unusual stuff. I’m doing the same kind of soul searching at the moment – my instinct is to go further back (Baroque stuff) or modal, or ballady (the Je ne regrette rien-style ballad)

      1. Hello! Jonathan, I’m sending the link to your site around to my colleagues here, as there is MASSES of really good stuff here!! Yes, “too much make-up early in the day” gets it about right for a tango that is too ‘in your face’ for a plain barre exercise! The music needs to help the dancers to concentrate on the task in hand, which is (for me) a resisted quality to the movement pliè-and-relevè so the dancers can find a ‘chewy’ and breathing use of the whole body as if they are jumping in slow motion. Please send your writings on the Hungarian issue (I know Brahms and Liszt took ‘cafè music from the gypsies and musicians playing it). I can pass it on to Maria Fay, I’m sure she would be delighted to read it and comment.
        I’m glad the Vaganova idea is not too strange: to me it has perfect logic AS LONG AS the young dancers have an outlet for their expressive needs through a character or historical dance class, or through the chance to improvise to more expressive music in tandem with their ballet class. I have to say, that when we visited the Vaganova Academy, the children were extremely expressive in the ballet classes, and the music sounded less ‘plinky-plonky’ than previously! As for the adage discussion: my wonderful pianist in Stockholm would sometimes play Beethoven or Handel, both of which have a gloriously uplifting and ‘prayerful’ expression. It gave the dancers something to aspire to, and that can also be important in the ballet class. I think the adage in the centre should be leading towards the grand pas de deux where the main characters express their inner feelings. I often ask for Baroque music in my class, as it gives the right formal character to the movements, especially tendus. I also think that character dance music is good to introduce in the centre, perhaps in a pirouette or grand battement exercise, because it ties us to the other root of classical ballet: character dance. And this is especially important now that character class has been replaced by contemporary dance as the supporting technique in vocational schools. Young dancers seem to find the extrovert flourishes and èpaulements of character dancing more and more foreign, so I add touches of them in the ballet class so they don’t disappear entirely. I read some of your tips to pianists and they are really good. “Watch the teacher” is spot on, I am sure we communicate more through the way we move, than the way we ask for a particular genre or time signature 🙂 I think “listen to the rhythm” is also paramount: tum-ta-TUUM is different from tum-ta-tum and this is where a pianist who can improvise can be really good. Thank you so much for starting this, Jonathan I know I’m going to learn a lot from reading it.

  7. I completely get your statement that the music needs to be grounded. I have veered in the baroque direction (in fact that was where I instinctively went when I first started playing and hadn’t yet got my paws around the ballet rep). Also, regularly trying out Celtic and other folk material. The sheet music collection I mention was bequeathed to me by Tina Stuart and included a fabulous volume of Italian folk material she must have acquired during her time teaching in Italy.

    The Ballad rep is also useful I agree. This has taken me on an interesting journey, through some Elton John and Whitney Houston although I do feel slightly awkward playing this material, doesn’t always sit well on the piano and I feel slightly daggy. I’ve also used sweeping numbers from lush film scores (dances with wolves, out of Africa etc).

    1. “In person” in question is coming with family to London Sunday 16th – Friday 21st Feb (ie next week). Time for a quickie perhaps?!

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Jonathan Still, ballet pianist