Monthly Archives: April 2014

More on the rareness of the truly triple waltz


In my last post, I said “Truly triple waltzes are an impossibility. They shouldn’t exist, and they don’t”. Less than 48 hours later, while I was playing Ich weiß nicht zu wem ich gehöre for a warm-up tendu, I realised I was wrong. There are examples of waltzes in truly triple metre, and I’d just played one. These useful, slow, “English” waltzes are very common in German 1930s songs for some reason – Vom Kopf bis Fuß (Falling in love again), Ich weiß es wird einmal ein Wunder geschehen,  Leben ohne Liebe kannst du nicht. Truly triple songs in English include The boy next door (from Meet me in St Louis), Would you? (from Singing in the Rain), What’ll I do. 

But how many of those examples can we say are truly truly triple metre? If you take the position of cadences as the giveaway (i.e. for it to be truly triple, they must come on 8, not 7), then only Falling in Love Again qualifies (though Would you? meets the criterion in the first three lines). Their feel is more triple than other waltzes, but it’s only a feel, not a structural fact.  Look more closely at Vom Kopf bis Fuß, the only truly truly triple ‘waltz’ of the ones I listed, and you’ll see that the cadences fall on the second beat of the bar, mazurka-style (or more appropriately, given the tempo, kujawiak-style). So the truly-triple-waltz turns out, in fact, to be more like a kujawiak, which we knew was triple already.

Adieu - Romance sem palavras by Ernesto Nazareth. Bars 6-8 of the tune.

Adieu – Romance sem palavras by Ernesto Nazareth. Bars 6-8 of the tune.

So apart from the waltz-which-is-really-a-kujawiak, are there any truly triple waltzes, contrary to what I said in my earlier post? One very strong contender is Nazareth’s Adieu – Romance sem palavraswhich we used for pliés in the RAD’s new Grade 5. It works wonderfully for Adages in a very slow 3, because it’s calm and measured, and wears its three-ness on the surface, so you get a clear sense of timing. And it really is in three – the cadences are on 8, not 7. Adieu is a strange example, though. The first four bars of the melody strongly suggest a 6/8 hypermeter, but the next four emphasise each bar individually, and reverse the accentuation of the hypermeter established in the preceding phrase, so that the weakest bars now receive the strongest accent. What’s more, whereas the harmonic change happened over two-bar spans in bars 1-4, in bars 6 and 8, that change is compressed into a single bar in a weak position. That’s a lot of metrical interest for an 8 bar phrase, and is perhaps why it works so well for complex ballet exercises where a lot is happening in a short space of time.

Update (26/9/14) Re-reading what I’ve written about Adieu, I think it’s hard to make a case for it being “truly triple” except for the fact that the final cadence is on 8 rather than 7. Otherwise, though, it’s hypermetrically duple. The feeling that it is triple comes, I think, from the fact that the harmony frequently changes every bar, or at times, within the bar at quarter-note level.

The chorus of Feed the Birds from Mary Poppins is truly triple, apart from the middle eight, but I can’t think of many more – can you?

Dancing masters, music and memory


deliriumI’m thoroughly enjoying Eric McKee’s book Decorum of the minuet, delirium of the waltz: a study of dance-music relations in 3/4 time. There are books that you grow up with that made the world what it is for you, and other books that don’t yet exist, but they’re so begging to be written, they hang around you like literary ectoplasm. This is one of those, and it’s a joy to read. There are plenty of books and articles on works, performances, composers, collaborations, but not about how music and dance relate in teaching steps and dances. This does the job magnificently, with loads of musical examples.

This is one of my favourite quotes so far, in a section about how dancing masters composed their own music to help teach dance steps: 

“While visiting Paris in 1762, Leopold Mozart observed that “in the whole town there are about two or three favourite minuets, which must always be played, because they people cannot dance to any save those particular ones during the playing of which they learned to dance.” (McKee 2012, 21) 

It sounds like when children or teachers can’t remember an exercise in an exam syllabus until they hear the music that goes with it. But it also points out what is so different about ballet training.  Children can do the same exercise to different music. You can play a famous piece from a ballet for a company class, and dancers don’t fall over because they go into autopilot and start doing whatever ballet it was from instead of the exercise.

The rarity of truly triple metre

The male solo from 'Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux' - a truly triple 3 (despite the 6/8 time signature)

The male solo from ‘Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux’ – a truly triple 3 (despite the 6/8 time signature)

If you’ve been following this blog recently, you know that I’m a little obsessed with time signature and metre in the 18th & 19th centuries (see Compound errors and  Counting Tchaikovsky). Today, it paid off in company class, when I managed to play about 5 minutes of pirouette exercise in 3/4 without getting a single tempo correction. That’s rare for me. I speed up in pirouette exercises.

This is how learned to stop doing it: I wondered whether it would help if I deliberately thought in 3 – maybe I inadvertently think in 6 when I’m playing waltzes.  3/4 bars never stand alone in waltzes, they’re always in pairs, and usually in pairs of pairs. It had never occurred to me to make a connection between this and my acceleration problem. But my speeding-up was cured instantly when I made an effort to think in 3 rather than 6. That is, I made sure my cadences were on ‘8’, not ‘7’, and that every bar was a closed circle of 3, rather getting sucked up into an imaginary 6/8. It was hard work. I’m correcting a habit of a lifetime, made worse by playing all that waltz music which is by nature in hypermetrical duple compound metre, not ‘truly triple metre’ as I call it. 

I coined the term ‘truly triple metre’ when I wrote the RAD’s Music in Focus and Dance Class Anthology books (2005). I’ve recently repurposed some of this for Dance rhythms for ballet pianists on the RAD website. The hardest rewriting was about ‘truly triple metre’ for grand allegro, because all the truly triple metres I can think of are polonaises, mazurkas and so on, which of course aren’t right for grand allegro. So what’s wrong?

Truly triple waltzes are an impossibility. They shouldn’t exist, and they don’t. What teachers mean by a ‘big waltz’ or ‘grande valse’, is usually that big balletic waltz-type variation that you only get in ballet, and while they’re in 3/4 and they’re reminiscent of waltzes, It would be better not to use that name for this type of music except as shorthand for something that we all know is really something else. The only trouble is, we don’t have a name for it. I call them ‘waltz-type variations’, and I think Galina Bezuglaya does in her book about ballet accompaniment (in Russian), but I can’t find the page right now.

Truly triple allegros are not waltzes. Think of the male solo from Tchaikovsky pas de deux, the cabriole variation from Bayadère, Flower Festival male solo, the E major solo from La Source that is used in Australian ballet’s Coppélia, and the Act 1 pas de trois male solo from Swan Lake (C minor), the coda from Diana and Acteon pas de deux, and one or two of the Paquita solos. Then there are waltz-ish variations that have a really marked three in a bar, even if they have their cadence on 7 rather than 8 (the giveaway for not-really-triple-metre*) – the Bayadère and Diana and Acteon male solos, for example.

The reason I get faster playing pirouettes is because I’m treating every other bar as a weak hypermetric beat, which I then tend to swallow up or slightly snatch (something I do in 4/4 as well, I’ve discovered, listening to recordings. Sometimes that can be just right, but if there’s stuff happening within the bar, like the finish of a pirouette, then the dancer needs all the time that’s available in the bar. That’s what real 3/4 would sound like, it’s just that it doesn’t happen very often.

* The exception (I think) is where you get a cadence on 7, but then 8 is a proper thump of a final chord – not an afterthought, but an autonomous accent that isn’t an appendage to the bar before.

Counting Tchaikovsky


Prince’s solo from Act 3 of Sleeping Beauty. A metrical mess.

On the weekend, I was playing the tarantella-ish Prince’s solo from Sleeping Beauty. Then, as every time I play this music, I panicked half way through the introduction – how many duh-da-da’s have I played? How many should there be? Is it 5? 3? 6? 4? Getting it wrong is enough to completely floor the poor person doing the solo.  I know in my heart that it’s really just ‘four in’ with a two quaver anacrusis, but if I look at the score and try to play it like a ‘proper’ 6/8, I flounder.

But now that I’ve read those the two articles on metre in 18th century music by Danuta Mirka and William Rothstein that I mentioned in my last post, my panic is over. I don’t try to inflect the solo with the metric rules I learned at school (i.e. it’s in 6/8, so therefore the upbeat must be light), and I just play it as if it was in 3/8, or in 6/8 but starting on the half bar. I don’t try to convey the duple metre of the 6/8 bar,  or try to make the ‘2’ of the first bar lighter than the 1 that I haven’t played because there’s a rest there (!)

Although Rothstein and Mirka are writing about 18th century music, I think the theories work for this, and for a lot of Tchaikovsky, particularly when it comes to the French songs in Nutcracker (like Cadet Rousselle or Bon Voyage Cher Dumollet and others). Not surprisingly, they comply with the ‘French compound metre rule.

This Desiré solo is an odd case, somewhere between an Italian and a French conception of 6/8 in Rothstein’s terms.

  1. It’s Italian (Rothstein) or compound 6/8 (Mirka), because each bar is a compound of two 3/8 bars, not a ‘duple compound’ metre in the modern sense. It could easily be written in 3/8, because it’s not that duple at a higher level.
  2. At the same time, it seems to lean towards a French compound metre in Rothstein’s terms, because it has a half-bar anacrusis, and the cadence (i.e. when it resolves to a root position chord at the end of a phrase), is on the first beat of the bar.

I think it’s more of (2) than (1), and it helps when playing it is to think less about the notated metre and the metrical accent it implies, and more about the way the melody is aiming towards the final cadence, like one of those end-accented Italian words in a line from an operatic aria (e.g. “Fortunatissimo per verità!” from “Largo al factotum” from The Barber of Seville).  

So why not write it in 6/8 but displaced by half a bar? Because of (2) above –  it must resolve on the downbeat according to the ‘French compound’ rule.  Why not write it in 3/8? Because the composed metre alternates between simple and compound  versions of 6/8 (in Mirka’s terms), and Tchaikovsky needs the larger-sized bar for when he wants a duple metre feel. When he shrinks the melody into double time, you can’t bar it any other way without it looking weird.

These bars are effectively in 4/4, even though the notated metre is 2/4.

These bars are effectively in 4/4, even though the notated metre is 2/4.

So Rothstein’s thoughts on national metrical types and Mirka’s discussion of ‘composed metre’ versus ‘notated metre’ make for an interesting two-pronged analysis of this piece that has annoyed and intrigued me for so long. For example, the bars with the semiquaver flourishes over the Neapolitan sixths near the end turn the composed metre into 4/4, and then immediately after, the cadential bars turn it into what you could consider a series of 1/4 bars – since you get a repeated half-bar figure that resolves every half bar (of the notated metre), a diminution by a factor of 4.

As for what’s going on in the middle section, Lord only knows. The resolutions now come in the middle of the bar, so what’s happened? It’s not in some kind of composed 3/8, because the cross-rhythms make for a longer composed/perceived metre – one way of looking at it is to see the final bar of the previous section being in 9/8, followed by two bars of 12/8. But not for long. Or maybe the first section is effectively in 3/8, the second effectively in 6/8 with the ‘real’ barline halfway through the bar. But what happens between that and the tune coming in again, it’s a bit of metrical mess, with Tchaikovsky just vamping garrulously between two chords (nothing new there) till he’s ready.

Is it clever? I’m not sure. All these metrical shennanigans make the piece awkward to play, and difficult to regulate in terms of tempo, and – for heaven’s sake – it’s only a 45 second solo, how much more detail do you want to cram in? But thinking about the music in terms of composed metre rather than notated metre, and as a ‘French’ or ‘Italian’ 6/8 rather than what we now call ‘compound duple’ time, makes playing it easier: you’re not trying to force a compound metre onto musical material that is doing something else.

Update on 6th August 2015

I’ve revised my opinion on this: Rothstein is absolutely right, but I am wrong here – what I find difficult is precisely the point of the music, the interplay between the vocal phrase and the notated meter. It is as if there is in fact a continual cross-phrasing at work. I had tried to simplify it for myself by trying to underplay the metrical accents, but in fact, I think what is required is to aim to be able to play both lines with their metrical implications against each other. I’ve managed it a few times in class with this piece, and noticed that ballet exercises often do the same: they’re “cross-phrased” against the music, but without the same kind of metrical accent as the accompaniment: there are fewer metrical implications. That probably isn’t very clear, but what I’m saying is, with music like this, there isn’t an easy way – you have to suck up the implications and try to do it, I think.


Mirka, D. 2008 Metre, phrase structure and manipulations of musical beginnings In D. Mirka & K. Agawu (eds.) Communication in eighteenth-century music. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 83–111.

Rothstein, W. 2008 National metrical types in music of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries In D. Mirka & K. Agawu (eds.) Communication in eighteenth-century music. Cambridge UK; New York: Cambridge University Press, 112–159.