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Polonaise from the Tchaikovsky/Balanchine ballet "Theme and variations"
Things you can do with a polonaise if you’re Tchaikovsky, and you’ve got time to think.

About once a year, I buy a Fry’s Turkish Delight bar, a slab of faintly fragrant sugary pink jelly covered in chocolate. It has no nutritional value, no crunch, no layers, a single, slightly weird flavour, and so there’s nothing new to experience after the first bite. I’m faintly disgusted by it, yet I have a compulsion to keep trying it now and again, because I’m not quite sure whether secretly, I rather like it. I still can’t be sure. I feel the same way about the polonaise.

I dread having to play polonaises because a) my left hand doesn’t have enough strength or stamina to play the characteristic rhythm pattern more than a couple of times without seizing up, b) like the slow mazurka, if you’re improvising, it’s easy to get lost inside a six count phrase and forget where you are, and screw up the exercise for everyone, and c) it’s hard to invent the kinds of things that make polonaises interesting off the top of your head, like tricking the listener into thinking the music’s in two, then falling back into three, or cramming dozens of fast notes and dotted rhythms in between the beats as Tchaikovsky likes to do.

The polonaise from Cherevichki Act 3 No. 19 used in Cranko’s Onegin. Brilliant, but virtually unusable, because it’s just too darned clever to throw your legs up to.

Chopin polonaises are generally too fancy and pianistic to do barre exercises to, the Tchaikovsky ones (Swan Lake, Sleeping Beauty, Eugene Onegin (the opera), Cherevichki (used in Onegin the ballet, the finale of Suite No. 3 used in Theme and Variations ) don’t go on for more than 8 bars without some change in the phrase structure that means you can’t use them. Operatic ones can be quite good, except that they tend to be faster than what you need for a grand battement exercise, and they’re not called “polonaise,” so you can’t hunt them down easily.  It seems to me that the more suitable for a grands battements exercise a polonaise is, the less interesting it is as music. There are couple of exceptions, and I’ve worn them threadbare playing them for class.

Then there’s the fact that when teachers want a polonaise for a jump, what they need is nearer to a bolero than a polonaise – though, annoyingly, boleros usually have a two bar vamp in the middle that make them unusable (like the Spanish in Swan Lake, for example). Occasionally, you get a cross between a bolero and a polonaise (a bolernaise?) that does the trick nicely – the “tempo polacca” on page 35 of this pot-pourri from Esmeralda is a good example (though it’s a bit dull, frankly).  But usually, if you play a polonaise for a jump, it’ll be too heavy, and if you play a bolero, the chances are it’ll be too fast or light. Most of the time, a triple jig works just as well, if not better, but it’s not a good idea to go there, because it sounds too different to what the teacher marked, and they’ll think you’ve misunderstood.

Oh, and then there are those awkward moments when a teacher says “Mazurka, please” and marks the exercise with a mazurka rhythm sung at polonaise speed, or “Polonaise please” and then proceeds to do the exercise on a mazurka.  If you play what they meant (and showed in their voice), rather than what they said, you risk showing them up, or making them think that you didn’t understand. To save face, I usually play the introduction in the rhythm that they asked for, and then start playing what they meant when the tune comes in, by which time it’s too late for them to start a discussion, so we’re safe. I don’t care what anyone calls it, by the way – I’m as prone to misnaming dance rhythms under pressure as any dance teacher.

The trouble with the polonaise is that it has overtones. It’s grand, it’s marchy, it’s processional, it’s sparkly. It’s an opportunity for metrical tricks and conundrums. It wasn’t designed to do ballet exercises to, and by the time you’ve trimmed off all the things that you need to to make it work, you’re left with its rather dull, boxy three-ness and not much else, like a tailor’s dummy.

But for all that, I’ve grown to rather like polonaises in the same weird way that I can’t keep away from Fry’s Turkish Delight. There’s something icky about them that make you want to keep going back and having another look. When you get an exercise that is at just the right speed to make an operatic one retain its operatic excitement, it’s exhilarating. If nothing else, they’re a refreshing change from playing wall-to-wall duple meter As Kath and Kim would say, it’s nice, it’s different, it’s unusual. 

7 thought on “Confessions of an anxious pianist day #10: The Polonaise”
  1. So, when a teacher says ‘a mazurka’ please and marks a polonaise, or vice versa, you just smile sweetly and say ‘ ah you want a mayonnaise!’ that lets both of you off the hook!

  2. Hello there – as a (novice) ballet pianist, I’m really enjoying the blog. Can I ask you in light of this post what polonaises you HAVE found to be successful? Thanks!

    1. Glad you’re enjoying it! One of the best I’ve found is the Festa di Ballo in Act 4 of Verdi’s Ernani, followed by Son vergin vezzosa from Act I of I Puritani (1835) – both of these were in the Dance Class Anthology that I edited with colleagues at the RAD in 2005, but I’m not sure if it’s still in print (but you can get the scores from IMSLP). There are also two in a pot-pourri from Pugni’s Esmeralda that are useful for jumps (click here for the score) – one in E major, starting at the bottom of Page 6, the other on p. 56 (no. 19 “Pas d’Action”) of this other book (click here for the score). There must be others of course (including the one by Glazunov that’s in my “year of ballet playing cards” – though this isn’t much use unless the exercise is very slow). There’s a good one in Don Quixote (page 104 in the five act version) if it’s a fast one you need. There’s another one on page 75 of the same score, but it’s a bit limp in my view. I’m still searching for more, but it’s not easy!

      1. Aha of course! I’d forgotten all about this—I’ve seen it in a book somewhere, but I don’t think it was properly attributed, so I didn’t know what the complete title was. Thank you so much, this might even be another card, maybe!

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Jonathan Still, ballet pianist