A year of ballet playing cards #32: A Scottishy-Czechishy-minuettishy thing by Boccherini
The magic of Boccherini for ballet class
This is only a short piece, but it’s going to be like the magic key to open a dastardly exercise box somewhere on Planet Ballet – probably in some intermediate class where they’re trying to teach ballonné composé or a pas de basque glissé. I discovered it after recommending Boccherini’s Passa Calle from Musica notturna delle strade di Madrid (Night Music of the Streets of Madrid), Op. 30 No. 6 (G. 324) to a friend for a short film he and a friend were making. When I finally saw the film, I realised that they’d also used the Minuetto dei Ciechi from the same piece in the opening scene, to great effect: it’s quirky, atmospheric, physical music, and that’s exactly what the film was. Because I’d skipped over that track before, I’d forgotten just how bizarre and lovable it is, and so here it is. You might only get to play it once in a ballet lifetime, because there isn’t a name for this rhythm, but I am pretty certain that it’s perfect for something, it’s just a question of what that something is.
Check out the difference between Ciechi and Cechi
Minuetto dei Ciechi means “Minuet of the Blind People” which is translated as “blind beggars” elsewhere. I have a theory about this, that maybe, just maybe, this is a mis-spelling on Boccherini’s part, and what he meant to write is “Minuetto dei Cechi” which sounds the same, but means “Minuet of the Czechs.” Rather bizarrely, he marks this “con mala grazia” (with bad grace). So was he taking the mickey out of blind people stumbling around trying to dance in the street? Or did “mala grazia” simply mean in a folkish style? It’s a complete stab in the dark, and I have absolutely no evidence for the idea, except that this scotch-snap (or “lombardic rhythm” – see this article) in a 3/4 is characteristic of no other music I can think of, except some Czech folk dances that I’ve heard, including the sousedská from Dvořák’s Czech Suite, and some Mozart minuets.
Boccherini turns out to be a much more interesting composer than I ever thought, and for that we have to thank Elizabeth Le Guin, and her fabulous “carnal musicological” studies of the composer . Cook mentions one of these in Beyond the score, in what is the first acknowledgement I’ve seen of the connection between dance training and musical pedagogy:
“…following the pedagogy of dance, the late eighteenth century saw ‘a huge increase in the production and publication of instructional treatises for every instrument. Here mechanical processes, not just of instruments, but of the bodies operating them, began to be conceptualized and systematized (2002:243).”
I doubt that any teacher will ever ask you for a piece of music like this, so I suggest you just play it to yourself in their hearing, and see if they go “Oh that’s great, what’s that?” or “That’s perfect for…” I’m afraid it’s more likely they’ll look at you, smile, put their hands above their head in a gesture that means “Scottish dancing” and smile, and then ask you for something else.