- Download the reel from La Sylphide in piano score (free pdf)
- Read more about my Year of Ballet Playing Cards
I promised that I’d be posting a couple of “jokers” in the pack of ballet playing cards, and here’s one of them: the Reel from La Sylphide. It’s a joker, because you should only play this one with care: I’d advise against playing it for class anywhere where La Sylphide has recently been in the company repertoire, but it’s such great music for little jumps, and such fun, that it almost always raises a smile, or gets people trying to remember the steps while they wait for the next group. A crotchet/quarter-note beat of 108 is only a guide, but it’s not worth playing if it’s slower than that, frankly – the whole point is that it’s fast, furious, and jolly, as a reel should be. To talk shop for a moment, it’s also great for little jumps because it has a proper four-on-the-floor feel, rather than falling into a see-saw pattern of oom-pahs. Also rather interesting how often it has a strong beat at the end of the bar. Explain that one to your music teacher.
It’s handy because it goes on for pages and pages (I’ve included everything, but the most useful part stops at the end of page 3 – after that, go carefully, although it’s in 8 bar phrases almost right up to the end. There’s something really exhilarating about playing for an exercise that goes on for a long time and not running out of material – because people keep think you’re going to, and then you don’t. I’ve done this joker as a favour to myself, so I can remind myself of how it all goes. I’m also rather fond of a post I wrote about it when I had to play it after slicing the end of the fourth finger of my RH with a food processor blade, and discovered interesting new fingering methods.
A reel life experience
This piece brings back so many memories too – one of my earliest jobs was sight-reading it from a terrible hand written score for Peter Schaufuss and Festival Ballet (ENB) at a stage rehearsal back in the 80s. It was then that I realised how much more fun Bournonville ballets were than the turgid Tchaikovsky ones. Probably the two best ballet nights out I’ve ever had were watching Matthew Bourne’s reworking of La Sylphide (Highland Fling!) in London when it first came out, and then in 2013 when it was restaged for Scottish Ballet.
Footnote: AKA Virginia Reel
It was only last year (2020) that I discovered this same tune in an American book dating from 1859 under the heading of “Virginia Reel” (on page 31 of the book, which you can download for free from Richard Powers’ wonderful site—just scroll down to 1859, or search for Howe when you get there. I’m sure someone’s already researched all this before, but I find it interesting that the tune appears in this book with so many similarities to the ballet music, right down to the style of accompaniment, whereas the tune it seems to be related to (Lord Macdonald’s Reel, amongst other names) seems to be only half the story.