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"Lagrima" by Tárrega arranged for piano
Click image  to download the score of Lagrima and ¡Adelita! by Tárrega

A Tárrega ballad, the perfect plié music?

When I say “perfect” what I mean is that this music somehow meets precisely the expressive, metrical model that you often need for pliés: something in 3, that has precise demarcations of the beat and sub-beats (so that the movement can be carefully measured) yet avoids being metronomic. It is also in the 2+2+4 phrase pattern (demi-demi-full) that so many plié exercises require. It has breath and space at the end of the phrases for changes of position, or what I like to call forgiveness in the design.  It’s simple and “quiet” rather than complex and bombastic. For the first exercise of the day, it opens the door softly and whispers “come in!” Although the dynamic markings are mine, they indicate how the pitch contour and the dynamics can contribute to the gentle up-down-squeeze movement  of the exercise.

When I say the perfect plié music, I don’t mean that this is what all plié music should sound like (and I like to go all out sometimes, with a big song like Tonight from West Side Story) but that it’s the proof in musical form that somewhere in the musical universe, there is something that sounds like the thing the teacher marked. It’s taken me about 30 years to find it. The song from Jeux Interdits used to do it for me, but I can’t play that anymore, ever since I put it in a syllabus, and ever since I heard someone say “And she played that song for god’s sake!”

I’m calling this a “triple meter ballad” because I have no idea what else to call it, but I hope it makes sense as a category.

Guitar playing as a model for piano playing

I could have walked straight past this music, had I not heard Per-Olov Kindgren play it in this Youtube video.

Listen to this, and see if you ever dare play a single note on the piano without thinking about how you’re going to place and time it. The trouble with the piano is that it’s so easy to play. What makes music sound like music is often the sense of effort or skill that it takes to do something difficult like play a high note. On a piano, it makes no difference whether the note is high or low, it takes the same effort. Likewise, when notes fall easily under your fingers, they can come out with no more expressivity than typing. It’s a keyboard, after all. But on a guitar, you can’t do this. There are ergonomic challenges, affordances that lie between the human hand and the construction of the guitar, that give rise to nuances of timing and expression.

The trick with playing this piece on the piano is to hold back, to place the notes with the same care and precision as if you were having to pick them individually by a combination of movements in both hands, even when there is only a single line to play. I’ve found that Lagrima enables you to find moments in plié exercises where you can be very free with timing in a way that feels totally right. Teachers don’t have to hold you back, or tell you not to hold back when you do. The more you can keep the teacher quiet, the better, so it’s perfect in that sense too.


The second piece, ¡Adelita! is a little mazurka. You have to be even more careful to keep the slow three going in this. If you maintain the same tempo as you set up in Lagrima, you can use it to extend and vary the music during the plié. Of course, it would also work for port de bras, ronds de jambe etc.

About the arrangement

I’ve changed the bass line in a couple of places because otherwise it would sound a bit exposed on the piano. I’ve added in some notes that maybe Tárrega would have done, had they been easier to play on the guitar. Sometimes when I’m playing this, I also go down an octave. Once you’ve got the general idea, you can play around with dynamics and pitch to add interest. With ¡Adelita! I meant to add some octaves in the bass, and maybe bring the melody of the first half down an octave, but I forgot. I’ll play around, and maybe upload a new version.

I’ve over-notated the score with dynamics, phrasing and articulation, just as a kind of warning not to let the notes fall out of your fingers too easily. What I was aspiring to was the kind of finger-by-finger dynamics that Percy Grainger does in some of his arrangements, that informed much of the way I play now. There’s almost nothing to this piece at all – it’s all in the articulation and dynamics, but there’s no need to take them as directions, more as an idea for how to approach it.

Where have I and my 52 cards been? 

It’s over six months since the last update. It’s been a hell of a year, most of it entirely good, but everything (including my PhD which I had to interrupt for 6 months) had to take a back seat. I’m hoping to resume better (if not normal) service from now on!

5 thought on “A year of ballet playing cards #36: A triple meter ballad by Tárrega”
  1. “guitar playing as a model for piano playing”—jonathan, beautifully and precisely observed:

    “The trouble with the piano is that it’s so easy to play. What makes music sound like music is often the sense of effort…on a guitar…there are ergonomic challenges…that give rise to nuances of timing and expression…”

    in the early 90’s when cd’s were new and multiplying like a virus (topical allusion) i started collecting and studying bach transcriptions—before then i’d “privileged” transcriptions for piano (it was my instrument, after all), but in my collecting i came across the yamashita guitar transcriptions of the cello suites—it was, as the cliche comes true, a revelation

    i think in all of bach’s music, but particularly in the solo instrumental music (flute, violin, cello), and especially in the cello suites, an important expressive ingredient is “the sense of effort” and “ergonomic challenges”—and i think bach deliberately “composes” that ingredient

    as my thinking about this developed i came to see it more broadly as a baroque aesthetic of “agony,” a cultivated “theatre” of struggle epitomized in bach

    there’s a million ideas that your post triggered for me…edward rubbra’s orchestration of brahms-handle doesn’t work because it makes the music sound “too easy”…pauline viardot’s arrangements of chopin mazurkas as songs work because they create a theatre of human effort (ergonomic challenge)…godowsky’s bach transcriptions are choked, clogged, effortless…on and on

    but here’s a new one, about you: for the first time i think i have a clue to a peculiar effect gould’s recordings from the fitzwilliam virginal book have:

    “The trick with playing this piece on the piano is to hold back, to place the notes with the same care and precision as if you were having to pick them individually by a combination of movements in both hands, even when there is only a single line to play.”

    i don’t hear this effect in gould’s bach as much as i hear it in his byrd, bull, et alia, and i couldn’t put my finger on it until now

    1. What a lovely, fascinating comment, lots of things here for me to explore, thank yoU! Interesting you should mention Gould and Byrd, because although it’s not something I would normally listen to much, I happened to hear his recording of Byrd’s version of Sellenger’s Round and instantly loved it. There’s something about those ornaments that says plucked, rather than hammered strings, even though it’s on a piano, and it’s a wonderful effect. Although his performance is not suited to dancing, it still seems to retain a dance-like quality.

      Slightly off-topic but related, I was listening to dozens of different recordings of one of the Bach fugues, trying to find the one that sounded like what I wanted to hear. Each one seemed deficient until I got to one that was played on a harpsichord, hence there was no possibility of bringing out individual voices from the polyphony. That, it turns out, was what I wanted to hear! Interestingly, Charles Rosen in his book Piano Notes bemoans that way of trying to emphasise every line, at the expense of an overall texture, and that was the proof for me. I’ll write that up properly in a post one day: when I was studying, that was what you were supposed to do with a fugue. Such a relief to know that you don’t have to!

      I like your idea of a theatre of struggle. Have you seen/read Boccherini’s body: An essay in carnal musicology. by Elizabeth LeGuin? There’s a lot there that might resonate with your ideas, and it’s a lovely book. There’s an article that predates the book, which may be available as a free download somewhere

  2. smile, jonathan: i’ve only read ABOUT le guin because i’ve read your blog (last year exploring in reverse up to its source, this year sailing downstream to the sea and knowing how all the plot lines turn out), and i have no head for musicology and no philosophical rigor–i like reading ABOUT such things, tho–in one of your posts you mentioned in passing how you couldn’t read suzanne k langer; HOW delightful: as an undergrad i couldn’t read her either…but so far that’s the only philosopher you’ve mentioned in your blog that i actually know anything about

    i’ve always loved reading charles rosen and robert craft, but they’re not philosophers, they’re sort of the gore vidal’s of music for people my age

    and i confess to a possibly graver philistinism: i LOVE hearing the shapely independence of the voices in a bach fugue at the expense of an overall texture, and i can still remember being vaguely irritated when i was young coming across a quote of r schumann to the effect that a bach fugue should sound like a chopin nocturne (schumann’s fugues do sound marvelous played like chopin, but then of course they would)

    you put it, as usual, perfectly: gould’s ornaments (at least in his english renaissance music) sound plucked–partly a matter of the lovely dry mastering, but also i think partly because of his technique of “holding back”

    thank you, jonathan, for your magnificent work–it’s slowed the past few months but i’m guessing (hoping) that that’s because you’re closing in on a finish to your dissertation

    1. I’ve got to the stage where I’ve forgotten what I’ve written on my blog, my apologies!

      I don’t think I shall ever get away from the idea that you ought to be able to hear voices independently in a fugue, nor be able to resist trying to do it. It was more the shock of discovering that you could enjoy a fugue without that effect, and moreover that someone like Charles Rosen would sanction the idea too! Perhaps what I’m getting at is that you can try too hard, and get diminishing returns. It’s very heartening to know that someone enjoys this blog so much, thank you for your approving comments. Yes, I have slowed in the last few months. Partly work, and partly because I try to avoid putting stuff on the blog that is directly related to the PhD, for fearing of letting it solidify in a blog post before I’m absolutely sure what I want to say in the thesis. Also, it’s so tempting to write posts rather than get on with the job of finishing, so I’ve had to discipline myself not to be distracted.

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Jonathan Still, ballet pianist