A year of ballet playing cards #51 (DQ): A coda medley

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I’ve been meaning to write this post on ballet codas for almost five years, ever since I had several emails in a row from unconnected pianists asking me for help with “codas”—what are they? What kind of music is required? I sent them a few of the most famous ones and a quick explanation. Further similar emails make me think that there’s probably a good reason to do a general post on codas at the same time as uploading 10 pages of lesser known coda music as part of the 52 cards project. If you want to know more about codas, skip to “What is a Coda

The “new” ballet codas in this playing card

They’re not new, of course, they’re just not the standard ones (which are in the list lower down). So here’s a list of what’s in the playing card. They’re not in any particular order, though I did start by trying to put them into some kind of key-relations, toyed with the idea of doing them in ascending speed, and so on, until I gave up and just put them in as I got round to it.

  • Coda to Act II Swan Lake (White Swan) pas de deux: almost never played, except in Nureyev’s version, where it’s a solo for him, and not played at coda speed. See earlier post. Probably not a go-to for fouettés because it’s too complex, but useful if you want something more interesting than a can-can for a change. The metronome mark of 136 bpm is only to make my Sibelius files play back at a medium coda speed—don’t take it seriously. It’s what happens in the studio that determines the speed.
  • Le Corsaire coda: not new at all, and it’s in the list of “must haves” below, but there’s no typeset version available as far as I know. It’s in this set because originally I was going to put all the classic codas in as well, but then I realized I could just upload the original files from IMSLP—but with the exception of Le Corsaire.
  • Harlem Tulip variation. This is one of my favourite coda-style pieces of music. You can use it for just about anything, and it scales up and down well in tempo terms. It has a history as part of the Gorsky Fille pas de deux (link to earlier post).
  • “Fricasée” from Glazunov’s Les Ruses d’Amour. I first came across this when Ray Barra used it for his Snow Queen in Berlin. It’s an old French tune arranged by Glazunov. As always with Glazunov, the arrangement is terrible and impossible to play, but it’s good for when you need steadier music, and for giving yourself something more exciting to play once in a while.
  • Selections from Graduation Ball (Strauss). There’s actually a fouetté contest in Graduation Ball, so it’s very appropriate (letter N in the playing card). I’ve included bits of the galops and polka-schnells that are used in the finale. Be careful of the one-bar anacrusis if you’re playing it as part of a sequence.
  • Finale Galop from Esmeralda pas de six (Drigo). This is my go-to when someone’s asked for a coda, but a fouetté-type coda is too fast. The chugga-chug-chug-chug rhythm of the first part of this one is the archetypal “galop” rhythm that you find in the galop in Giselle, and it’s handy to keep this rhythm in mind when you need steady galop-type codas.
  • Coda from Esmeralda pas de deux (Pugni, originally from The Pharoah’s Daughter). The history of this pas de deux and its music is mired in mystery and confusion (see earlier post) but here’s the coda, at least. It’s not the greatest music in the world, but that’s not what you came here for anyway.

What is a ballet coda?

“Coda” to a dancer is something like fortissimo double octaves, or octave glissandi to a pianist. Whereas “Coda” to a musician just means a tagged-on ending to a piece of music, in ballet terminology, a coda is the bit at the end of a pas de deux where dancers get to show off all their party tricks. As party tricks go, there’s not much that beats Carlos Acosta and Tamara Rojo doing the coda to Le Corsaire pas de deux in this grainy video, but you could get into endless arguments on YouTube and ballet forums about that, so don’t @me.

Given the place that ballet codas have in the classical repertoire, it’s understandable that when ballet teachers say “Coda,” they are expecting a certain energy and repertoire from you that you can only really get the hang of once you’ve seen a few pas de deux, and understand how much mental and physical energy and years of practising goes into pulling off those tricks. It’s not just a matter of having the right repertoire, it’s about getting into the spirit of the game.

Musically, they are in the polka-schnell, galop and can-can family, so anything with those terms in the title provides good material. From roughly the mid-nineteenth century onwards, a galop was often the finale to a quadrille, and also to a ball generally, so by extension, the the galop-finale found its way into ballets which mirrored the bourgeois tastes and experiences of its main audience .

The tradition continues to this day in the Viennese balls, though I think someone in 19th century Innsbruck might have called the police for all the ballroom traffic code violations in the video below:

Although ballet codas sound pretty much the same when you’re playing for fouettés or tours à la seconde, the subtle differences become apparent when you’re playing them for other steps where they’re commonly used in class—turning steps on the diagonal, for example. Depending on the step and the level of the class, or of individual dancers, you might find you’ve got the wrong kind of coda—or that the teacher maybe shouldn’t have said “coda” in the first place. That’s one of the reasons that in my playing card, I’ve included codas that are useful for when you need to steer out of a skid in class.

Seven famous ballet codas, with sheet music:

Although nearly every late nineteenth-century ballet has a coda in it somewhere, either as the end of a pas de deux, or as the finale to something, you could go through an entire career as a class pianist on the basis of the top three ballet codas in the list that follows below. So for people who are new to codas, here is your don’t-leave-home-without-it list:

  1. Swan Lake “Black Swan” pas de deux coda (Tchaikovsky). In the ballet world, this is the most famous coda of all, since it accompanies the 32 fouettés in the Black Swan pas de deux in Act 3 (though the music is actually Act 1 No. 5 (IV) in the original score). No need to put on your Tchaikovsky face when you play this—it’s flashy, cheap music, brassier than Roll Out the Barrel.
  2. Don Quixote pas de deux coda (Minkus). If statistics were available, we’d probably discover that someone somewhere is playing this every minute of the day somewhere in the world. This is the Coca-Cola of the world of ballet music, and love it or hate it, you can’t go wrong playing this if a coda’s required.
  3. Le Corsaire pas de deux coda (Drigo)[see free download]. For my taste, this is the most exciting and nice to play of all codas. Along with Don Quixote, Le Corsaire is one of the most famous and frequently performed gala pas de deux. There isn’t (as far as I know) a printed version available, so I’ve included it in my “52 cards” codas (see download above)
  4. Tchaikovsky pas de deux. “Tchaikovsky pas de deux” is the name Balanchine gave to a pas de deux he choreographed to music interpolated into Swan Lake by Tchaikovsky1, modelled on the structure of music written by Minkus which he didn’t want soiling his ballet, thank you very much. It’s only rarely included in Swan Lake itself, and is more famous as the Balanchine piece, which is a shame because it’s nice music. It’s useful because you can play it almost in its entirety without cutting.
  5. Don Quixote finale to Act 1. A solid and reliable Minkus coda, with a tricky but satisfying middle eight and a whole-bar anacrusis, which isn’t the Act 3 one above, and therefore less likely to irritate everyone (including you).
  6. Coppélia Act 3 finale. I bet a few dancers or teachers will say “Oh surely not!” but you can never have enough codas, and this is a good long one, which has a lot of variety in it, as well as being somehow really well-designed for a number of different coda steps.
  7. Nutcracker Act 2 Coda. It feels weird playing this outside the Christmas period, but I’m putting it here because it’s one of those pieces you should start learning as early as possible if you think you might ever play for a rehearsal: after the first page, it’s got horrible semiquaver passages in it that dancers know so well, they could almost sing them to you note perfect, so you can’t just fudge it. You have to play them, as well as look at the dancers, and alter your tempo as necessary. No dancer will praise you for getting it right (except other pianists, who may also privately hate you for doing so), they’ll just kill you with stares if you play the wrong speed.

Coda: a couple of warnings

If you ever play for solo rehearsals, it’s quite likely that coach/teacher/dancer will say right at the end, just as you’re packing to leave, “Oh, shall we just do the coda? We’ve got time. . . ” so be prepared—even if you’re told it’s a solo rehearsal, bring along the coda too, not just the solo. Sometimes a coach will just say “Her fouettés” and expect you to know exactly what they mean, so if you haven’t got a marked score, look at a video and see where the men’s and women’s parts of the coda are. And when it comes to Nutcracker, practice like mad, even if the rehearsal is a year away. I’ve been doing this for 30 years and I still can’t play it without either tying my fingers in knots or getting out of time.

And lastly: I’m not sure if anyone still does this, but there used to be an old Russian tradition of stopping the coda after the fouettés regardless of what the music is doing, so the audience can applaud. It’s worth watching this video of Osipova and Saranov doing the Corsaire coda to see how bizarre codas can be out in the ballet wild: the music stops after the fouettés, there is stormy, prolonged applause (“бурные, продолжительные аплодисменты” as the phrase was for Soviet political speeches, back in the day), she goes off, comes back for another call, exits, and then Sarafanov comes on, and the music resumes—at what feels like double the speed. Not to mention that he’s already done what looks like his best trick during the musical introduction, and appears to start properly a couple of beats after the tune. This is all perfectly normal in ballet, and nothing to worry about, unless you’re a ballet pianist trying to make sense of the choreography. Don’t try. Just say “would you like it fast, medium, or slow?” and see how it goes.

Supercoda (coda to the coda above)

In a couple of productions of The Nutcracker, the term “supercoda” is used to mean the bit in the finale where everyone comes on for about 16 counts to do their farewells—so if you’re the Prince and the Sugarplum Fairy, you’ll have had one coda at the end of the pas de deux, and another “supercoda” in the finale to the ballet as a whole (the last waltz). “Supercoda” isn’t a technical term, nor has it probably got any currency outside the two productions I’m talking about, but the concept is widespread, and worth knowing about if you play for company rehearsals.

Alternatives to traditional Coda music

Once you’ve got the hang of what ballet codas are both balletically and musically, you can begin to collect your own repertoire, something that is discussed in the Ballet Piano Podcast Episode 17 on “Virtuosity,” together with a Spotify playlist and transcript made by yours truly). You can find the tempo and feel of the galop/polka schnell/can-can in opera, musicals and pop music of all kinds, and you can also feed in topical musical references as different dancers appear. The finale of Excelsior features a “battalion of female dancers wearing a balletic version of the American, Russian, French, English and Italian army uniforms, performing emboités, fouettées and ronds de jambe to a frenzied adaptation of each national anthem” . Have a look at how Marenco (composer of Excelsior) slips in and out of God Save the Queen in 2/4 on page 130 of the finale for a masterclass in ballet music-butchering. I love it.

Philip Tagg’s analysis of rave music in comparison to seemingly unrelated genres (like polka!) has always helped me to think out of the box about what might work as alternatives to traditional coda music:

Tempos generally range between 116 and 144 bpm, the most common pulse rate being around 132, i.e. much faster than a march and quicker than most disco. It’s about the same basic pulse as up-tempo gospel in 2/4 metre, or as fast jump numbers from the forties and early fifties. This is also the same sort of speed as a bluegrass breakdown or as the polka. However, of all older forms of fast dance, it is probably most like the reel and breakdown because, like these, rave music also has a semiquaver surface rate in 2/4 (4/4). But whereas a constant banjo, fiddle or whistle run the reel’s semiquavers melodically, rave puts them over percussively or as fast minimal riffs on sampled hi-hat or, less frequently, as sequenced figures assigned to some distinct sampled sound.

Nonetheless, while all kinds of music can work for ballet codas, there’s a lot to be said for just sticking to the well-known, because playing actual coda music can just trigger the right frame of mind in someone who’s got just one chance in a ballet class to see if they can pull off 32 fouettés. At first, you might also want to play safe, just in case—as happened to a colleague of mine—it turns out you’re playing for a teacher who’s going to glare at you venomously and shout “THIS IS NOT AN OPERETTA” if you play Offenbach for a coda step.

Apart from dodging bullets, there’s another reason to stay fairly close to home in style: you’ll see that both Tchaikovsky and Minkus put a harmonic “floor” in their codas that maintains a sense of groundedness, which makes sense: the last thing you want while you’re flying around the stage is for the music to go flying off as well. If you want an example of the worst thing/way to play imaginable for a coda—however remarkable it is as a musical feat—György Cziffra’s performance of the Liszt chromatic galop (see below) takes some beating. Ballet teachers: this is why you get the wrong thing if you say “galop” to a pianist.

References

Ertz, M. A. B. (2010). Nineteenth-century Italian ballet music before national unification: Sources, style, and context. [PhD, Oregon]. https://scholarsbank.uoregon.edu/xmlui/handle/1794/11296
Poesio, G. (1997). Galop, gender and politics in the Italian ballo grande. Reflecting Our Past; Reflecting on Our Future: Proceedings of the Society of Dance History Scholars 20th Annual Conference, 151–156. https://d1z6eg75w3adwx.cloudfront.net/images/1997-SDHS-PROC.pdf
Tagg, P. (1994). Debate: From refrain to rave: the decline of figure and the rise of ground1. Popular Music, 13(2), 209–222. https://doi.org/10.1017/S026114300000708X

  1. It’s included in the Kashkin score as an appendix, along with the Russian dance. It’s listed as Act 3 No. 19(a) on recordings, but it’s not always included. You won’t find it in the original 1877 Tchaikovsky piano reduction []
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8 Responses to A year of ballet playing cards #51 (DQ): A coda medley

  1. Julia says:

    Thank You for bringing joyous delight to the day..Cziffra playing the Liszt…what could be more natural,joyous and extraordinary.How I wish I’d heard (and seen) him live…It was all so easy for him… I imagine that his energy,virtuosity and presence must have been what Liszt also had in abundance! Joyous. Definitely going to try that for the end of class Codas!! Thank you..

  2. Stephanie Jee says:

    Thanks for this gem! I am playing for a ZOOM class and long to return to the studio! Greetings from San Francisco!

  3. rudy says:

    oh my gosh, jonathan…well, a year or so ago when i was about midway through my reading your full gigantic blog and learning and delighting and now and then commenting i came upon a tiny point you made about codas having “flooring”–i can’t go back and try to find it, it might be 10-15 years ago, but i’ve always remembered what you wrote: the tonic stride bass in the music is not I – V, I – V, but I – I, I – I–you put it more succinctly in effect: the bass of the coda is at the unchanging octave to give the dancer a “floor”–that was revelation and explanation: a huge topic on the traditions of 19th century ballet composers’ orchestration voicing choices for different types of choreography, but, practically speaking, what a ballet pianist should think about when playing a coda–i brought it with me into the classroom…

    my last time in the classroom was on sunday 15 march 2020, a beginning class, no codas, no fouettes

    jonathan, in 2019 when i first discovered your blog i understood that you were working on a book and under some kind of academic constraint–i hope you are progressing–i do have this thought: encyclopedia…–can you find a way not to finish but to parcel and finish those parcels in orderly added-on form that you publish–what you write is a joy not just because you know what you’re talking about but because you’re such a wonderful writer, and so many of your topics might be gathered and rounded and packaged in parcels rather than corralled in a single book–might you give us a dictionary, an encyclopedia…

    no, you’d cringe at some putative pretentiousness…

    • Hi Rudy, thanks for your lovely (as always!) comment. I don’t think that’s a pretentious idea at all, in fact, I annoy myself a lot these days when I realize that I’ve buried some useful fact in a rambling post about something quite different, so that trying to find it is like being the last customer at the bran tub. Also, my thinking on many things has developed as I’ve read and understood more, so some of the earlier posts need revising, but the things that need revision are scattered across several posts. I’m still not quite done with my PhD, but thankfully the book chapter is done now (and another one that came along afterwards) and should be out before long. It has been on my mind to try and streamline and organize my blog materials, not least so that I can keep track of them! It’s a post-PhD project, but I hadn’t thought of a dictionary/encyclopaedia—I’ll definitely give it some thought now.

      A perfect example—if you hadn’t reminded me, I would have forgotten that I’d written about this topic of “flooring” in two places: once in a post that was otherwise about harmony in the Coppélia waltz, and another very brief remark about codas. There’s so much more to add to the topic, but briefly while I’m at it, recently I came across something that surprised me—a theory that the “strong weak medium weak” way of seeing the 4/4 bar came from dance music, where the “medium” was so to speak, “the other leg.” (Can I find it now that I want it again? No!) It would figure also that that I-V harmony also implies stepping from one foot to the other. So—it occurs to me now—no wonder these codas, which are not “steps” in the sense of a walk-based dance, and in the case of turns, are on one leg, should not adhere to step-based dance rhythms or harmonies. Whether Minkus or Tchaikovsky ever thought like that or whether it’s just that the most suitable codas win out in a kind of Darwinian contest, I don’t know.

  4. rudy says:

    that’s such an entertaining analysis: “the other leg” in “steps” calls for “strong beat – medium beat,” and is analogous to tonic-dominant stride; and “on one leg” in “coda” calls for the “flooring” of a sort of tonic pedal point

    i assume it all starts with choreographers instinctively feeling in their bodies and seeing in their dancers the way a strong repeated tonic stride in the music sounds-looks-feels like continuous fouettes and a la seconde turns, and then choreographers start asking composers to make the music “go like this,” and the practice is established…

    but it takes the musicologist to analyze why the music works so well when it “goes like that”

    and that’s what makes your blog such a great maze and forest: it’ll be so wonderful and valuable if you figure out a way to create a workable maze and forest for your dissertation, a way to keep all the detours and incidental insights, not have to throw anything away

    thanks, jonathan

    • It’s driving me crazy that I can’t remember or find where I read this theory—and it was a “big name” too—I couldn’t believe that I’d not read it before anywhere. “A workable maze and forest” sounds like a good goal!

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