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Finding slow tendu music can sometimes be really problematic. I’m dedicating this post to a colleague and friend with whom I’ve recently been commiserating about playing for those slow tendus for which only foursquare musical gruel seems appropriate. Our conversations are always filled with, “I mean, I get it, but . . . ” — we understand what teachers are aiming for by such slow careful work, but it’s painful to play for. Worst of all, because no tunes will do because they’re too fast or they have syncopation which would be like wearing a mini skirt to a funeral, you have to improvise. You end up hating yourself for the rubbish you’re creating on the fly, like facing a mirror in a restaurant when you feel terrible. The glazed stares on the dancers’ faces give you the impression that they hate you, the teacher, the exercise and the music all at once.

That being the case, unsyncopated, classical-sounding, slow, square music that isn’t terrible, but is suitable for a school-y tendu is the ballet pianist’s Holy Gruel. This bit from Ambroise Thomas’s overture to the opera Raymond sounds instantly familiar, because it resembles so many other things: Albrecht’s entrance in Giselle; the bit from La forza del destino which was used in Jean de Florette (1986) and subsequent adverts for Stella Artois; Bachianas Brasileiras No. 5. The twiddly bits in the middle remind me a bit of the opening of La Sylphide. With a bit of tweaking, it’s also fairly squareable for ballet. I wondered whether Thomas might have been one of those composers that Tchaikovsky admired (which is always a slightly surprising list) but he isn’t. In fact, he tore Thomas’s opera Hamlet to shreds in a review in Russkie Vedomosti in 1872. It’s fairly typical fare for male composers bitching at each other in print, but on the basis of Raymond I’m prepared to say that there’s a lot in this I like, and plenty of Tchaikovsky that I think is pretty dreadful by comparison.

About the music

Apart from the pretty tune, the rhythmic security provided by the pizzicato string accompaniment and the sentimental harmonies, it also has a lot of variety: changes in the surface rhythm that make the passage of time more interesting for the pianist, though possibly worse for the dancers, for whom the exercise may appear to pass even more slowly. But that is what small notes are useful for, measuring out your tendus in demisemiquavers. They also give the opportunity to put in elastic timing for extra stretchy muscles. There is also a switch to what might be an example of Rothstein’s “Franco-Italian meter” in the middle. This might throw some dancers/teachers off if they’re listening too carefully, but depending on the exercise, it could also be very useful, since it completely upends the metric accent, and if what you want is fluid, even, controlled movement, that might be a musical way of getting there. Many years ago, I had a lightbulb moment when I realized that the “and” of a tendu that closes on “1” isn’t an anacrusis in the musician’s normal sense of the term: the “1” describes where you close, rather than how. For that reason, music like the middle section of this where the new melody starts on the half bar gives you an “and” and a “1” that are equal, unlike the marchy music that is often played for tendus.

Slow tendu music: the piano score

I’ve kept Thomas’s order for the most part, but squared off with a bit of cutting and pasting here and there, but you’ll probably need to use it in a modular way to fit whatever the exercise is. I’ve put “serving suggestions” on the score—if it’s a long exercise that turns round to the other side, then play ABCD and hope that the ritenuto at the end of D coincides with the turn. For the other side, or if you are only going to play one side, use ABDE. One of the worst bits of those endless tendu exercises is when you think you’ve got to the end of it, and it turns out there’s an extra port de bras, or a balance, or some other thing that you didn’t see coming when the exercise was marked. Well, I have something for you: you can add on section G if you see people still moving, and H, if they’re still moving after that. The end is sparse enough for the teacher to be able mark the next exercise in the last few bars.

I’m putting a recording here because I’m interested to hear any comments, and if you want to do an exercise to it and send a link to a video, I’d love to include it.

Me playing Playing Card 52

The trickiest bit about this is that the music isn’t going to sound right unless it’s a nice piano, a quiet but reverberant studio, and a teacher who doesn’t want to impose themselves too much over the music. One of the best things about this piece is the space in it, and the capacity for expressive timing, so if metronomic accuracy is what you need, this is the wrong thing.

If you think this music is awful, just bear in mind that by the time you’ve subtracted everything that some teachers don’t want in slow tendu music (no jazz, no syncopation, no pop tunes, no speed, no jerky rhythms), this is what’s left—and that’s exactly why this area of class can be so problematic. However, I have a feeling that it’s going to be just perfect for something—maybe one of those walky ports de bras, as well as tendus. As with other pieces in my 52 cards collection, this is a tool like the thing for getting stones out of horses’ hooves. You might only need it once, but when you do, you’ll be glad it was there. It’s not the most exciting music—but there you go, often what you need in ballet classes is sometimes just that: useful but not too exciting. And you can also turn it easily into a tango if you get bored.

5 thought on “A year of ballet playing cards #52 (DK): Slow tendu music”
  1. I think that is a lovely tendu music. If, when covid problems let up, I will send a video of a tendu exercise that I would like to do to it. Thanks our sharing it.

  2. really charming, jonathan, it’s one of those “journey” pieces that work so well for the long but simple combinations at the beginning of barre because it goes somewhere and one can’t help but “participate” once one “sees” where we’re going–incidentally, one of the most successful pieces in my rep for long tendus from 1st is the 2nd mvt of beethoven op 57, without the repeats of course so you can do the first 3 vars: cut mm 56-63 and fashion a cadence in m70–another, more straightforward bit of beethoven for slow tendu purposes is the opening of op 27 #1, but with repeats so you shouldn’t have to go beyond m20 and if you do have to repeat it’s not unwelcome

    in fact there’s quite a lot in the beethoven sonatas that fits the bill here, but your thomas is so ingratiatingly italian-sounding (and has the amusing repeated note section) i’ll bet most dancers would prefer it to our severe maestro ludwig

  3. Beautiful tendu John…wondering if this is the “final card” or you will delight us with another 52 cards collection 😉 Thanks for all the hard work and dedication, this blog is a treasure!

    1. It’s not actually the final one because I didn’t do them in order—I’ve got 11 more to go, eight of which are adages. I despair of finding more adages, it’s my least favourite part of class for that reason. It’s so nice to get such appreciative feedback, thank you!

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Jonathan Still, ballet pianist