A year of ballet playing cards #6 (S6): A barcarole for port de bras

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Music for port de bras, anyone?

One of the things that has slowed down this 52 cards project is my dearth of new ideas for adage or port de bras. I was delighted, then, to come across this the other day, which I kind of knew, but had never considered for class before. I love it, but I have a feeling this one is going to stay in everyone’s cupboard for a long time, because in my experience, it’s very rare for teachers to set exercises with this kind of tempo and metre. I wish they would though, because this is such lovely, emotive, expressive music, so well known from films (I noticed it in The Father with Antony Hopkins and Olivia Colman, but it’s also in The Man Who Cried, in a beautiful version with piano provided by the Labèque sisters), and from dozens of performances in popular classics concerts.

The complexities of simplicity

I’ve put it in the “Spades” category (see explanatory page), which is my sock-drawer for music where the meter is irrelevant, because it’s the tune and feel that counts, and you’re not looking for foot-stomping beats, i.e. this is adage/port de bras territory. However, I can’t help being fascinated by how this apparently simple piece is metrically very difficult to sort out, starting with the fact that Bizet probably should have notated it in 12/8 rather than 6/8. For that reason, this would make a great piece to use for a class on why you shouldn’t get hung up on time signatures: it’s in 2, 4, 6, and 12 all at once, but the shape of the phrase always outdoes the metrical accent.

The first time I tried it out, I couldn’t decide what introduction I should give. The motif in the accompaniment takes four counts, so giving one bar feels like it’s not enough. But if you give two, that’s 8 counts, which feels like too many. Or is it a slow four (i.e. each bar is 1 and 2 and etc.)? This is one of the reasons that I smell danger with this piece. I was chatting about all this to a colleague who was watching the class, and he said the music felt “very anacrusis-y”—in other words, each bar (or more accurately, hypermeasure—i.e. four count unit) seems to be a bowl of upbeats of increasing urgency, rather than having a feeling of settledness. There’s something in that, I think.

I’m intrigued by why this apparently simple music doesn’t sound banal or predictable. I was astonished to find that it was actually in regular eight-bar phrases, and have double-checked yet again, even though I’ve recorded it and input the score. I still don’t trust my ears and eyes. I think it’s that high B towards the end—it seems to come out of nowhere, or rather in the middle of nowhere, though it’s actually on the final count of an eight-count phrase. For health and safety reasons, I’ve tamed the fermata into a tenuto in my ballet class version (“I say tenuto to Bizet’s fermata“) but one day, you’ll be playing for an exercise where that fermata coincides exactly with a potentially huge hold in the movement, and people will think you’re a genius for finding the perfect music.

Metrical accent versus expressive accentuation

When I recorded this, I didn’t notice that even though that note is the highest note in the piece, has a fermata on it, and is like the the crest of an enormous wave, it’s marked pianissimo, and is the unaccented end syllable of the word ivresse (intoxication, or drunkenness). A masterclass in how to get a point across through understatement.

More than any other piece that I’ve played for class, I think, this one demonstrates the independence of melodic or expressive accent from metrical accent. I’m indebted to an article on this by Nicholas Baragwanath , for clarifying my thinking on this. It seems obvious that ballet is essentially different to music, but reading Baragwanath’s article about text-setting in Italy, you realize that even within music, you can have two (or more) planes of accentuation that are not blood-relatives, so to speak. That’s what’s going on in that bar with the high B in: metrical accent is all but irrelevant. In theory, this should be a “weak” accent, but it’s got a fermata and a high note on it; but then, it’s marked pianissimo, and is given to a weak syllable. Nonetheless, you feel a huge, intense “accent” but not in the sense that word usually implies.

It’s this kind of thing that makes music (and dance) interesting, and I suppose we’re getting near to working out here what one definition of being “musical” might be—finding the meaningful high point in a phrase, and deciding how you’re going to play it (or dance it).

One of the key points of my recent chapter in the Oxford Handbook of Time in Music is that when (music) teachers select musical examples to demonstrate principles of time signature, they tend to choose the ones that match the point they want to make, rather than deal with the multitude of anomalies that make life interesting and musical. I sometimes call them “problems in C major,” after that famous phrase supposedly used by Schoenberg—that there was still plenty of good music to be written in C major. Likewise, there are still plenty of musical problems in “C major,” as it were. This is one of those pieces.

Answers on a postcard please

I think this is potentially a great piece of music for class, but I would be willing to lay bets on the fact that I’ll rarely be able to use it. I suspect that too many years of pianists playing O mio babbino caro for adage has resulted in that metrical template being imprinted in ballet teachers’ brains so that they can’t think of anything else when they come to set an adage. So in the interests of changing the ballet world, one barcarole at a time, here’s a recording I made earlier. I’m really interested to hear (in the comments is best, so other people can read them too) what teachers think this music would be best for in a class, and why. I guess I need to add a proviso here: what I want to know is what immediately springs to mind, rather than what exercise you might choreograph to it once you’d got used to it.


Baragwanath, N. (2014). Giovanni Battista De Vecchis and the Theory of Melodic Accent from Zarlino to Zingarelli. Music and Letters, 95(2), 157–182. https://www.academia.edu/6056167/Giovanni_Battista_De_Vecchis_and_the_Theory_of_Melodic_Accent_from_Zarlino_to_Zingarelli
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3 Responses to A year of ballet playing cards #6 (S6): A barcarole for port de bras

  1. auntielynn11 says:

    I’ve been using almost all of Bizet for years…he works for me…

  2. Jacquie Harbord says:

    Hello Jonathan,
    Miss you, but it’s lovely to have your music in Alex’s class. Love Jacquie (Ice Skater)

  3. Hi Jacquie, miss you too! Hope we’ll have a chance to do a class together before too long! x

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