Stravinsky and the “Summer Moon” foxtrot

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In the middle of looking up a reference in Peter Szendy’s Listen: A history of our ears,  I came across this remarkable bit of musical history that I’d completely forgotten about since I last opened the book. Szendy tells  how Stravinsky lost the rights to Firebird, originally published by Jurgenson in Russia in 1911,  as a result of the legal problems caused by the Russian revolution. To reassert his rights, he made a new version of it in 1918-1919, which he sold to Chester. This resulted in a legal dispute between Chester and Jurgenson in Leipzig: Chester lost, blaming Stravinsky for having let them publish a work that he wasn’t entitled to assign to them.

Third time lucky: having become an American citizen in 1945, Stravinsky made yet another arrangement, which he successfully assigned to the music publisher Leeds. But then he got into a dispute with Leeds, because without his permission, they decided to authorize a foxtrot arrangement of the theme from the “Dance of the Princesses.”  And thus was born the foxtrot Summer Moon, lyrics by John Klenner. Thanks to the glorious internet, here it is: 

Stravinsky was none too pleased at his work being appropriated by “these vulgar Broadway people” to cash in on the jukebox market .  He lost his case against Leeds,  but Schoenberg apparently wrote an essay in support of him,  decrying the publishers as “pirates” and “opportunists” .  I can’t help wondering if today, Stravinsky wouldn’t be emailing the publishers insisting they try harder to get his music placed in a TV ad or a film. (If you can’t remember how the original went, listen to the clip below)

Don’t rely on your friends for copyright advice

Given this history, it’s amusing to note that in Petrushka, Stravinsky inadvertently borrowed the song La jambe en bois (the bit that sounds like My old man’s a dustman) that he heard through his hotel window played on a barrel organ, without bothering to ask whether the composer was still alive, or if the music was in copyright.

Very unhelpfully, considering the outcome, a Monsieur Delage who was with Stravinsky at the time, said that he thought it was a bit of “musique ancienne..  Wrong. As someone soon pointed out, it was by Émile Spencer, who was very much alive, and didn’t die until 1921, so the Spencer estate have probably been enjoying a percentage of Petrushka royalties until at least 1972.

References

Szendy, P. (2008). Listen: A history of our ears. (C. Mandell, Trans.). New York: Fordham University Press.
Villette, H. (2015, December 31). Chanson « Elle avait une jambe de bois » – Petrouchka Pixel ! Retrieved May 30, 2020, from http://petrouchka-pixel.fr/chanson-elle-avait-une-jambe-de-bois/
Demers, J. (2010). Melody, theft, and high culture. In P. K. Saint-Amour (Ed.), Modernism and copyright (pp. 114–134). Oxford: Oxford University Press.
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A year of ballet playing cards #39 (KC): “Spanish waltz” medley

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Viva Navarra score

Click on the score to download the free pdf of this medley of “Spanish” “Waltzes”

Why the Spanish waltz? Is there such a thing? 

I never intended to include this category of music in the 52 cards series. The only reason it’s here is because Matt Gregory from the Ballet Piano Podcast said I should do a blog post on it, since “a Spanish Waltz” one of those things where you play what you think you’re being asked for, while internally furrowing your brow, and thinking “What is a Spanish waltz? Is there such a thing?” 

If ever I have to use the term, I feel the need for a full conceptual Hazmat suit, together with a pair of tongs, a box of latex scare quotes and some hand-sanitizer. It’s nothing against the Spanish or the waltz, but “a Spanish waltz” as a concept is a hot mess of problems.  That’s not to say that the pieces I’ve put together in this playing card aren’t useful for all kinds of things—particularly, I think, for sissonne exercises. They’re also great for giving a kind of “flavour” to an exercise. But they’re not in a category called “Spanish Waltz,” except on teacher training courses. So is there such a thing? The answer, briefly, is jein, as they say in Germany—yes and no.

Yes, because if you say you want a Spanish waltz, like Indian chefs who will provide you with a chicken tikka masala, even though it is unknown in India, we can knock you one up in the kitchen with a few ingredients that we guess you want included—a bit of a hemiola, some triplets, a few flamenco harmonies, some imaginary castanets, maybe bits of borrowed melody from Spanish things, or an imitation of the Spanish from Nutcracker. There’s also something very triple about them—although the melodic phrases seem to be in two-bar units (i.e. two bars of 3), the rhythmic structure seems to be much more like a truly triple metre, which is why they’re in the “clubs” suit. 

No, because although we can have a guess at what you mean based on the exercise, there is no musical entity called a “Spanish Waltz.” It’s not a thing out there in the world that, like blackbirds or hermit crabs, can be identified by certain characteristics. 

If you came here for a definition, then I apologize in advance—I recognize myself as one of those academics in Zadie Smith’s short story For the King, who is “never able to say a word without qualifying it from fifteen different angles. To listen to them. . .is to be confronted with a mass of verbal footnotes” . You see? A footnote right there. I’m no expert on this subject—what it needs is a few dance historians, some musicologists, specialists in escuela bolera and its relation to ballet and so on. But here are just a few pointers to why the term is so problematic. 

Music of Spain, v. Music about Spain

In a classic text on the subject, James Parakilas explains that it is French and Russian composers who have “long been paired as the greatest, or first masters of Spanish music (by listeners who did not distinguish Spanish music from music about Spain.” For the French, he says, representing Spain in music “has been an exercise in rendering their neighbors exotic,” whereas Russian musicians found “a mirror of their own cultural situation in the corner of Europe most distant from themselves” . Spanish musicians don’t need to make Spain exotic for other Spaniards, but many of them have practised what Parakilas calls auto-exoticism—the condition of “being able to produce a marketable art only by exoticizing oneself and one’s culture”

If you’re a ballet pianist, you know that there are Spanish dances in Glazunov’s Raymonda. Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker, Minkus’s Don Quixote and bits of Paquita, the Spanish dance in Coppélia. Then there’s Fanny Elssler’s famous Cachuchadanced in Le Diable Boiteux (1836),  and her Bolero from Delire d’un Peintre. Other famous Spanishy dances are Rimsky-Korsakov’s Capriccio Espagnole, Glinka’s Souvenir d’une nuit d’été à Madrid, as well as his orchestration of a Jota Aragonesa that was also arranged by Gottschalk. The point is, though, that none of these are waltzes, and most of them are “no more Spanish than the Champs-Elysées” as Noël Coward said of Bizet’s Carmen .

One of the interesting side-issues in Parakilas’s chapter is that the bolero as a form is so similar to the polonaise, that it is very hard to tell the difference. Moreover, a lot of the characteristics we associate with polonaises quite possibly originated in the bolero, to the extent that Parakilas wonders whether Chopin might have “learned more about writing polonaises from his experience with the bolero than the other way around” (pp. 150–151), noting that after his Bolero Op. 19, the polonaises seem to come with bolero accessories.

Certainly, if you search IMSLP for zarzuelas you will find many examples of boleros that would make much better polonaises for class than most of the polonaises you probably already have in your repertoire. While we’re at it, there are also plenty of useful mazurkas, polkas and waltzes in there too. And I mean waltzes, not “Spanish waltzes,” although they are waltzes written by Spaniards.

Spanish wilis?

In his article on the music of Giselle, Rodney Edgecombe takes issue with an assertion by Marian Smith in Ballet and Opera in the Age of Giselle that the example below represents a “somewhat startling burst of Spanish music” . Edgecombe argues that this isn’t startling, or a burst, since “the waltzes Adam wrote for the wilis are consistently ‘Spanish’ throughout” .

So-called Spanish section of the Wilis in Giselle Act II

What Smith (2000) calls a “startling burst” of Spanish music in the wilis, Giselle Act 2

I’m not thoroughly convinced by the argument, but I can see what he means. Once you start looking for possible Spanishness, you can see it everywhere. What’s more, he continues, Spanish music (“in inauthentic pan-European paraphrases”) in the early 19th century was used as a general marker of passion, rather than Spanishness, citing the bolero “Di quella pira” from Verdi’s Il Trovatore as an example.  The sense of what he means here is useful, but some of the details, I think, are questionable:

The balletic bolero, which likewise functioned as a vector of vividness and energy, was often favoured for male variations. Albert himself dances one in the Grand pas de deux, not to honour the no-longer-extant cosmopolitan ball of the wilis, but because it’s a manly thing to do.

I can only think that when he says “balletic Bolero” he must mean the same rhythm as the wilis shown above, which is what Albrecht’s solo is, but this surely isn’t a bolero, is it? If you go with Edgecombe’s flow and call it a *bolero for a moment,  the first balletic variation that comes to mind is the equally misnamed “Bolero” in Act 2 of Coppélia, which is for Swanilda. If it’s the kind of bolero that is more like a polonaise (a bolernaise?) the only example I can think of right now is for a woman, Lucille Grahn’s solo in Pas de Quatre (1845).  Fanny Elssler’s Bolero was nothing like either of those, and the thing called a bolero in Don Quixote is nothing like any of those:

Musical score of Bolero by Pugni

The “Bolero” interpolated into Don Quixote, music from Pugni’s La Fille de Marbre.

Beginning to see the problem yet? Thanks for the useful indication “Tempo di Bolero,” by the way. Given that after 30 years of playing for ballet, I’m not sure what a bolero is, or whether this is one at all, and what speed the choreographer wants the dance, it’s not exactly an objective tempo referent.  The Ravel Boléro, which the composer originally called Fandango has a tempo marking of “Tempo di Bolero, moderato assai, ♩=72,” which is almost three times slower than most of the videos I’ve seen of the Don Quixote “bolero.” 

Sometimes, a grupetto is just a grupetto

Petipa danced in Spain and was ballet master at the Teatro del Circo in Madrid until his Spanish career came to an abrupt end when he eloped with the daughter of a local noblewoman, having first shot a marquis in the jaw in a duel in a case of mistaken identity . Which is another way of saying that Petipa probably knew his stuff when it came to Spanish dance and drama. The fact that Minkus’s music for Don Quixote doesn’t always sound very “Spanish” probably has more to do with the fact that we expect our “Spanish” music to come with extra hot musical spice with a side-order of castanets, because that kind of sound comes later, with Rimsky-Korsakov, Chabrier and de Falla, in different ways and for different reasons.

This is why Edgecombe disagrees with one of Marian Smith’s theories about the wilis’ music in Giselle. Smith thinks that contemporary audiences would have heard echoes of an oriental or exotic style that was supposed to underscore dances by wilis in national costume in the original libretto, later dropped. But in 1841, argues Edgecombe, “the idea of musical regionalism, by now a potent force in opera (Ruslan and Ludmila would premiere a year later) had scarcely begun to penetrate the world of ballet” .

Ironically though, musicologist Marina Frolova-Walker argues against reading too much into the apparent exoticism of the harmony of Ruslan, in what is a long and detailed dismantling of an analysis by Richard Taruskin that is too complex to go into here.  Briefly, her argument is this; If you see exoticism in Glinka’s use of the so-called Kuchka pattern (for the musos: 5-#5-6-♭6-5 over a static bassline), it’s because it later becomes adopted as a marker of the exotic. One of the most obvious examples would be the third part of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade where you can hear it in the cellos and basses: 

Part of Rimsky-Korsakov's Scheherezade (musical score)

In the left hand, the so-called “Kuchka pattern.”

In Ruslan, though, Frolova Walker argues, it’s still just part of Glinka’s generic musical language.  A bit like when my short-sighted Aunty Bess saw scaffolding on the remains of 11th century Corfe Castle from a distance, and said, in utter seriousness, “Oh, so they had television then?”

Anyway, back to Frolova-Walker: at the time Glinka wrote A life for the Tsar (1836), she says, critics

did not see anything wrong in giving a Western dance, the waltz, to an Oriental character, nor did they object that the dance had not been transformed to sound Oriental; the conventionalized presentation of the Orient in music was rudimentary and piecemeal at this stage, and audiences were quite accustomed to hearing Oriental characters sing minuets, sicilianas, and other European dances . . .

For the same reason, I wonder whether it’s reading too much into Giselle to say that all or indeed any of the wili dances are necessarily Spanish in character. Isn’t it possible that sometimes a grupetto is just a grupetto, not a symbol of Spain? Or at least, used without the composer meaning to symbolize it?

Albrecht, Germans, and horns

Now let’s go back to Albrecht. At the time of Giselle, a waltz would have marked out a character as German: Adam was proud of the local German colour he’d given to the score in the form of the waltz, and critics praised the Germanic spirit that he had evoked with his music . That being the case, is there any reason for paying more attention to the possibly Spanish overtones of Albrecht’s second Act solo, than to its Germanic, minuetty melodic features, which are what makes the Act I waltz sound German? In the example below, I’ve transposed Albrecht’s solo into D major and rewritten it 3/4. The point isn’t to try and hear the three together, but to note the similar features. 

Comparison of Mozart Minuet and two Giselle examples in music notation

The waltz from Act I, part of Albrecht’s solo, and a Mozart minuet

But perhaps even more relevant and prominent are those horns—symbols of hunting and forests—that play the opening bars of  Albrecht’s solo; and if you wanted to look for that “bolero” rhythm, you’ll find it—also on horns—in the Minuet from Handel’s Water Music HWV 348.  I’m not saying there’s a connection—only that you don’t have to go to Spain to find that rhythm. 

Handel Water Music HWV 348 Minuet music score for horns

Handel Water Music No. 1/VII HWV 348 Minuet. Here’s that “bolero” rhythm again

Just show me the Spanish waltz

All right all right. The take-home point is that there are all kinds of Spanish dances in three, but the one term and concept that takes you up a blind alley and leaves you without a number for a taxi, is Spanish Waltz. However, we ballet pianists have learned to adapt in the wild, and can usually summon up something suitable. It will be based, though, on all the things that we think ballet teachers might have in their heads, or might have danced—any of the examples above, none of which are called Spanish Waltz. For an example of a Spanish dance that contains all the necessary accoutrements, try Andy Higgs’s  on his children’s dance class album, The Witches’ Cauldron

And finally

When I first tried to investigate this problem, I was sharing a flat with the Spanish ballet dancer (and now teacher) Victor Alvarez. I asked him if there was such a thing as a Spanish waltz, and I think my question was, where can I find more things like the Act 3 male variation from Don Quixote, but more authentic? He burst out laughing and said “Nowhere! This doesn’t exist anywhere in Spanish music, except maybe in zarzuela.”  If you’re looking for more stuff like the dances in this short compilation, zarzuela is a great place to start, and it’s where I found the ones here.

If you’re still reading by this time, I hope you get my point: there is an enormously rich and important field to be investigated here. Teaching music in ballet training shouldn’t be reduced to giving one-line inaccurate definitions of things that don’t exist, because that’s all we have time and patience for. If that’s what “music” means, don’t bother teaching it at all. What’s more, there’s a kind of lazy exoticism involved that is rather embarrassing in 2020. I mean, no teacher is going to ask you for something kind of Chinese, are they? I hope not.

I suppose there is a case for talking about a Spanish waltz, if by that you mean a waltz written by a Spanish person, but it’s rather an odd thing to do, and it’s not what ballet teachers mean by the term. Javier Barreiro describes Genaro Monreal’s Clavelitos (see clip below) as a song where the composer set lyrics to a  waltz rhythm , which seems absolutely right to me. This isn’t “a waltz” in the sense of music for dancing waltzes to, it’s just a useful way of describing the broad characteristics of the meter of the song.

 

References

Barreiro, J. (2017, April 8). El maestro Monreal. Retrieved May 15, 2020, from https://javierbarreiro.wordpress.com/2017/04/08/el-maestro-monreal/
Coward, N. (2011). The complete verse of Noël Coward edited  and with a commentary by Barry Day. (B. Day, Ed.). London: Methuen Drama.
Edgecombe, R. S. (2015). The score of Giselle. The Musical Times, 156(1930), 27–46.
Frolova-Walker, M. (2007). Russian Music and Nationalism from Glinka to Stalin. New Haven and London: Yale University Press.
Meisner, N. (2019). Marius Petipa: the emperor’s ballet master. New York: Oxford University Press.
Minkus, L. (1982). Don Quixote: Ballet in three acts. Libretto by M. Petipa after M. Cervantes. Moscow: Izdatel’stvo Muzyka. Retrieved from https://imslp.org/wiki/Special:ReverseLookup/30799
Parakilas, J. (1998). How Spain got a soul. In J. Bellman (Ed.), The exotic in Western music (pp. 137–193). Boston, Mass: Northeastern University Press.
Smith, E. M. (2000). Ballet and opera in the age of Giselle. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Smith, Z. (2019). For the King. In Grand Union: Stories (pp. 213–224). London: Hamish Hamilton.
Tagg, P. (2019). Fernando the Flute (IV). Larchmont, NY: The Mass Media Music Scholars’ Press (MMMSP). Retrieved from https://tagg.org/mmmsp/fernando.html
Taruskin, R. (1997). Defining Russia musically: Historical and hermeneutical essays. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
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Andrew Holdsworth and Lockdown Friends: The Same Sun

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The Same Sun is a song, written by Andrew Holdsworth and performed by some of the pupils from the school where he has taught music for 25 years, and brought together into a YouTube video that he put together from their performances filmed in lock-down. It’s a tribute to what’s possible when your music teacher is a nice bloke and an all-round genius.

Andrew’s comments on the video:
The Same Sun is a song about friendship, wellbeing and positivity in these difficult times. This group of children is from Surrey in the UK and we’d invite teachers from all over the world to do their own version of this song with their pupils. A sing-along lyric video will shortly be available on this channel. All you need is someone who can put a video together for you! Positivity and wellbeing is as important for children as education at the moment. We hope all teachers will encourage creativity, openness and dialogue with their pupils during lockdown. Music and lyrics (c) Andrew J. Holdsworth 2020 Any proceeds from streaming or broadcast of this song will be donated to Childline.
 

Some of you may know Andrew as the creator of high quality ballet class albums (see his Spotify page) or as the producer and engineer of all the RAD’s music products for over 20 years, including the Studio Series and syllabus projects  (see the short film we made together about that).

See also

 
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Ballet Piano Podcast transcript now available

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Logo of the Ballet piano podcast

Click here to go to the Ballet Piano Podcast (and transcript)

My enthusiasm and admiration for the Ballet Piano Podcast, which I posted about a few weeks ago, continues to grow. Talking to Matt Gregory the other day, I said that I might get round to transcribing one of the podcasts, for some people (I’m one of them) a transcript can be more accessible than listening—particularly, it occurs to me, if English isn’t your first language. Also, if you’ve heard the podcast and want to go back and find a particular passage, it’s much easier to search text than scrub through audio.  I also happen to love transcribing (if you think I’m kidding, see my eulogy to USB foot controls, and blog post on transcribing methods.  That’s one of the reasons I loved Kate Atkinson’s TranscriptionTranscribing is not a simple matter of taking down content by dictation, it raises all kinds of fascinating issues and questions along the way.

So when Matt mentioned that my name cropped up in this week’s podcast, I was too proud not to get straight down to transcribing it. Download the transcript of the latest podcast from the Ballet Piano Podcast here: 

Transcribing this podcast gave me a chance to reflect on just how good Ballet Piano Podcast is. It’s got David Yow as legendary experienced teacher (and also one of the most serene people I’ve ever worked for), three pianists, of whom one (Matt) is also a dancer, so you have a rounded and respectful view of both dance and music. There’s also a wealth of experience from both the vocational school and company side. To be really valuable, you need to know about both fields. 

If I’m really honest, I don’t really share this team’s enthusiasm for adage (see an older post for why) but I learned a lot from listening to (and transcribing) this podcast.  Trying to describe the difference between adage and ports de bras music is quite difficult in musical terms, but hearing David Yow describe it this way, made it so obvious: 

The fuller it [the music] is, the better, because that’s exactly what the movements are like, the biggest, the fullest movement that you can do.

If you’d asked a lot of musicians (or some teachers, who’ve been led to believe that you can categorize exercises by time signature), they’d say “a slow 6/8, like a barcarolle.”  I remember asking a teacher once what she thought adage music should be, and she said “it should express infinite hope.” Try finding that in your musical dictionary, but it’s inspired me for years. 

Ballet piano nerves

There is so much in the discussion that I can relate to. Here’s Akiko & Chris Hobson talking about the sheer physical and mental effort of playing for classes in new situations:

Akiko: I remember when I started, I played for one class, you know, one hour and a half or so. After one class, I was so tired, I was so hungry, and I just wanted to have a nap.

Chris:  I still get nervous now, if I’m going to a new company where I know I don’t know the ballet master and I might not know any of the dancers, I still get nervous, maybe two decades in, I don’t think it’s ever going to leave.

As I heard that, I remembered a time a few years ago when I was playing for a visiting company in London. It was just four days when I had to turn up, play for an hour or an hour and a quarter around lunchtime, and then I was free. In theory, perfect for someone who needs several hours in the day to do a PhD. But no: from when I woke up til when class started, I fretted about what I was going to play, and who for (it was three different teachers over four days, none of whom I’d worked with before). And when I’d finished, I was so exhausted mentally (and already thinking about how to make the next day interesting), that it was difficult to settle to anything else afterwards. It was a long time before I realized that summer schools are so exhausting, even if your workload is light: it’s not the number of hours, it’s the intensity of having to instantly form effective working relationships with several new people. It’s a strain for the teacher as well, who also has to deal with the new group of  dancers in front of them, and sometimes as a pianist, it feels like you’re the lightning conductor for the tension in the room.

A Dance Class Anthology

Picture of "A Dance Class Anthology"

A Dance Class Anthology—now back in print, and available from RAD Enterprises Ltd

One last thing: it’s worth mentioning that The Dance Class Anthology, which Chris Hobson mentions towards the end of the podcast, is now back in print again, and available from the RAD Enterprises—though until the Covid-19 lockdown ends, they can’t dispatch any orders. 

 

 

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Nureyev’s Siegfried solo in the White Swan pas de deux

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Extract of full score of Nureyev's Siegfried solo in Act 2 of Swan Lake

Nureyev’s Siegfried Solo in Act 2 of Swan Lake

Maybe I’ve just led a sheltered ballet life, but after 30+ years of playing for more rehearsals and casts of the white swan pas de deux from Swan Lake Act II than I can remember, I was astounded the other day to discover that there was a bit of the score that I didn’t know—never heard it, never seen it. For a recording project, someone asked me for a piano version of Nureyev’s solo for Siegfried from Act II. I hope you’re all going what act 2 solo? with me. 

So here it is: 

Le lac des cygnes – act 2 Siegfried variation from seminkova on Vimeo.

I almost despaired to the point of emailing Lars Payne, orchestral librarian at ENB  who knows everything [see earlier post] there is to know about ballet music, particularly Swan Lake, but I’ll admit it, I was too proud to confess that I didn’t know what it was. So I started searching, and found something on the Nureyev Foundation website that said “Nureyev restores the prince’s variation which used to be habitually cut after the dance of the big swans.”  Again, I thought “which variation?!”  I had already looked through the 1877 version of the score at least twice, trying to find it, and through the 1895 Langer version, to see if was something that had been added posthumously. As I listened, I began to doubt myself: is this Tchaikovsky at all? Since I had already promised to record it, I began to dread that it was (as turned out to be the case in another Nureyev restaging) John Lanchbery had quietly faked a Tchaikovsky-like solo to save the day. 

I had another look at the Kashkin score—which by the way, I’ve used for years—and sure enough, there at the end of the pas de deux (not after the dance of the big swans, actually) is the so-called “prince’s variation,” which is more like a coda for the pas de deux couple. In fact, my experience was what made me miss it in the first place: I was so used to the conventional ending to the pas de deux, that I wasn’t expecting to see anything novel there—so I didn’t. You can find it yourself in the Kashkin score on IMSLP, but in case you miss it and to save time, here are the relevant pages in a two page file

It’s in nicely rounded 8-bar phrases except for the last phrase, which is 6 bars—though you could cut it or extend it easily. In typical Tchaikovsky fashion, there’s a kind of trompe l’oreille effect, whereby the first motif sounds as if it’s an anacrusis, but it is isn’t—it keeps chasing its own tail like a Möbius strip. 

Eventually, I remembered that I had seen it once before, though without registering any of the notes. I was playing for the Ballet Masterclasses in Prague, where we were going to White Swan in the pas de deux class. I said very casually, oh yes, it’s fine, the score’s on IMSLP, no need to worry. With about 5 minutes to go before the class, I printed it off, and then to my horror, noticed that the ending I was expecting. Fortunately, we did have a score of the right version. 

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Everyday life as a ballet pianist: a cartoon by Marlene Spiers

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Cartoon by Marlene Spiers of a ballet pianist

Everyday life as a ballet pianist, a cartoon from the “Dance damn you, Dance” collection by Marlene Spiers. © unknown, but was sent to me in 1990

I have cherished this postcard for the last 30 years. I have never found anything that expresses so perfectly the world of the ballet class pianist as this. I am terrified of losing it, so while I can still find it, I’m posting it online. This is an illegal act for which I hope Marlene Spiers or her estate will forgive me, and I will take it down, or pay a reasonable sum to put it online if the copyright holders contact me, but it’s too good not to share.

The card was sent to me by Susie Cooper—by the strangest coincidence, since I literally just picked this out of a box at random—on 6th April 1990, almost exactly 30 years ago today. It was a lovely encouraging postcard and a letter continued on another sheet, and it gives me such joy to be able to say that the conversation still continues today.

Representations of the everyday life of a ballet pianist

The ballet pianist is such a trope in film (see the clip from Stepping Out on another page on this site), but the reality is never far off (see earlier post about the pianist in The Children of Theatre Street). One of my favourite gentle portrayals in literature is Mr Booth in Zadie Smith’s Swing Time, in the early chapters that describe so perfectly the world of Saturday morning dance classes). But the all-time prize for an honest documentary shot goes to the bit around 1’56” in the British Pathé film of Preobrajenska teaching in Paris in 1959.

The pianist smiles so beautifully at the teacher, so engaged, so totally attentive and involved in what is going on, so respectful to Mme. Preobrajenska. Nonetheless, on the music stand, open for even the documentary maker to see and film with no shame, is an open magazine. I just love the fact that she made no attempt to hide it for the camera.

Screenshot of documentary from 1959 of Preobrajenska teaching in Paris

Screenshot from British Pathé film (about 1:36″) 83 Year Old Ballet Teacher (1959) [Film ID:2726.04] [Documentary]. British Pathé. https://youtu.be/JDgEB5iK-9o For full film, see embedded clip below.

Chatelot, C. (1959). 83 Year Old Ballet Teacher (1959) [Film ID:2726.04]. British Pathé. Retrieved from https://youtu.be/JDgEB5iK-9o

 

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A 19th century quadrille generator

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I remember inwardly eye-rolling when I heard a teacher many years ago claim excitedly that her pianist “never played the same thing twice.” Call me cynical, but if you’re a pianist for ballet class, you know that if you play week in week out for the same teacher and you’re playing repertoire, it’s almost impossible not to repeat yourself. You’d have to have the memory of a vaudeville savant to literally not repeat yourself.

On the other hand, if by “never playing the same thing twice,” the teacher meant that the pianist constantly improvised, and never came out with the same thing twice, then—call me cynical a second time—I still have my doubts. Improvising, particularly for ballet class, doesn’t mean producing infinitely random streams of notes, like a lottery ball machine; it involves producing music that sounds as if it’s something that you’ve heard before (see a previous post for more on this and 18th century composition primers).

The Quadrille Melodist

I had been thinking about this in relation to a brief exchange of comments on a previous post about “fear of repetition” when improvising. Then today, by coincidence, I discovered a fascinating article [full text free to download] by Nikita Braguinski on a 19th century quadrille generator, called the Quadrille Melodist, that promised to provide “428 Millions of Quadrilles for 5s. 6d.” Never one to pass up a bargain, I had to read it. It turns out, this is a box of cards, in principle not unlike Mozart’s dice game (Würfelspiel)—you have a selection box of one-bar fragments that you can combine to make an eight-bar phrase.

From the photograph, the “machine” looks a bit like one of those clocking-in card racks for employees. Instead of employees, you have bars of music on cards that you can arrange, sort, move and shuffle, but with constraints on which slot they can be placed in, to ensure the musical logic of each resulting piece.

This seems pretty close to what a lot of ballet class improvisation is (and indeed, the creation of ballet enchaînements too): the amalgamation of a limited range of permissible fragments into a more-or-less logical sounding phrase, with strict rules. Obviously the best improvisers (and ballet teachers) do more than this, but that’s a handful, in my experience; and the chances are they did their best improvisations by shedding, not on the spot.

Incidentally, Braguinski points out that its inventor, John Clinton misrepresented—perhaps on purpose—the possible combinations by several orders of magnitude: the correct figure is in fact 7,400,249,944,258,160,101,211, or just over 7.4 sextillion. If he’d wanted to to achieve the advertised figure of 428 million tunes, he could have done it with far fewer cards.

More of the same?

At the end of the article, Braguinski asks an interesting question.

At the same time, the assumption that original or new music is desirable for a quadrille is debatable. Wouldn’t the constant variation run the risk of confusing the dancers? (p. 98).

Possibly not. It depends a lot on what you mean by “the same” or “original” or “new” music, and whether you’re using the music to cue particular movements, or as accompaniment for a dance that you already know (see previous posts here and there [see under “pedadogical category” heading] ) for more on those topics).

Looking at the possibilities afforded by Clinton’s quadrille machine, the outcomes would be different, to be sure, but they are literally formulaic, and so pretty much indistinguishable from one another, as well as totally unmemorable—which is perhaps the price of endless “novelty,” if novelty is the right word at all.

See: Braguinski, N. (2019). “428 Millions of Quadrilles for 5s. 6d.”: John Clinton’s Combinatorial Music Machine. 19th-Century Music, 43(2), 86–98. https://doi.org/10.1525/ncm.2019.43.2.86
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Donations needed for The Connection at St Martin in the Fields

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The Connection at St-Martin-in-the-Fields which provides so much help to the homeless in the centre of London, has had to close due to the current government guidelines. You can probably imagine the effect this has had on those that are in need of their support, and on those at the Connection who are now doing their best to help clients in different ways. In addition, because fundraising activities have had to be cancelled, the Connection needs donations now.

If you can donate, please do so by going to the “donate” page for The Connection.

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Can’t tell a waltz from a tango? I have just the song for you

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“I can’t tell a waltz from a tango” would be a great title for a ballet-related music course, though in all honesty, “I can’t tell a kujawiak from a redowa” would be more apposite.

Songs that reference what might be going in the class while you’re playing for it are pretty rare, though the best example is perhaps the ballet teacher who described her life to me in song, with a rendition of “Little Girls” from Annie, accompanied by a massive eye-roll. 

Coincidentally, Gordon Burns’s novel Alma Cogan  was one of those books I was expecting to dislike, but I loved it. Anyway, if you need a handy tango for class that will make you and maybe one other person every 20 years laugh, “I can’t tell a waltz from a tango” is the one.

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The Ballet Piano Podcast

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I remember saying to someone a few years ago that the distance between you thinking of an idea for a project, and someone else coming up with the same idea independently and actually  doing it is about twelve months, and today’s find just goes to prove my point. The bastards have only gone and done the thing that I wanted to do more than a year ago, which is to start a podcast series consisting of interviews/discussions with the great and the good in this weird corner of the musical universe, the world of playing for ballet classes. 

The bastards in question are all wonderful colleagues, so I wish The Ballet Piano Podcast the best and warmest of luck with this great venture, and please get on and do some more. The first episode is a roundtable chat with Chris Hobson and his wife Akiko, the lovely Matt Gregory, and equally lovely ballet teacher David Yow. To actually get three pianists AND a teacher talking in the same room, on the record, is a miracle, and it says a lot about  the people involved that they’ve managed to do it. 

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