“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.
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.
This post started out as a bit of excitement at finding that the source for the Gorsky Fille mal gardée pas de deux male solo was Czibulka’s Scène de ballet Op. 268 (1882), and that it was available, together with the preceding adagio, online at the national library of Spain. (To get the full pdf from that site, click on the green “download” icon third from the left at the top of the page).
Within 24 hours, though, I had found the whole pas de deux (piano music) available on IMSLP, where all of it is wrongly (I think) attributed to Hertel. I say “I think” because who the thing is by is a long, and so far never-ending story.
The long version: how I found it
The strangest coincidence happened on Friday: on my way out to work in the afternoon, I was idly flicking through a pile of old ballet scores that someone had given me a long time back. The first one I looked at properly (because it had no title page, so I couldn’t see what it was) declared itself to be a pas de deux from La fille mal gardée, with “Cziboulka” at the top, and a copyright notice by William McDermott on the bottom. It didn’t look like anything from Fille that I recognized, until I turned a couple of pages, and found a waltz that seemed familiar. Now where had I heard that before? The galop at the end also seemed familiar. It was time to go, so I put it down and left.
An hour later, I had an email from a colleague asking if I could identify and source the music for a variation, as in the video here (with a Youtube link). I clicked on the link: not only was it exactly the music I had just been looking at, but the video was also the one where I (now I remembered) had first heard the music. Had I not picked up the score that afternoon, I would have had no idea what the music might be.
Czibulka Op. 268: Scène de ballet (1882), the source for the Gorsky “Fille mal gardée” pas de deux
This isn’t the source for Lise’s variation that follows (see 7:05 in the clip below). One forum poster suggests that it’s a supplementary variation by Drigo for The Harlem Tulip, and cross-referencing this with the Marius Petipa Society’s page on Harlequinade pas de deux, which contains the same music as an interpolation, and cross-referencing that with the video on YouTube, confirms this as true. There’s no reason to post the video of Harlequinade here really, but the speed and élan in Ninel’ Kurgapkina’s performance is so breathtaking, it just has to be seen:
The Petipa Society’s page on Fille is wonderfully informative, but they attribute the adagio to Hertel and the male variation to Drigo (from La Fôret Enchantée). Either they’re talking about a different solo, or it’s not correct. That leaves only the coda as possibly from Armsheimer’s music for Cavalry Halt.
I have a sneaking suspicion however that Czibulka might have just put his name to the Hertel adagio: it looks and sounds suspiciously not like Czibulka—too early, florid, and harmonically sparse. In American scores of this period, arrangers frequently gave their own name as the composer of the piece they’d arranged. But is that really likely in this case? Hertel (1817-1899) and Czibulka (1842-1894) were contemporaries, and the Scène de ballet was published in Berlin where Hertel’s ballet was composed. Another possibility—since Hertel’s work was based in part on Hérold’s (1791-1833) earlier score— is that perhaps both Hertel and Czibulka borrowed the adagio from Hérold. But I can’t find a trace of it in the score for the Hérold Fille at IMSLP, and it still doesn’t explain the waltz.
So much for the classics. With all the power of Google and the WWW and libraries and public funded companies and so on, these musical details of what one imagines to be the pillars of the repertoire are still more opaque than if the ballets had been done by monks in the 11th century. It’s a classic case of what Pouillaude in Unworking choreography refers to as part of the “ontological weakness” of dance—the fact that a ballet like Swan Lake (his example) or Fille mal gardée (mine here) seems to crumble and disappear into different “productions,” and cannot be pinned down as a “work” in any stable sense. It’s one of the most fundamental truths about ballet classics, yet seems to be part of no-one’s curriculum, at least not from a musical perspective.
Retracing my steps
In the previous post, I wondered just how much detail is too much when you’re documenting sources and how you found them. With things like this, I think it’s valuable to retrace your steps. With all my favourite finds (#1 being the Giraud Franz solo), there’s an element of sheer luck, guesswork, and then the grind of leafing through page after page of score in the hope of finding gold. Of course, I always check Matthew Naughtin first of all (but he doesn’t mention Czibulka). Wikipedia and YouTube, and The Petipa Society are invaluable. Spelling variations and opus numbers unlock doors. IMSLP is the most lovable musical resource ever, but sometimes you have to manually check archive.org and the catalogues at big libraries to find stuff that hasn’t been uploaded there. If you’re lucky, you can take search for images, and see the front cover of a piece of music, and a link to a library site. And lastly, there’s Shazam, which helped me to identify the recording that appears so often in these videos: it’s Ballet Gala, original Bolshoi Theatre Orchestra conducted by Georgi Zhemchushin. Don’t look there for musical references, though—the composer is given as Hérold.
After nearly 24 hours on and off trying to identify and locate the missing music (the non-Czibulka pieces) I did what I should have done earlier, which is check under Hertel at IMSLP, where, under the German title of Das schlecht bewachte Mädchen, the entire pas de deux was waiting all the time. No mention of Czibulka, Drigo, or Armsheimer though, even though it’s a Soviet publisher who must have known better, surely?
The most curious part of this for me is that the score I had with “Cziboulka” written on is dated 1959, which means that the information has been around for at least 60 years. If you search for Czibulka and “Fille mal gardée” you will find an entry on Suzanne Knosp’s inventory of ballet music publications at the University of Arizona. It’s for William McDermott’s book of Five pas de deux (1985), including this one, with the music correctly attributed to Czibulka, Drigo and Hertel. There’s a lesson to be learned there, though I’m not quite sure how to formulate it, but it just goes to show, there’s a lot to be said for keeping a static HTML list of your ballet treasures.
A packed and interesting programme of lectures/events at the DANSOX summer school in Oxford coming up (6th–8th July 2019), including a joint 2-hour presentation by me and Susie Crow based partly on our doctoral research into ballet classes. That’s on Sunday 7th, 4-15–6.15pm. I promise you, there’ll be a piano, dancing, and no PowerPoint, plus, I hope some interesting conversations about our nerdy interest in ballet class as a hot topic for discussion.
There’s a nice short video here about DANSOX by Prof. Susan Jones
One of the oddities about the ballet repertoire is that the more famous and frequently performed the piece, the more tricky its musical history, like the “Black Swan” Pas de Deux, for example, which does not exist in Tchaikovsky’s original score, at least not in its entirety, as you know it, or where you’d expect to find it. Over time, people like Adam Lopez who writes so much for Wikipedia on the Imperial Russian ballet and its music, and the brilliant ballet music librarians Lars Payne and Matthew Naughtin (see “Black Swan” link above) have solved many of these mysteries.
There is one ballet mystery which just won’t go away, however, and that’s the question of the source for the “Esmeralda” pas de deux. I don’t mean Pugni’s 1844 ballet, but the one with the famous tambourine solo for the ballerina created by Pyotr Gusev in 1949, and later produced by Ben Stevenson in 1982 for the Jackson International Ballet Competition (see Matthew Naughtin’s Ballet Music: A Handbook).
Naughtin says that the opening is by Drigo (for a revival of Petipa’s L’order du roi), but by chance, while I was looking to see if there was a scan of Marenco’s Sieba (1880-1881), which is reputedly the source for the tambourine variation, I found a couple of pages of that score (i.e. Sieba) in Matilda Ertz’s doctoral thesis. Look at example 29 on page 287-288 (pdf page 311-312, the opening of the tempest from Sieba) and you’ll see that the latter half of it is note for note part of the adagio in the Esmeralda pas de deux. For the full thesis, see Nineteenth-century Italian ballet music before unification: Sources, style, and context” Matilda Ertz, (Univ. of Oregon, 2010). It might be that some is by Drigo and some by Marenco—it’s certainly a very abrupt cut and bizarre modulation from B major down to A, at the point that the Sieba tempest comes in, and the materials don’t seem to be related at all. Incidentally, Ertz’s thesis is really interesting if you’re into ballet music.
I haven’t managed to find a scan of the score of Sieba beyond these two pages, but it would make sense that the tambourine solo is from the same piece as the adagio—though if the attribution to Drigo is not correct, or at least, an erasure of underlying sources, then I wonder if we should question the tambourine solo’s origins too, until we see the evidence. I can’t find the coda of Esmeralda in the source that Naughtin gives, either (Pugni’s The Pharaoh’s Daughter). I have seen that coda in another ballet, but I cannot for the life of me remember which one it is.
Thanks to Adrian Mathers, the mystery of where the coda came from (see crossed out section above) is now solved. Matthew Naughtin was right, it is from The Pharaoh’s Daughter, and I had seen it before, but I had completely forgotten that where I had seen it was in the violin repetiteur of that ballet, not the piano score. It was Adrian who drew my attention to the fact that it’s in the repetiteur but not the piano reduction. You can see the Pharaoh’s Daughter repetiteur it for yourself, digitized in Harvard Library. The coda of Esmeralda is on pages 125-129.
If anyone has either a piano reduction of Sieba to send me (there’s a copy available in the reading room of the British Library, I know, but I don’t have time to find it right now).
Giselle and the Peasant Pas de Deux
While I’m at it, there’s another mystery to be solved—or at least, in my view it’s a mystery. How many times have we heard that the Peasant pas de deux in Giselle is by Burgmüller, and a piece called Souvenirs de Ratisbonne Op. 67? Well, Aki Kuroda has recorded it, and it sounds like this:
In other words, it’s not the peasant pas de deux in its entirety, but one of the female variations, transposed from its original C major into D. There’s an awful lot more music that needs to be explained. Now, I’m sticking my neck out here on the basis of not a lot of knowledge about Burgmüller, but from what I know of his music, I find it hard to believe he’s the author of the entrée polonaise, because it’s very polonaise-y, whereas his tend to be waltzes with a funny left hand. The pas de deux? Maybe. But the E major male solo that begins with the whole-beat upbeat? That’s very Franco-Italian metrically speaking (see my post “compound errors” and the section on Franco-Italian hypermeter in this post for more on that topic) and not at all like the kind of thing Burgmüller writes usually—even one of his tarantellas begins on the first beat of the bar. You find Franco-Italian barring all over Pugni’s scores, but not Burgmüller’s. On the other hand, there’s something I don’t quite trust about the female solo in G major (2/4). That looks like the kind of solo that should begin on the upbeat, like these by Auber but it doesn’t. It looks like a French solo in German clothing.
Whatever and whoever is behind this story, there is more to it than simply Souvenir de Ratisbonne. Cyril Beaumont in his The Ballet Called Giselle (1945) is more precise: he refers to “a waltz entitled “Souvenir de Ratisbonne” and a suite of dances which used to be performed by Giselle’s friends and their two leaders,” but I haven’t yet come across anything more than that in music scholarship. Contributions very welcome.
Not content with just one reworking, some exercises, like Op 335 No. 6 have six.
Czerny Op 335 No. 6: reworked in six different versions by Rudy Apffel
In the wrong hands (what a great metaphor for a pianist-related post!) this kind of music can sound so drab, just the kind of thing that should be banned from ballet classes forever. But Apffel’s reworkings are witty and clever, and hold a mirror back to the original that make you hear it differently. There’s one in the style of Prokofiev’s “Dance of the Knights,” for example, but my favourite is the jazz waltz rendering. If you didn’t know it was based on Czerny, you could believe it had been a No. 1 chanson in Paris in the 1950s. Sometimes when you come to rearrange things like this you realize that the underlying composition is cleverer than you realized, obscured by a patina of tired familiarity.
This is such a magnificent labour of love, but I fully understand Apffel’s fascination with Czerny. I think it’s Taruskin who said that there are two Beethovens (or Bachs? Or Mozarts?—I’ll correct this if I’m wrong another time) —there’s Beethoven, and “Beethoven.” The one in scare quotes is the composer that comes with all the baggage—the music appreciation classes you hated, the feeling that you had to like the music even if you didn’t, the way that people look in concert halls as they’re listening to his music. Without the scare quotes, you might feel quite differently about the music (for good or ill, as it happens, with some of the great names).
Likewise, with Czerny: there’s Czerny the fun composer, Czerny the man who worked like crazy, with so many simultaneous projects on the go that he reputedly set them all out on different desks in his study, spending an hour at each in succession in order to make progress on them all (even if the story isn’t true, I love it); Czerny whose exercises dance and sing and convey drama. Then there’s “Czerny,” the scourge of young pianists, who are handed the books of exercises as if they were not really music, but “merely” technical machines to improve technique, like those things 19th dancers used to splay their feet in to improve their turnout. “Czerny” the abandoned sheet music in the Oxfam shop, with a stained cover, musty smell, and pencilled ticks and music teachers’ fingerings in. I feel sick just thinking about it.
Take away the scare quotes, and there’s a joyful, imaginative composer here with a staggering wealth of material, and that’s what Rudy Apffel is mining with his new arrangements and reimaginings. There’s a danger that you might miss Apffel’s humour and ingenuity if you just turn on a single track and think “I wonder if I could use this for tendus?” Get inside the music, listen to them as a series, compare one with the other, and this is a wonderful musical journey. One of the things I especially like is the use of technology to do the impossible—freely admitted by Apffel!— as in this Schubert-Impromptu-Meets-Czerny-Op 335 No. 18.
When I first learned to drive, I read a book about the police driving test, in which you had to do a “commentary drive,” which involves describing to the examiner (while you’re driving) what you are observing on the road ahead, explaining the decisions you’re making, the precautions you’re taking, and so on. I often think of this during ballet class, because as any ballet pianist will tell you, although we seem to “just” play when the exercise starts, there’s a whole series of observations, analyses and decision-making processes going on before we lay a finger on the keyboard, and then a dozen more as we’re actually playing, some of which are so quick as to seem unconscious and instantaneous. For the novice pianist trying to learn something about how to play for class, watching another pianist has limited use, because you don’t know why they’re doing what they do. Sometimes, they don’t know either, or have forgotten by the time class is over. That’s why the video below by ballet pianist Joshua Piper (aka heavypiano) is really useful: he’s filmed a real class, with him playing, put it on YouTube, and put a short text commentary over it, usually at the beginning and ends of exercises, so you can see why he’s doing what he’s doing. [If you can’t see the embedded video, click here to see it on YouTube]
He explains, for example, that at a certain point in the barre, the teacher likes a “less is more” approach to the music, so he holds back, avoiding too much subdivision, playing chords in light touches, which gives the dancers space to move, so to speak; elsewhere he talks about trying to maintain tempo, and create a feeling of ebb and flow, of introducing a bit of stride, but not too heavy. It’s a great lesson on making your repertoire stretch, too—adapting tunes according to the tempo and feel of the exercise, so that you only just realise by the end that you know the tune, but in a different form (I’m thinking here of his styling of Korobeiniki, a.k.a. the Tetris theme.
He emphasises that what’s happening in this class at times is fairly unusual: the teacher wants him to play quiet, thin, and spacious music for exercises that would often be accompanied by more robust, circussy stuff. But that’s why the video is so useful—it demonstrates how a particular pianist adapts his style to a particular teacher and the dancers, rather than making any claims that you can apply the same musical template to every ballet class in the world. It’s the necessity to adapt that is what makes the job difficult, but also rewarding. One of my favourite comments is where he says he’s trying to “imply round movement with my LH pattern” in ronds de jambe,an exercise that’s normally taken in 3/4, but which he’s playing in 4. Finding ways to trick people’s ears into thinking they’re hearing three when they aren’t is one of my tactics, too, as I’ve described in another post.
This is a great video, and Joshua Piper plays beautifully—but I also have to say he’s lucky to have this teacher, and that class (I’m guessing it’s Ballet Austin, but I’m not sure). There are other videos to be made, where the pianist—like a police driver explaining how he is going to manoeuvre a skidding car out of a muddy ditch while pursuing criminals— shows how they try to make the eternal fondu-tango-that-is-too-slow or the ronds-de-jambe-stirring-porridge-waltz still feel like music against the most challenging odds.
The more I watch and listen to this video, the more I love the way Joshua Piper plays, his repertoire, stylings, and commentary—and the video itself, too: it makes such a nice change to have a static, wide camera angle, and a focus on a good quality recording of the sound, rather than a body mic given to the teacher, and fetishistic close-ups of dancers’ feet and sweaty faces. Ballet on TV is so darn predictable. This video gives you a feel for the calm, peaceful concentration that you get in a ballet classes, and an idea of just how exposed and focal the music can be when you’ve got a teacher who isn’t screaming over the top of it.
I bought Where Snowflakes Dance and Swear when it first came out in 2011: I didn’t particularly want to read it (because I spend enough time in this world at work) but I couldn’t ignore it as a kind of ethnography of the ballet world that I was writing about. It was a good decision: unlike so many other authors of backstage views of the ballet world, Stephen Manes actually talks about music—the problems, what people play, the problems of hiring and marking up orchestral parts, how much it costs, and so on.
For anyone who has ever had a problem with music publishers, copyright and licensing in the ballet world, pages 252-258 will probably be one of the first times you’ve seen your experience represented in a published book, with the exception of Matthew Naughtin’s Ballet Music: A Handbook, which tells the story (and gives information) from the music librarian’s perspective. Even he, though, doesn’t get into the kind of gory embarrassing detail that Manes does, where a company has to do things that are on the grey, fuzzy margins of legal, in order to get by. Everything in these pages I had experienced myself, and was delighted and surprised to see that my troubles had been shared by others. You think you’re mad, criminal and incompetent until you realize it’s the craziness of music publishing that is the problem.
I can’t think of another book or article that contains so much about everyday musical practice in the ballet world: what pianists play for class; the decision to use CD or piano for rehearsal; the embarrassing moment when you do a new work, and find that there’s no rehearsal score, so the company pianist has to do one. It’s just a shame that you have to trawl through the book looking for the references—the indexing could be improved so that it’s easier to find topics, rather than very granular references to particular people or ballets, but at least the references are in there somewhere: ethnographies of ballet often say little more than ‘classical music plays in the background’ and leave it at that, so this is a welcome change.
Ballet pianists and company class
The author (see comment below) has reminded me of one of the biggest sections on the work of ballet pianists, on page 697-703, with detailed explanations from two company pianists, and their route into the profession. One ended up playing for the company “because they hated the class pianist” (p. 698), another started out when he was left to sink or swim in a class in Moscow— “. . .there’s something about someone foreign yelling at you, screaming at you. . .” (p.700). Quite. We’ve all been there. But the balance in Manes’ writing is everything: despite the awfulness, there are compensations, and reasons why ballet pianists end up loving their job and staying in it. A lot of so-called “behind the scenes” writing on ballet musicians is nothing of the sort, because it’s commissioned and written under the auspices of the ballet companies themselves.
Dotted around the book (and this is what prompted this post) are little references to music that to my mind, make a huge difference, not just to the evocation of the scenes that the author is describing, but to our knowledge of what music in the ballet world is like generally. The book may be specific to a time and place, but musically, it sounds very familiar: “A medley of ‘Stairway to Paradise,’ ‘Bidin’ my Time,’ and ‘Nice Work if You Can Get it’ played with strong emphasis on the beat accompanies a combination that involves what Otto calls ‘many’ turns.” (p. 44). Stretches are done to a Dvořák Slavonic Dance, and sit-ups to Carmen (p. 119); “Flashy jumps and big turns to Beethoven, Bach, “Be a Clown,” and “Meet Me in St. Louis” begin to lighten the mood of the room. (p. 505). In a description of a rehearsal, Manes mentions that “The Merry Widow Waltz” wafts in from an adjacent classroom (p.173), prompting a momentary digression in the rehearsal to remember fondly the time the company did Ronnie Hynd’s ballet The Merry Widow.” It’s a lovely detail—it’s exactly the kind of thing that happens in rehearsal. In writing about ballet, there is usually so much emphasis on the hyperfocus and determination of dancers as elite athletes, that these little overhearings and spillages of music and memory usually go unmentioned.
It so happens that I was on the point of writing a blog post about training ballet pianists yesterday, because I’m halfway through Matthew Syed’s Bounce: The Myth of Talent and the Power of Practice. Syed, a former table tennis champion, is basically reiterating and expanding on the 10,000 hours of practice rule, and the “growth mindset” theory: that you become expert at something through artful practice, not through innate talent (though genetics obviously has a role to play on what Syed calls the “threshold” for entry into a particular sphere). The take-home point is that there are no cases where people achieve skills by short-cutting the practice, and none where continued practice doesn’t lead to results (obviously, it has to be the right kind of practice).
It suddenly struck me, as I was sitting in a ballet class watching students go through some of the 10,000 hours that they would need to become truly expert, that it’s rare that pianists are given the opportunity to get the practice they need in order to become skilled. Many of my colleagues agree that it takes a ball-park figure of two years regular playing for class (and an intense amount of hard work outside class, finding and practising repertoire, or learning to improvise in appropriate styles), before you begin to feel comfortable—and then, anyone I’ve ever met in this field says “and you never stop learning.” It’s true: there’s always more to learn, and always that one teacher, regardless of your experience, who can freak you out and make you wonder whether you’re in the right job.
This is why whenever someone talks about “training courses” for pianists, I always sigh inwardly (even though I’ve taught on them myself), because as much as there are things you can teach on a course, background stuff you can learn that is necessary and useful, there is just no replacement for sitting on that piano stool, and being served exercises like Syed was served thousands of table-tennis balls by his coaches. That’s not just a sentimental “There’s no substitute for experience” —there really isn’t. Of all people, ballet teachers should understand this principle, because that’s how people get good at ballet, yet it’s very rare that teachers do give pianists opportunities to try for long enough to get better. It’s assumed that what is needed is some kind of training in music, whereas that’s like passing your driving theory test, but never getting in the car.
In The Secret Life of Musical Notation, Roberto Poli examines a number of notational conventions—hairpins, sforzandi, rinforzandi, pedals, stretti and rhythmic values—that have perplexed him as a performer, and led him to investigate the possibility that they don’t mean what we assume them to mean.
I found the chapter on hairpins very interesting, and the evidence for there being a problem is persuasive: he shows a number of examples from Chopin’s work where the hairpins don’t make a lot of sense, either because they’re redundant (they show a hairpin as well as a diminuendo, for example) or because they contradict the musical sense: a “diminuendo” hairpin just at the point where you are getting to the high point of a phrase, and to taper off seems expressively illogical.
When is a hairpin not a hairpin?
His conclusion is that hairpins, among some composers and in a certain time period, denoted not [simply] increases or decreases in volume, but agogics, i.e. expressive timing. What we think of as a “crescendo” hairpin would mean pulling out (i.e. slowing down) towards the open end of the hairpin. A “diminuendo” hairpin would mean essentially a tenuto where the open end was, recovering normal tempo towards the end. Two hairpins together, with the open end in the middle, would mean treating the tempo of the bar with rubato. I’m reducing the arguments a little (the chapter is nearly 70 pages long), but that’s roughly it. Importantly, what appear to be accents might in fact be mini hairpins, and as such, are an alternative sign for what we would normally expect to be represented by a tenuto.
As convincing as the arguments are, It all sounds a bit too much like an engaging conspiracy theory to be true, but then he quotes Riemann’s Die Elemente der musikalischen Äesthetik (1900), where
hairpins are described as affecting both dynamic and agogic coordinates. Riemann explained that the symbol might serve different purposes, its agogic function only strengthening the dynamic one and vice versa. He formulated that, should the context in which the hairpin is found convey the necessity, one or the other function can be abandoned, as long as this would not incur a great loss of either parameter. (Poli, 2010, p. 66)
The Lilac Fairy Attendants’ Hairpins
As it happened, the day after I read the chapter on hairpins, I was down to play the Lilac Fairy Attendants from Sleeping Beauty on an Easter School, a piece that is really horrible to play on the piano, and doesn’t get any less horrible when you’ve done it at every summer school for the last 30 years. I was still in two minds about Poli’s thesis about hairpins, but I thought, let’s see how his theory fares on this piece.
Whether or not Tchaikovsky fits in to the league of composers or periods when hairpins or “accents” could mean agogics or not, I am utterly convinced that this is a better way to read the score than any way I have done in the past.
Using Poli’s analyses, one could interpret the “accents” over those notes as meaning tenuto marks, rather than accents. Do that once, and tell me you’re not convinced: what sense does it make to have accents on those notes when the marking is grazioso, and later pianissimo? For years, I’ve obeyed the music and put a little accent of sorts on that note, but when you get to the hairpin starting in bar six, why on earth would you get louder and accent those notes in music like this?
But change those accents to tenuto marks, and pull out the music towards the F#, and give slightly more tenuto on the following B, and then on the bottom line, pull out towards the C#, and it all makes beautiful musical sense. You can play this music without any dynamic accents at all, only agogic ones, and it begins to sound like music again.
Likewise, the accent on the D in voice 2 in the RH in the penultimate bar. A tenuto there makes perfect sense within the waltz, because there would be a slight hold there in the movement, but an accent is neither musical, nor does it give the right tempo feel to the bar that would be appropriate. As Poli points out, we are so conditioned by later performance practice not to conflate dynamics with agogics, that it’s difficult to imagine a time when it was considered perfectly normal and musical to do so.
I compared the orchestral score to Siloti’s arrangement. Siloti has a narrowing hairpin in the last few bars, where the orchestra doesn’t, and it makes musical sense to pull out towards the end a bit. A conductor would do this without needing to be told in the score, but perhaps Siloti wrote his hairpin in the score to give an indication of what would be determined in orchestral practice.
Another rather interesting thing is that the tendency towards metronomic tempi, and the going-out-of-fashion of this kind of agogics, has seeped into ballet as well. It’s a delightful rarity to work with a ballet teacher who lives and breathes expressive timing, but that may be a side-effect of performance practice in music rather than ballet. People my age will remember a time when to slow down at the end of a piece of early music was like wearing brown shoes in the city. We live in less dictatorial times I think, thanks to Taruskin’s diatribes against such things in Text and Act for example, but I hadn’t realised until this Sleeping Beauty experience how much my reading of notation followed such carefully self-policed rules.