Bugatti Step by Jaroslav Ježek, and the joy of musical journeys

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I said it had been a week for finding things: well, it’s not over yet., apparently. 

The Bugatti Step

As this will be a longish ramble about finding music, I’ll cut to the chase. The Bugatti Step by Jaroslav Ježek is a fantastic piece of piano music that you could use for class, and the sheet music is available online. I’m not usually guarded about sharing ideas for class music, but in this case I have to confess it’s taken me weeks to do so, because I love it so much, I don’t actually want my colleagues to have it in their repertoire as well. But I can’t help it. It’s too good not to share. 

How I discovered Ježek and the Bugatti Step

What prompted me to finally share the score was that the route to finding it (and other music by Ježek) has been so delightful and interesting. Not long after I vacated Facebook and Twitter a few weeks ago, I was listening to the radio in the car, and heard Barry Humphries talking about his forthcoming show at the Barbican, a presentation of music from the Weimar period, including some of my favourite cabaret songs and composers. As I love the music of this period, I thought I can’t possibly miss it. I checked the dates. Then, because I wasn’t on Facebook anymore, I wrote an old-fashioned email to someone who I thought would appreciate this as much as me, but who is probably the busiest person I know, and lives hundreds of miles away. I don’t suppose by any chance you’re in London when this is on, and free? As it turned out, he was, and so we went, and it was wonderful. 

Barry Humphries presents this collection of music as if you’re having a pleasant after dinner chat in his sitting room (or, if you’ve ever been there,  the Kleine Philharmonie bar in Berlin, which in turn looks like the set of Cabaret). The story he tells is wonderful: as a young man, he discovered this music in second-hand shops in Melbourne, remnants of the possessions of  Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany, who had clearly loved the music enough to bring it with them. He fell in love with it, and has ever since nurtured a fascination with it, leading eventually to this show. 

One of the first pieces in the programme was Bugatti Step, played as a piano solo. I couldn’t help thinking, this is wonderful music in itself, but it would also be great for class, so I made a mental note to check it out afterwards. The composer, Jaroslav Ježek, (known as “the Czech Gershwin”) as so many others, was forced in the late 1930s to flee  the Nazi occupation of Czechoslavakia and go to New York, having until then been a huge contributor to the Czech music and theatre scene. 

What comes across as Humphries introduces the music, is a sense of loving and cherishing these pieces, of giving them the value and the hearing they deserve; a will for them  and their composers not to be forgotten. It’s infectious, but It’s something more than enthusiasm; there’s a warmth and intelligent sensitivity about Humphries’ advocacy of this music that sometimes helps you hear it almost too closely for comfort; you hear with the ears of those who wrote it and heard it at the time. It’s hard not to draw parallels between the politics of then and now. 

Rendezvous with Ježek in Prague

So now fast-forward a little (I went to the concert on 23rd July, and it’s now 10th August), and I see an former Czech colleague of mine at the studios in Prague—she used to play for class  when the ballet masterclasses in Prague that I’m at now first began. Years ago, she had told me  where I could find a second-hand music shop in the city. I asked her it was still there. She checked on her computer; she wasn’t sure, but  there’s this bookshop  in Wenceslas Square No. 42 that has a new and second-hand music department. By chance, I was walking there in the afternoon, so popped in. 

Ježek: 81 songs and dances from the jazz age (book)

The book of Ježek’s music I found in Prague today

And blow me down, one of  first things I see on the shelves is a book of 81 songs and dances by Ježek, arranged for piano byu Sidonius Karez.   (81 melodií a tanců z modrého pokoje). I had to buy it, even if I wasn’t sure what I was going to do with it.  I’m glad I did. It’s a wonderful book, lovingly and carefully put together, with interesting panels of information about Ježek and photographs of him and fellow musicians and performers from the Liberated Theatre in Prague. I can just about work out what it all means, with a bit of help from Google Translate, and my background as a Slavic languages graduate. I start to search for the original 78rpm recordings on YouTube. The music is just wonderful. 

Musical journeys

I’m telling the story because it’s not the first time that my route to finding music has been face to face, material, hand to hand. Meeting people, going to bookshops, being present somewhere. If I hadn’t been to that concert at the Barbican, I might never have heard of Ježek, or had the chance to be thrilled by his music. Barry Humphries found the music in a second-hand shop where it had come from Europe in the 1930s. And now, I’m finding more of it, actually in Prague, in a bookshop, because I bumped into my colleague and she recommended  that bookshop. I would not have known what I was looking at, had it not been for someone bringing that music to Melbourne in a suitcase, and Barry Humphries looking after it, and years later, presenting it at the Barbican. If I hadn’t got off Facebook and made the effort to make arrangements to see a friend in real life, I wouldn’t be writing this now. 

There are other ways to find music, of course, and YouTube is great for researching what has already triggered your interest. But for me, at least, the music you discover like this, passed from hand to hand, music that you can touch, or music that you hear in the physical presence of others, is somehow always more precious. Barry Humphries tells a story in the show about how his mother didn’t like library books “because you didn’t know where they had been.”  For him, that was precisely what he liked about them, and that was the appeal of the music he had found in the second-hand shops that led eventually to this concert. 

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Grands pas des éventails from Le Corsaire: some piano materials

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La forêt enchantée 

It’s been a bit of a week for finding things. I had a lovely email from a visitor to my site following the last few posts, asking if I knew where to find a piano score of La forêt enchantée which provides some of the material for the Grand pas des éventails in Le Corsaire (see clip below—it’s not in all Corsaires). The only one I knew of, from the wonderful www.balletmusic.ru site, was incomplete, and frustratingly, it’s some of the best bits that are missing. But it niggled me: I had had a score of the waltz once, with all the pages intact—I’ve even recorded it—so like a dog with a bone, I pursued it. Sure enough, here it is, a complete, downloadable piano reduction of La forêt enchantée from the Sergeyev collection at Harvard. As if that’s not enough, it’s got the dedication  “to my dear friend Nikaloi Grigorovich Sergeyev from Riccardo Drigo, St Petersburg, 20.1.1910” on the inside title page, in the most elegant cyrillic script. 

 

 

The Pygmalion solo

Part of the piano score of Drigo's Pygmalion variation, used in Le Corsaire

The beginning of the “Pygmalion” variation: click the score to download

Download the “Pygmalion variation” (piano reduction, free pdf ” 

There’s a solo from the Grand pas des éventails (at 13’15” in the video clip above) from another ballet, Pygmalion that I just happen to have done a piano reduction of. It’s short and sweet, and you can’t use it for much else except the variation, because it soon hares off into a coda, but it’s rather nice. And I can guarantee someone will ask you to play it and there won’t be a score anywhere in sight. 

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A year of ballet playing cards #37: A grand polonaise by Nápravník

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Screenshot of the polonaise from Dubrovsky by Eduard Nápravník

You’d think that if ballet teachers have a mental model of how a polonaise goes, this would be a distillation of all the polonaises they’d ever heard, the top of the bell curve, just as when you go to buy a door, you expect that the shop will have a selection of them that resembles your idea of what a door is, even if the panelling and materials are different. Polonaises like the teacher’s model should be a dime a dozen in the repertoire, you’d think. 

But they’re not. As I’ve written elsewhere there’s hardly a polonaise in the ballet repertoire that you can play for class straight out of the box.  They have all kinds of little annoyances in them—2 bar fills, 10 bar phrases, four bar phrases, 5-phrase sections. They’re too slow, or too fast, too lyrical, or too complex rhythmically. So you hunt again, and find another breed of polonaise that, if it was a food product, would have the ominous word flavour on the label. Polonaise flavour. Contains polonaise flavouring.  A teacher wrote to me recently, asking why it was that the grand battement on a polonaise she’d tried out for class didn’t work—she wanted to cross-phrase it so the leg went up on 1, 3 and 5 across a two-bar phrase (i.e. 136—a hemiola, in musical terms). She knew exactly what she was doing, but it didn’t work. I wasn’t there, but I would put money on the reason being that the pianist used a polonaise-flavoured room spray, rather than the eau de parfum. 

Triple meter and the polonaise —(trigger warning: meter theory, including some hemiola) 

Metrically speaking, the eau de parfum of the ballet teacher’s polonaise is one in which all the beats of the bar are equal, so that if you want to cross-phrase, hemiola fashion, you can. The classic case from the pianist’s repertoire is the opening section of  Chopin’s A major “military polonaise” Op. 40 No. 1, or the final polonaise in Tchaikovsky’s Suite No. 3 (used in Balanchine’s Theme and Variations). But many polonaises aren’t like this. They tend, like the middle section of the Chopin polonaise I just mentioned, towards a kind of unequal meter, with the first part twice as long as the second (2+1). Even if you try to  play with metronomic accuracy, there’s going to be a pull towards unevenness, either on the part of the performer or listener. 

This is a much bigger issue than it might appear on the surface. In Beating Time & Measuring Music in the Early Modern Era , Roger Grant devotes a chapter to “a renewed account of unequal triple meter” which sets out the problem. Somewhere in the 16th century, triple meter became “grounded in a basic inequality.” Beating duple time consisted of an equal lowering and raising of the hand, whereas triple time involved a lowering (i.e. a downbeat) of double the length of the upbeat. In this form, “triple meter was an unequal meter, similar in nature to the unbalanced meters in five or seven with which we are familiar in the twenty-first century” 

Now get this: 

In theoretical writings of the past forty years, however, triple meter no longer garners special treatment. It has become, for the most part, an equivalent of duple meter with different cardinality (that is, a different number of beats per measure). In these theories, triple meter is an isochronous meter—all of its parts are equal in length. This is the result of recent scholarship’s heavy theoretical investment in the properties of equal division and graduated hierarchy.

Although Grant is here comparing theoretical perspectives, as a ballet pianist, you see this played out all the time in practice, and the polonaise problem I outlined above can be analysed in precisely these terms. The teacher has a conception of triple meter—in the polonaise, at least—in which the 3/4 bar is an isochronous meter, i.e. three equal beats. A lot of music in 3/4 isn’t like this. There is an unequal ebb and flow in the bar, a proportion of 2:1. Even if the pulse you’re playing to is even, the rhythm of the music draws you into this pattern, so that if you’re trying to cross-phrase your grands battements, the music pulls in another direction. Nonetheless, there are some polonaises which are examples of isochronous triple meter, and Tchaikovsky, when he’s polonaising, tends towards this pattern. The trouble is, most of them aren’t good for class for one reason or another (including overfamiliarity if you’re playing for a company). 

Enter Nápravník, on an isochronous triple meter

This one  by Nápravník is one of the rare pieces I’ve found in years of searching that comes close to the model of the ballet teacher’s polonaise without sounding like it’s been knocked together out of two-by-fours and MDF. Czech by birth, Eduard Nápravník was  principal conductor at the Mariinsky Theatre, and conducted many of Tchaikovsky’s works, including the first performance of the 1st piano concerto, and the posthumous performance of the Pathètique. At the double bill premiere of Iolante and The Nutcracker, Nápravník conducted the opera, Drigo the ballet. 

 

The  date of Nápravník’s opera Dubrovsky, 1895, suggests that if there’s any influence, it must have been from Tchaikovsky to Nápravník. But with Tchaikovky’s documented respect for Czech composers—he “unreservedly praises Saint-Saëns, Delibes, Massenet, Grieg, Svendsen, Dvořák, and in the latter’s train Zdeněk Fibich, Karel Bendl, Karel Kovařovic, and Josef Bohuslav Foerster”   and  for Nápravník, it’s not inconceivable that perhaps some of the influence flowed in the other direction.  

Like so many other polonaise composers, Nápravník doesn’t write in blocks of 4 x 8 bar phrases, so I’ve had to cut it in places, and double up a four-bar phrase in another to make it usable for class. It was very hard to decide how to do this without committing a crime against music, but I think it’s worth it.  Some of the cuts and repeats feel criminal to me, but I think of all the times in real life productions where choreographers have cut or repeated, and once you’ve heard it a couple of times, you get used to it. Cuts, like murder, get easier after the first time. 

I haven’t simplified the arrangement, as if the exercise is slow,  you might be grateful of having something to play while you wait for the next beat to arrive. There’s no getting away from it, polonaises are just difficult to play, particularly this kind. There’s a rather lovely trio section in the middle which has echoes of one of the servant girls’ chorus (“Dyevitsy krasavitsy”) in Onegin. Given that Nápravník conducted the first performance of that opera, and would have known it well, the similarity is perhaps not surprising. 

Bibliography

Grant, R. M. (2014). Beating time & measuring music in the early modern era. Oxford ; New York: Oxford University Press.
Taruskin, R. (1997). Defining Russia musically: Historical and hermeneutical essays. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
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A year of playing cards #23: A fruity waltz by Tcherepnin / Cherepnin (10h)

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Screen grab of the sheet music of Grande valse by Tcherepnin

Click on the link to download

What a difference an e makes: the difference between a grand waltz and a grande valse

Ballet teachers often ask for a “grande valse” or a “grande waltz” or a “big waltz” for grand allegro, probably as a result of someone telling them to do so on a teacher training course, but to be honest, it’s a misleading and much misunderstood term.  It’s clear from the way that many teachers make a kind of Popeye-flexing-his-biceps gesture as they say “grande valse” that by grande they mean something with oomph, or butch, or—to use a phrase I haven’t heard for years—to give it some welly. 

But the  grande in grande valse in compositional terms refers to the scale and nature of the work (i.e. long and discursive) rather than its dynamics or capacity to be used for big jumps. And there’s the problem, because when composers write large-scale works, they usually introduce contrast, interest, variation, symphonic-style development, the unexpected, including changes of speed, and the playful expansion of melodic material. For that reason, many of the pieces in the concert repertoire called grande valse won’t be that useful for  ballet class, given that what is needed is a succession of 16-count phrases of similar dynamics for each group of dancers as they come across the room. Composers of grandes valses don’t last long before the temptation kicks in to try some canonic imitation or rhythmic dissonance over a pedal point. If you’re trying to do grand allegro, or play for it, this is often more of an annoyance than an interesting feature. A notable exception is Chopin’s grande valse op. 18 No. 1, which has a lot of usable sections in it—but on the other hand, it’s not very “grande” in terms of tempo and oomph. 

Tcherepnin’s Grande valse: the best bits

Tcherepnin is unfortunately no exception to the general rule (incidentally, it should really be Cherepnin—the ‘T’ comes from French transliteration, where the T is needed to make the “ch” sound, otherwise it would be pronounced “Sherepnin”; Chaikovsky, a.k.a. Tchaikovsky is another example).  No sooner has he stated his big tune, than he begins to take it apart, like a dog pulling at a lead while you’re trying to head straight through the park. Depending on the exercise, there might be times when this can work, and in principle, If you’re going to have 10 minutes of grand allegro, much nicer to be able to play stuff that develops and changes than keep repeating yourself. For that reason, I originally intended to transcribe the whole waltz: it’s wonderful. However, I had to keep cutting and cutting until there were only two pages left.  In grand allegro, you can’t suddenly drop from fortissimo voluptuousness into the coy experiment in the example below. It’s an example of what Christopher Hampson once called being “musical” in a pejorative sense (see earlier post on “Being too musical“). The grande valse concert repertoire is littered with them, which is fine if you’re listening rather than dancing. 

Screen grab of a section of Cherepnin's Grande Valse from Le Pavillon d'Armide

Tcherepnin giving in to the temptation to be ‘too musical’

However, the first couple of pages of this is great for a certain kind of travelling (rather than jumpy) grand allegro, and it’s wonderfully dramatic, wistful and film-scoreish in a similar vein to Geoffrey Toye’s 1934  Haunted Ballroom waltz . 

Listen to Tcherepnin’s Grande Valse from Le Pavillon d’Armide

Many of the Youtube classical music links I post eventually disappear for copyright reasons, so listen while you can. 

 

 

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Diamond fairy variation: new piano arrangement

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My new version of the Diamond Fairy from Sleeping Beauty. Click to download free piano reduction.

I had to play this yesterday at a competition, and surprisingly, it’s the first time I’ve had to do it in public. It’s vile to play. Nowadays, if I’m faced with something like this, I go back to the orchestral score to see if there’s anyway I can make the job easier for myself, or better for the audience. Click here for my new version

Siloti’s pianistic homage versus a workable ballet reduction

The first thing I noticed about the difference between the orchestration and Siloti’s arrangement is that while Siloti’s hovers up the top end of the piano within the span of two hands, in the orchestra, those left hand Gs are in fact octaves, an octave lower: forte bassoons, arco bass and celloThe cost of his accurate representation of detail in the flutes and clarinets is the loss of the off-beat chords played by oboes, cor anglais and three, sometimes four, horns. 

Siloti's arrangement of the Diamond Fairy

Siloti’s arrangement of the Diamond Fairy from Sleeping Beauty (Act 3 No. 23, Var. 4)

Siloti’s transcription works both as a piano piece, and as a credit to what is most compositionally interesting about Tchaikovsky’s work here. But as the accompaniment to a variation, and for the dance accompanist, so help me God, it doesn’t work at all. You feel so utterly ungrounded, and so focused on the wrong things: to accompany a variation you first of all need a beat that is so strongly and safely grasped that if you need to change it, you can. Without it, it’s like trying to throw a pot with one hand; trying to steer your way out of a skid with only one hand on the wheel. 

The flutes and clarinet figure in the Diamond Fairy reduced to a manageable handful.

When I make arrangements like this, I do a constant accounting exercise: how much is lost if I take this out, how much gained? What’s the trade off between having a bass at the right pitch, and hearing the clarinet? I’m fairly convinced that you could get away with reducing it right down to the example on the left, and no-one would be any the wiser. Then it’s literally safe in your hands, rather than your hands being preoccupied with precarious detail, and you can use the other hand to play the bass at the right pitch, or give an impression of the horn chords; give it some weight, some “floor” in the music. 

Forget the clarinets: that’s a pretty thumping offbeat accompaniment in the oboes, cor anglais, bassoons and horns.

Less is more—except when it’s not

Considering how many times pianists around the world have to play the Tchaikovsky ballets in rehearsals and at vocational schools, it’s astonishing that we are still stuck with the first piano reductions, with all their inadequacies and problems and unsuitabilities. To my knowledge, my version of the Black Swan variation is the first publicly available reduction of one of the most famous solos in the repertoire. We all struggle along in our corners, doing our own ill-informed thing, assuming the score is right or the best possible, and only thinking about alternatives when problems occur.

Galina Bezuglaya, head of the Vaganova Academy music department is one of the few people to have committed anything to print about this   Amongst other things, she points out that it’s mainly other pianists rather than composers (or ballet accompanists) who make arrangements, which will bring a particular perspective to the reduction; Glazunov piano reductions are difficult because he tends think orchestrally, not pianistically (on the other hand, sometimes less is less: in the Raymonda Act 3 Hungarian coda, you really want to hear a good thumping bassline in the correct (low) octave); Tchaikovsky spent half a summer simplifying Taneev’s piano reduction of The Nutcracker, because—as he said in a letter to Ippolitov-Ivanov—”Taneev’s is so difficult that it’s impossible to play” [сделал облегченное полное переложение балета, ибо С. И. Танеев настоящее сделал до того трудно, что нельзя играть]. I’ve been typesetting a lot of Nutcracker recently for a job, and every time I go to put back in something that Tchaikovsky took out of Taneev’s arrangement, I end up taking it out again when I try it out on the piano.  Piotr Ilich knew what he was doing. 

Tchaikovsky and Franco-Italian hypermeter once again

On a different point, what continues to flummox me (which I can do nothing about) is trying to find the harmonic, melodic shape of the opening phrase. If you place the centre of it in the wrong place, you can wrong-foot yourself badly, and be tempted to miss out a beat. I am increasingly convinced that what’s happening here is a factor of Tchaikovsky’s tendency to write in what Rothstein calls Franco-Italian hypermeter . There is a very subtle interplay here of meter and grouping that will fall apart if you try to think only of a single metrical accent. There are (at least) two, and they are in counterpoint with each other (see also this post and the one’s branching out from it). I still haven’t worked out a fail-safe way to think of this phrase, I can only get through it safely by not thinking about it. All offers of advice gratefully received. 

Feedback

If you’ve suffered at the hands of the Diamond Fairy variation before, I’d be interested to know what you think of my arrangement. I deliberately didn’t post this until I’d actually done it in performance. It seemed to work for me, the best proof being that I felt able to adjust the tempo from the corner of my eye, something that I’d not been able to do with Siloti’s. Don’t take the notes in the right hand too literally: anything that approximates the harmony will do. You can steal and copy some notes from the harmony in the left hand, leave things out. I have no idea what I really played in the heat of the moment. 

References

Bezuglaya, G. (2005). Kontsertmeister baleta [the ballet repetiteur]. Saint Petersburg: A. Y. Vaganova Academy of Russian Ballet. Retrieved from http://www.balletmusic.narod.ru/library_books_Bezuglaya.htm#
Rothstein, W. (2011). Metrical Theory and Verdi’s Midcentury Operas. Dutch Journal of Music Theory, 16(2), 93–111. Retrieved from http://upers.kuleuven.be/sites/upers.kuleuven.be/files/page/files/2011_2_1.pdf
Rothstein, W. (2008). National metrical types in music of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. In D. Mirka & K. Agawu (Eds.), Communication in eighteenth-century music (pp. 112–159). Cambridge UK; New York: Cambridge University Press.

 

 

 

 

 

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