Poldowski’s Bloomsbury Waltz

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Nicely timed for International Women’s Day, I have become completely obsessed by a single work by a composer I had never heard of until the other day: Poldowski (1879-1932), the assumed name of Régine Wieniawski, the daughter of the violinist and composer Henryk Wieniawski. I found her through an album recorded by the French counter-tenor Philippe Jaroussky Green: Mélodies Françaises. I loved the songs by her that Jaroussky had recorded and thus started the journey down the rabbit-hole of the piece Bloomsbury Waltz.

Me playing Bloomsbury Waltz. Artwork: Asanka Lekamalage

“Bloomsbury Waltz” is the third piece in a suite of miniatures for piano published in 1923 called Caledonian Market. I thought it was going to be some faux Scottish thing, but thanks to the Pathé archive, I discovered it was a market in North London that finally closed in 1939. All that remains of it now is the clock tower silhouetted on the cover of the sheet music. There’s a great short history of the market here, but the first thing I found was this 1933 film:

Why a Bloomsbury Waltz?

The other pieces in the set—Street Hawkers, Mouth Organs, Humming Tops, Child Talking to the Cat, Musical Box, The Bouncing Ball, Picture of Clowns—sound like the kinds of things you mind encounter in a market, but Bloomsbury Waltz is a bit of an enigma, in every sense including the musical. Why a Bloomsbury Waltz in the middle of this? The beginning is marked Slow and Even, “as though in the distance,” with a pianissimo in every bar, as if the composer knows that you might be tempted to make the music come too near. So is this a portrait of an area of London just about visible from Caledonian Market, but light-years away culturally?

After a few bars, you are instructed to play a melody fragment “mincingly.” I checked the OED to see whether mincing had a subtly different meaning in the 1920s than it does now, but it doesn’t, so it’s difficult not to think that this might be a portrait of “Bloomsbury” in an extended sense. When I considered that possibility, it was easier to think what to do with the slightly out of place 10th leaps in the right hand. I’d just finished watching the brilliant It’s a Sin, where a group of friends have a signature in-joke greeting “La!” with a high-pitched voice and accompanying gesture. In a lightbulb moment, began to think of those tenths in Bloomsbury Waltz as the musical equivalent of that “La!” or whatever they said in 1923. All the other pieces in Caledonian Market have evocations of everyday sounds, so why not here, too?

There are more quirky directions—”wooden” in one bar, and “genteel” in another. Are the imaginary party-goers drunk, and trying to collect themselves and get back to waltzing without pulling each other over? Or should you keep in mind that the “setting” of the piece is Caledonian Market, so that it’s a form of social and geographical commentary, rather than a naïve character portrait? Does this wooden, genteel, mincing, ethereally heard-in-the-distance waltz act as the necessary backdrop against which to hear the raucous or intimate sounds of the market? It’s only a small piece, but it is open to so many interpretations and questions about “subject position.”

[Update on 17th March 2021] It was some days after I’d already published this post that I read Sophie Fuller’s excellent article about Poldowski , where she says that the Bloomsbury Waltz “paints a gently mocking picture of British refinement.” In a review of Poldowski’s performance of Caledonian Market in The Chesterian (a magazine produced by Chester, Poldowski’s publisher), Leigh Henry wrote that “irony glints throughout . . . but there is also a sensitively tender humanity” .

Dark humour?

There’s something very dark about this piece to my ears, like a dysphoric ballroom sequence in a ballet. It reminds me also of bits of John Ireland’s Soho Forenoons that has a melancholy undertone, despite the attempts to be jolly. London has always had that quality to me. You can look at Prague from the top of a hill, and think “Isn’t that gorgeous” in a way that you can’t with London. I’ve recorded several versions of this, and I still can’t decide how slow “slow” should be. Playing for ballet, you get used to the idea that there are almost no limits to how slow a dance could be, particularly a dream-sequence, but in a piano recital in the 1920s? I wonder if anyone would have had the patience.

I wish I could trace all the connections that make me think that these triads conjure up a kind of nostalgic whiff of 1920s London. It can only be by association. A piece came on the radio the other day that sounded like Shostakovich, but then suddenly it sounded—with its ethereal slow cascades of triads—very much like Poldowski. When was it written? Because of those chords, which to me feel very 1920s, I guessed 1923 like the Bloomsbury Waltz, but as the piece progressed to the end, it sounded less like Shostakovich, and much earlier than 1923. But in fact, it was Shostakovich: his piano trio No. 1, written in 1923. The bit I mean is around 10:45:

In Poldowski’s piece, the feeling of darkness extends (to my mind at least) in the way the music ends hanging in the air on an F# minor triad, which also happens to be the key Poldowski chose for Berceuse Armorique, a hauntingly sad lullaby that may have been written in response to her first son’s tragic death aged 2 in 1904. Her life didn’t seem to get much better—her other children, Brenda Dean Paul and “Napper” were “bright young things” bedevilled by drug and alcohol addiction. Poldowski’s marriage ended in 1921, she struggled to make ends meet, and she died in 1932, aged 52, of complications resulting from pneumonia. All in all, not a great advertisement for marrying into the minor British aristocracy, though I’m sure it seemed like a good idea at the time.

On biography, deliberate forgetting, and the web

According to David Mooney, Poldowski’s biography was only restored to the New Grove Dictionary II in 2001 “(which, like those about so many other female composers, had been omitted from the previous edition.” The shocking part of this is that Poldowski wasn’t someone who needed to be fished out of obscurity to satisfy a late 20th century interest in women composers: in her own lifetime, she had been a significant contributor to musical life in London and elsewhere. I can think of a few other composers of her time that I’d happily put in Room 101instead of Poldowski, if New Grove are pressed for space.

One of the most detailed accounts of Poldowski’s musical career available online is here. But the best stuff, I suspect, maybe offline. I can’t find an e-copy of Mooney’s thesis on Poldowski (though others are available that deal with the songs). I was lucky I happened to have a copy of Sophie Fuller’s book at home. Without it, my picture of Poldowski would be so much poorer. Things like that demonstrate to me just what dangers lie behind the assumption that “everything’s available on the internet now.” It isn’t.

References

Fuller, S. (1994). The Pandora guide to women composers: Britain and the United States, 1629-present. Pandora.
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A belated world book day post: 10 things to love about Zotero

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This was going to be a post to celebrate world book day, but I changed my mind—I thought maybe my love affair with Zotero was too much a peculiar obsession of mine. But then as a friend and I were discussing books we’d read recently, he said “I really should make notes on the things I read when I read them. Do you do that? Do you keep notebooks for that kind of thing?”

Funny you should ask that, I said, because I’d started this post on exactly that subject, and then deleted it. So for him, and maybe you, here is why you might want to get Zotero (it’s free) if you haven’t already. I’ve written this post kind of back to front, leaving Zotero’s main uses until 9 and 10. If you’re a student or scholar you’ll already be familiar with it, and if you aren’t, you won’t be interested in that side of it.

1. Using Zotero can protect you against memory loss

Hardly a day goes by when I don’t bang my head figuratively against the desk and go “Argh! Where did I read that?!” The more astonishing or interesting something is, the more I’m convinced that I don’t need to write it down because I won’t forget. But in truth, not only do I forget where I read things, but I misremember them: only the other day, I searched through every book I have by Howard Becker convinced that he’d said the thing I was looking for, only—by the most amazing coincidence—to find it in the book I happened to be reading by Bruno Latour.

I used to keep notebooks as I was reading, I have loads of them, and I felt very virtuous and studious as I used them. But you can’t search a physical notebook. Even worse, I often copied down quotations from books, but because I was enrapt in the book, I didn’t bother to say what it was: at the time, it was the only book I was reading, so I didn’t think it was important. Also, the notebooks filled up with other things, like class outlines for ballet assessments, shopping lists, to-do lists, and notes from lectures.

Now, as soon as I find anything of note in a book that I’m reading (whatever kind of a book it is), I make sure the book is entered in Zotero (using the Wizard tool most of the time, takes only seconds), and then start a notes page on the item (see [2] below).

2. You can use Zotero for notes and quotes

Working with Zotero is the reverse of keeping a notebook in which you record interesting stuff about things you read: you start with the book or article as your object, and add notes or whatever (tags, related items, URLs, pdfs). This way, you’ll never be in the position I described in (1) above, where I’ve got a great quote, but forgot to say where it came from. In Zotero, although you can make “standalone” notes, usually, you’d make them as a “child note” of document in your library. Once you’ve made notes, they’re searchable together with all the other metadata, so if you write a note that says something like “This is the book that Geoff recommended to me, about the hoarder who lived in Croydon,” one day when you are searching for that book but can’t remember the title, you can type in “Geoff” “hoarder” or “Croydon” and come up with that book. If you remembered roughly when you added it to your Zotero library, you could also sort the list by date. Here’s an example of the first few documents that come up if I search for “ballet” in my Zotero:

Example of Zotero search

My best example of this is a quote from a book about Tchaikovsky’s ballet music. It was such a brilliant quotation that I thought I would never forget where I found it. But of course, I did forget. All I could remember was that the line I liked contained the word “conceit.” Having exhausted all the places where the quote might be, I finally typed “conceit” in the search box in Zotero, just in case. And there it was: a note attached to the book which said “This is the book with the line about “conceit” (Roland John Wiley’s Tchaikovsky, 2009). For years, I had been convinced it was in a different book, so all my seemingly rational searching was in vain.

3. Reading your notes in Zotero is a quick way to refresh your memory of a book

The notes section of Zotero allows formatting, so you can indent quotes, use headings, bold and italics and so on. This can enable you to make elegantly laid out notes while you’re reading a book. Some of the most useful things I have in Zotero are copious notes that I made on books and articles as I was reading them. Later, you can recover not just the skeleton information, but also the feelings and thoughts you had about the book at the time. Books, like some relationships, are rarely as interesting the second time around. On the other hand, I’ve discovered that however thrilling a book may have seemed when you first read it, it’s quite possible to forget that you’ve read it, or even heard of it before.

One or two of the blog posts I’ve done on this site came out of making lots of notes and copying and pasting quotes out of books. It was then quite a natural and easy progression from notes to post.

I don’t know why I didn’t start doing this years ago, instead of hitching my wagon to bookmarks in browsers, or the ill-fated Delicious, or other “solutions” which in fact create just more stuff that needs to be located (“Where did I put that bookmark bar with all my useful bookmarks in?”). You can opt to save a “snapshot” with any link that you save. That means that the page itself is stored together with the link, so you can view it offline. That’s important when pages have changed their URL, or you no longer have access to paid content.

5. For musicians: you can use Zotero to catalogue and store digital scores

It took me years to work this one out. As with the Tchaikovsky quote above, it was a single event that made me realize how I could use Zotero for music. I had to reference two different versions of Adam’s Giselle for a post I was writing. Before that post, every time I went to find this score on my computer, I’d end up picking the wrong one, but had to go through every page to find that out. But because I was referring to the score in a blog post, I had to put both of them in Zotero first and add the date and publisher. Then I could add a note in Zotero saying “THIS is the one that has the interpolated solo for x in.”

Likewise, it’s handy for identifying the most useful bits of a score so you don’t have to go through it every time. Here, for example, is a bit of my notes on Clé du Caveau:

6. You can use Zotero to put things that you can’t find a place for

Here are some examples:

  • Handwritten notes: You made some notes on a scrap of paper once with some ideas. You don’t want to throw it away, because there’s a diagram on it. Scan it or photograph it, and add it to your Zotero library. Make a “parent item” with metadata, and add a few notes that say what it is and why you’ve kept it, with some keywords that you’ll remember.
  • Instruction manuals: Most of these are downloadable these days, but sometimes you get bits of paper with things that you know you’re going to want one day, and will almost certainly lose.
  • Recipes
  • Photocopies: In the days before photocopiers could scan things and send them to your phone, did you ever photocopy things, which are now piling up somewhere? Now you can scan them at home, and put them in Zotero.

I think what is so great about Zotero is what it makes you do: as I’ve noted elsewhere, in order to remember things, you need to “code” them in some way. Just the act of putting a document into Zotero, thinking about what it is, why you want it, what metadata might be added to it, what tags or keywords might help you remember it—all these things are “coding” activities are helpful in themselves.

In theory, a lot of this can be achieved by maintaining a good filing system on your computer, and for some things that is the best thing to do, but very often it isn’t, and using Zotero is a better choice.

7. Zotero + ZotPress creates dynamic references on WordPress sites

ZotPress is a plug-in that allows you to use “short codes” to add references to a web page created in WordPress. It pulls out the reference information from your library stored on a cloud server, so that if the details to a particular reference turn out to be wrong or different since you first wrote the reference, those changes that you make in Zotero are automatically updated in your webpages, without you ever having to edit individual pages, because the references on the web page are dynamic fields, not static text. It also builds the reference list automatically in alphabetically order. For an example, see my page on the so-called “Spanish Waltz” — those references at the end of the page, and in the text, were all created automatically by Zotero.

8. Zotero is an amazing reference manager

Zotero is a free reference management app that is an amazingly quick and efficient way of storing data about books, articles, films, web pages, things, conferences, documents. Most of the time, you don’t even need to supply the information yourself: if you have an ISBN number or a DOI (Digital Object Identifier), you just type that in and tap the magic wand, and hey presto, all the catalogue information populates itself in Zotero’s database.

You can also store documents as attachments in Zotero, and you can sort and search. Browser toolbar widgets allow you to quickly download metadata from websites, library catalogues, YouTube etc. Sometimes you have to do a bit of editing—for example, newspaper articles often don’t have scrapable data about authors, so you have to add it yourself. But that’s quite satisfying in a way too.

9. Zotero helps you cite-and-write in essays or articles

This is the main purpose of Zotero, and if you’re doing any kind of course that involves reading, writing, studying of any kind, not using a reference manager is crazy. There are other apps that do some of the same things, (see here for a comparison article), but Zotero is free, and having worked daily with it for over a decade, my admiration for it only grows. There are plenty of sites and videos that will tell you how to use Zotero for writing essays, but one of my favourites is the Zotero Guide from the Old Bailey because it’s very clear and concise. The biggest thing that Zotero can do is insert a reference list in whatever style guide format you need at the end of an essay or article, because it integrates with Word or LibreOffice.

But that’s not my main point in this post—what I love about Zotero is what it can do for your life generally. It can serve as a scrapbook, a commonplace book, a filing cabinet, a personal library of documents of various kinds—recipes, webpages, articles, instruction manuals, together with your private thoughts and commentary on all of those things.

10. Zotero’s “Library Look-up” feature is a huge time-saver

If you are enrolled at an institution that gives you institutional access to online resources, you can set Zotero to check with that institution whether you have access to a reference you have saved in your library (see Preferences>General>OpenURL to set the necessary conditions for your institution). Difficult to explain without trying it, but this is the procedure:

a) Select an item in Zotero—let’s say, a reference to an article.

b) Go to “Library Look-up”

c) If your institution has online access (or physical copies in one of their libraries) you will know about it here. You can then click on the link, and you’ll be taken to the site where the item is available; then you put in your institutional credentials.

Although in theory you can do it the other way round: find the resource (at a journal homepage, for example), then click on the link that says “Log in with your institution,” sometimes this simply doesn’t work, or it’s slow and complicated. Using Library Look-up seems quicker to me, and often offers the chance to download the resource from a different supplier, so that if one link is broken, you know where else you can try.

Why don’t people use Zotero?

Search me. I’ve met so many so-called “digital natives” (i.e. people who were born after the web became a thing) who still do references manually, which to me is like whipping egg-whites by hand when you could use an electric whisk. I can see every reason to keep physical record cards if your purpose is for revision or making connections for lifelong writing projects like Niklas Luhmann’s famous Zettelkasten collection, but for everyday referencing in an essay, or keeping track of what you’ve read, not using Zotero (or equivalent) is crazy.

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A year of ballet playing cards #52 (DK): Slow tendu music

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

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

About the music

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

Slow tendu music: the piano score

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

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

Me playing Playing Card 52

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

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

Posted in A Year of Ballet Playing Cards, Free sheet music for ballet class, Music, Playing for ballet class | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

A year of ballet playing cards #51 (DQ): A coda medley

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Extract of musical score

I’ve been meaning to write this post on ballet codas for almost five years, ever since I had several emails in a row from unconnected pianists asking me for help with “codas”—what are they? What kind of music is required? I sent them a few of the most famous ones and a quick explanation. Further similar emails make me think that there’s probably a good reason to do a general post on codas at the same time as uploading 10 pages of lesser known coda music as part of the 52 cards project. If you want to know more about codas, skip to “What is a Coda

The “new” ballet codas in this playing card

They’re not new, of course, they’re just not the standard ones (which are in the list lower down). So here’s a list of what’s in the playing card. They’re not in any particular order, though I did start by trying to put them into some kind of key-relations, toyed with the idea of doing them in ascending speed, and so on, until I gave up and just put them in as I got round to it.

  • Coda to Act II Swan Lake (White Swan) pas de deux: almost never played, except in Nureyev’s version, where it’s a solo for him, and not played at coda speed. See earlier post. Probably not a go-to for fouettés because it’s too complex, but useful if you want something more interesting than a can-can for a change. The metronome mark of 136 bpm is only to make my Sibelius files play back at a medium coda speed—don’t take it seriously. It’s what happens in the studio that determines the speed.
  • Le Corsaire coda: not new at all, and it’s in the list of “must haves” below, but there’s no typeset version available as far as I know. It’s in this set because originally I was going to put all the classic codas in as well, but then I realized I could just upload the original files from IMSLP—but with the exception of Le Corsaire.
  • Harlem Tulip variation. This is one of my favourite coda-style pieces of music. You can use it for just about anything, and it scales up and down well in tempo terms. It has a history as part of the Gorsky Fille pas de deux (link to earlier post).
  • “Fricasée” from Glazunov’s Les Ruses d’Amour. I first came across this when Ray Barra used it for his Snow Queen in Berlin. It’s an old French tune arranged by Glazunov. As always with Glazunov, the arrangement is terrible and impossible to play, but it’s good for when you need steadier music, and for giving yourself something more exciting to play once in a while.
  • Selections from Graduation Ball (Strauss). There’s actually a fouetté contest in Graduation Ball, so it’s very appropriate (letter N in the playing card). I’ve included bits of the galops and polka-schnells that are used in the finale. Be careful of the one-bar anacrusis if you’re playing it as part of a sequence.
  • Finale Galop from Esmeralda pas de six (Drigo). This is my go-to when someone’s asked for a coda, but a fouetté-type coda is too fast. The chugga-chug-chug-chug rhythm of the first part of this one is the archetypal “galop” rhythm that you find in the galop in Giselle, and it’s handy to keep this rhythm in mind when you need steady galop-type codas.
  • Coda from Esmeralda pas de deux (Pugni, originally from The Pharoah’s Daughter). The history of this pas de deux and its music is mired in mystery and confusion (see earlier post) but here’s the coda, at least. It’s not the greatest music in the world, but that’s not what you came here for anyway.

What is a ballet coda?

“Coda” to a dancer is something like fortissimo double octaves, or octave glissandi to a pianist. Whereas “Coda” to a musician just means a tagged-on ending to a piece of music, in ballet terminology, a coda is the bit at the end of a pas de deux where dancers get to show off all their party tricks. As party tricks go, there’s not much that beats Carlos Acosta and Tamara Rojo doing the coda to Le Corsaire pas de deux in this grainy video, but you could get into endless arguments on YouTube and ballet forums about that, so don’t @me.

Given the place that ballet codas have in the classical repertoire, it’s understandable that when ballet teachers say “Coda,” they are expecting a certain energy and repertoire from you that you can only really get the hang of once you’ve seen a few pas de deux, and understand how much mental and physical energy and years of practising goes into pulling off those tricks. It’s not just a matter of having the right repertoire, it’s about getting into the spirit of the game.

Musically, they are in the polka-schnell, galop and can-can family, so anything with those terms in the title provides good material. From roughly the mid-nineteenth century onwards, a galop was often the finale to a quadrille, and also to a ball generally, so by extension, the the galop-finale found its way into ballets which mirrored the bourgeois tastes and experiences of its main audience .

The tradition continues to this day in the Viennese balls, though I think someone in 19th century Innsbruck might have called the police for all the ballroom traffic code violations in the video below:

Although ballet codas sound pretty much the same when you’re playing for fouettés or tours à la seconde, the subtle differences become apparent when you’re playing them for other steps where they’re commonly used in class—turning steps on the diagonal, for example. Depending on the step and the level of the class, or of individual dancers, you might find you’ve got the wrong kind of coda—or that the teacher maybe shouldn’t have said “coda” in the first place. That’s one of the reasons that in my playing card, I’ve included codas that are useful for when you need to steer out of a skid in class.

Seven famous ballet codas, with sheet music:

Although nearly every late nineteenth-century ballet has a coda in it somewhere, either as the end of a pas de deux, or as the finale to something, you could go through an entire career as a class pianist on the basis of the top three ballet codas in the list that follows below. So for people who are new to codas, here is your don’t-leave-home-without-it list:

  1. Swan Lake “Black Swan” pas de deux coda (Tchaikovsky). In the ballet world, this is the most famous coda of all, since it accompanies the 32 fouettés in the Black Swan pas de deux in Act 3 (though the music is actually Act 1 No. 5 (IV) in the original score). No need to put on your Tchaikovsky face when you play this—it’s flashy, cheap music, brassier than Roll Out the Barrel.
  2. Don Quixote pas de deux coda (Minkus). If statistics were available, we’d probably discover that someone somewhere is playing this every minute of the day somewhere in the world. This is the Coca-Cola of the world of ballet music, and love it or hate it, you can’t go wrong playing this if a coda’s required.
  3. Le Corsaire pas de deux coda (Drigo)[see free download]. For my taste, this is the most exciting and nice to play of all codas. Along with Don Quixote, Le Corsaire is one of the most famous and frequently performed gala pas de deux. There isn’t (as far as I know) a printed version available, so I’ve included it in my “52 cards” codas (see download above)
  4. Tchaikovsky pas de deux. “Tchaikovsky pas de deux” is the name Balanchine gave to a pas de deux he choreographed to music interpolated into Swan Lake by Tchaikovsky1, modelled on the structure of music written by Minkus which he didn’t want soiling his ballet, thank you very much. It’s only rarely included in Swan Lake itself, and is more famous as the Balanchine piece, which is a shame because it’s nice music. It’s useful because you can play it almost in its entirety without cutting.
  5. Don Quixote finale to Act 1. A solid and reliable Minkus coda, with a tricky but satisfying middle eight and a whole-bar anacrusis, which isn’t the Act 3 one above, and therefore less likely to irritate everyone (including you).
  6. Coppélia Act 3 finale. I bet a few dancers or teachers will say “Oh surely not!” but you can never have enough codas, and this is a good long one, which has a lot of variety in it, as well as being somehow really well-designed for a number of different coda steps.
  7. Nutcracker Act 2 Coda. It feels weird playing this outside the Christmas period, but I’m putting it here because it’s one of those pieces you should start learning as early as possible if you think you might ever play for a rehearsal: after the first page, it’s got horrible semiquaver passages in it that dancers know so well, they could almost sing them to you note perfect, so you can’t just fudge it. You have to play them, as well as look at the dancers, and alter your tempo as necessary. No dancer will praise you for getting it right (except other pianists, who may also privately hate you for doing so), they’ll just kill you with stares if you play the wrong speed.

Coda: a couple of warnings

If you ever play for solo rehearsals, it’s quite likely that coach/teacher/dancer will say right at the end, just as you’re packing to leave, “Oh, shall we just do the coda? We’ve got time. . . ” so be prepared—even if you’re told it’s a solo rehearsal, bring along the coda too, not just the solo. Sometimes a coach will just say “Her fouettés” and expect you to know exactly what they mean, so if you haven’t got a marked score, look at a video and see where the men’s and women’s parts of the coda are. And when it comes to Nutcracker, practice like mad, even if the rehearsal is a year away. I’ve been doing this for 30 years and I still can’t play it without either tying my fingers in knots or getting out of time.

And lastly: I’m not sure if anyone still does this, but there used to be an old Russian tradition of stopping the coda after the fouettés regardless of what the music is doing, so the audience can applaud. It’s worth watching this video of Osipova and Saranov doing the Corsaire coda to see how bizarre codas can be out in the ballet wild: the music stops after the fouettés, there is stormy, prolonged applause (“бурные, продолжительные аплодисменты” as the phrase was for Soviet political speeches, back in the day), she goes off, comes back for another call, exits, and then Sarafanov comes on, and the music resumes—at what feels like double the speed. Not to mention that he’s already done what looks like his best trick during the musical introduction, and appears to start properly a couple of beats after the tune. This is all perfectly normal in ballet, and nothing to worry about, unless you’re a ballet pianist trying to make sense of the choreography. Don’t try. Just say “would you like it fast, medium, or slow?” and see how it goes.

Supercoda (coda to the coda above)

In a couple of productions of The Nutcracker, the term “supercoda” is used to mean the bit in the finale where everyone comes on for about 16 counts to do their farewells—so if you’re the Prince and the Sugarplum Fairy, you’ll have had one coda at the end of the pas de deux, and another “supercoda” in the finale to the ballet as a whole (the last waltz). “Supercoda” isn’t a technical term, nor has it probably got any currency outside the two productions I’m talking about, but the concept is widespread, and worth knowing about if you play for company rehearsals.

Alternatives to traditional Coda music

Once you’ve got the hang of what ballet codas are both balletically and musically, you can begin to collect your own repertoire, something that is discussed in the Ballet Piano Podcast Episode 17 on “Virtuosity,” together with a Spotify playlist and transcript made by yours truly). You can find the tempo and feel of the galop/polka schnell/can-can in opera, musicals and pop music of all kinds, and you can also feed in topical musical references as different dancers appear. The finale of Excelsior features a “battalion of female dancers wearing a balletic version of the American, Russian, French, English and Italian army uniforms, performing emboités, fouettées and ronds de jambe to a frenzied adaptation of each national anthem” . Have a look at how Marenco (composer of Excelsior) slips in and out of God Save the Queen in 2/4 on page 130 of the finale for a masterclass in ballet music-butchering. I love it.

Philip Tagg’s analysis of rave music in comparison to seemingly unrelated genres (like polka!) has always helped me to think out of the box about what might work as alternatives to traditional coda music:

Tempos generally range between 116 and 144 bpm, the most common pulse rate being around 132, i.e. much faster than a march and quicker than most disco. It’s about the same basic pulse as up-tempo gospel in 2/4 metre, or as fast jump numbers from the forties and early fifties. This is also the same sort of speed as a bluegrass breakdown or as the polka. However, of all older forms of fast dance, it is probably most like the reel and breakdown because, like these, rave music also has a semiquaver surface rate in 2/4 (4/4). But whereas a constant banjo, fiddle or whistle run the reel’s semiquavers melodically, rave puts them over percussively or as fast minimal riffs on sampled hi-hat or, less frequently, as sequenced figures assigned to some distinct sampled sound.

Nonetheless, while all kinds of music can work for ballet codas, there’s a lot to be said for just sticking to the well-known, because playing actual coda music can just trigger the right frame of mind in someone who’s got just one chance in a ballet class to see if they can pull off 32 fouettés. At first, you might also want to play safe, just in case—as happened to a colleague of mine—it turns out you’re playing for a teacher who’s going to glare at you venomously and shout “THIS IS NOT AN OPERETTA” if you play Offenbach for a coda step.

Apart from dodging bullets, there’s another reason to stay fairly close to home in style: you’ll see that both Tchaikovsky and Minkus put a harmonic “floor” in their codas that maintains a sense of groundedness, which makes sense: the last thing you want while you’re flying around the stage is for the music to go flying off as well. If you want an example of the worst thing/way to play imaginable for a coda—however remarkable it is as a musical feat—György Cziffra’s performance of the Liszt chromatic galop (see below) takes some beating. Ballet teachers: this is why you get the wrong thing if you say “galop” to a pianist.

References

Ertz, M. A. B. (2010). Nineteenth-century Italian ballet music before national unification: Sources, style, and context. [PhD, Oregon]. https://scholarsbank.uoregon.edu/xmlui/handle/1794/11296
Poesio, G. (1997). Galop, gender and politics in the Italian ballo grande. Reflecting Our Past; Reflecting on Our Future: Proceedings of the Society of Dance History Scholars 20th Annual Conference, 151–156. https://d1z6eg75w3adwx.cloudfront.net/images/1997-SDHS-PROC.pdf
Tagg, P. (1994). Debate: From refrain to rave: the decline of figure and the rise of ground1. Popular Music, 13(2), 209–222. https://doi.org/10.1017/S026114300000708X

  1. It’s included in the Kashkin score as an appendix, along with the Russian dance. It’s listed as Act 3 No. 19(a) on recordings, but it’s not always included. You won’t find it in the original 1877 Tchaikovsky piano reduction []
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The wonderful Library of Dance

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Just over two years ago, I wrote a post here about Richard Powers’s amazing page of downloadable historical dance sources, wondering how I could have missed such a vast, terrific, and frankly indispensable website. I’ve now discovered yet another, even larger resource—as it happens, maintained by former students of Powers—that is continuing to blow my mind as I explore it.

The Library of Dance is just that—an enormous online library of materials for social dance, instructions, manuals, videos, music. For me, and probably for other musicians, the big attraction is the Vintage Dance Manuals page, maintained by Nick Enge, since the out of copyright sources often include music notation as well, and there are currently over 1800 downloadable sources—a source being an entire book. Although the title says “Vintage,” in fact, it’s a bibliography of manuals from the 15th century to the present day.

At the time of writing this post, there are over 6,100 sources cited, 3,351 of them indexed: “indexed” means that they have provided an index of all the dances included in a particular manual, with hyperlinks to subpages in some cases. For example, under Arbeau’s Orchésographie you’ll find not just indexes to different editions, but subpages that give renderings of the dance instructions and most usefully, an embedded link to a Spotify track that is particularly suitable for dancing. That alone makes the site invaluable. Just one example: see the Branle Pinagay from Orchésographie page.

It’s not just the sheer quantity of materials that’s available here, it’s the loving attention to detail and comprehensiveness— you’ll indexes of the many editions of Playford, and if there is more than one online source or format for a download, they’ll provide the relevant links.

The Library of Dance, free to all, is a wonderful example of what the web can be at it’s very best. Thank you, Melissa and Nick Enge!

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Madge Gillings and Mrs Bagot Stack on record

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It’s nearly ten years since I first heard and blogged about Mary [Mollie Bagot Stack] and her Women’s League of Health and Beauty—an organization so successful that they had shows every year in the Albert Hall, and displays in Hyde Park and Wembley Arena. Since that post was published, I’ve discovered a couple of other really wonderful online treasures related to the League.

The first is Adele Caroll’s short documentary about it, This is the League that Jane Joined, which includes an extensive interview with Prunella Stack (1914–2010) who, after her mother died, took on the League and was responsible for its enormous and long-lasting success. There are also interviews with women who had been in the league in the 1930s, and were still doing the exercises decades later, and reconstructions of some of the exercises danced to the records made by the Linguaphone Institute at some time in the early 1930s, with Mollie Bagot Stack giving the instructions.

Thanks to a collector who has the whole set of those records, you can now hear them for yourself. I love the way he presents the records: you literally watch him put the record on the player and hear it play in real time.

It’s hard to pick out a favourite bit—though I love the way that you have to keep your “exercise calendar” card to hand, on which different positions are labelled with letters of the alphabet. Mrs Bagot Stack calls out the relevant letters in perfect RP, perfectly on the beat, not so different from a ballet exercise, but there’s something wonderfully bureaucratically efficient about the lettering system and the way it’s used to mediate between body, language and music. Occasionally, especially when the movements get faster, she only just manages to get all the words out in time, but she never falters, never flusters.

I also love the way that the breathing exercises—very practically—being with blowing your nose:

The pianist on these records, Madge Gillings, is fantastic. Apart from being responsive to the split second to Mrs Bagot Stack’s voice, as a pianist she has all the elan of Carroll Gibbons and a lot of his style as well, which makes me wonder whether she was inspired by him—or did everyone play like that in those days? Her playing reminds me of Carroll Gibbons accompanying Noël Coward’s Poor Little Rich Girl. That wonderful stride and swing that seems to just fly and skim over the keyboard is in Madge Gillings’ playing, and I wish I knew more about her.

I don’t know if it’s Madge’s voice that comes in with a waltz version of Loch Lomond at 24.38, but it’s just one of many lovely curiosities on this very special collection.

When I first started writing about music and ballet, I used to have a mental construct that I thought of as the “Les Sylphides gap”—the distance in time between that ballet’s first performance in 1909, and the historical era (the Romantic ballet) that it was meant to celebrate (a key date being La Sylphide, 1832), and the lifespan of the composer of the underlying music (Chopin, 1810–1849). My interest in that figure—which is approximately 70–80 years, is that when Fokine created Les Sylphides he was looking back to an earlier period, recreating it in ballet. It’s astonishing (to me, at least) to think that we are able now to hear and see (through some of the Pathé newsreels on YouTube, for example) people, events and music that exceeds the “Les Sylphides gap” by several years. Here, over 80 years ago, are members of the League leg-kicking to Jeepers Creepers (a song less than a year old at the time). I’m longing to know whether there was a live band, or if the music had been pre-recorded for the event—the tempo changes are tricky, but efficient.

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