Judith Espinosa, the fishermen’s wives and the waltz

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As allegro was about to begin during a ballet class yesterday, I started to smirk thinking about something I’d read in Derek Parker’s fascinating book, The First 75 Years of the Academya brief history of the Royal Academy of Dance published on its 75th anniversary in 1995. It was a reminiscence about the teaching methods of Judith Espinosa, who “spoke Cockney in the old Dickensian manner” (pronouncing the letter v as w, apparently), and was rarely seen without a cigarette. For those used to universal smoking bans, it’s hard to believe that this was probably in a ballet studio, but even I remember having an ashtray on the piano during company class. In addition to chain-smoking and speaking Dickensian cockney, she also shouted so loud that people feared for her vocal health. 

Put all these together, and now imagine the way that she set her choreographic “scenas” in class:

“You’re fishermen’s wives—you’re waiting on the beach for the boats, but there’s news that all the men have been drowned in a storm; you’re wild with grief. [To the pianist] We’ll have a waltz.” The First 75 Years of the Academy, p. 12

The style is hilarious, but what I was smirking at just as much was the familiarity—to anyone who’s played for class—of the abrupt return to musical mundanity with “we’ll have a waltz.” 

 

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“Lyrical”—an update on the term “lyrical dance” from Dance Chronicle

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Those who remember my post about the “lyrical waltz” and the fuzzy meaning of the term “lyrical” as applied to dance generally, will be delighted to know that there is a wonderful article by Jennifer Fisher on lyrical dance. The title was enough to confirm for me that it must be a gem: “When Good Adjectives Go Bad: The Case of So-called Lyrical Dance.” 

There are a thousand articles like this yet to be written, ones which take the terms we are used to hearing in everyday life in the dance world, and putting some conceptual flesh on them based on research out there among the leotards, sequins and competitions. There is much that is quotable and interesting, but I particularly love her analysis of articles in Dance Spirit magazine, which includes this observation: 

Contradictions sometimes arise in these articles that resound with “how-to” advice. “It’s not how high you can kick,” one competition judge and choreographer advises, “it’s [about] telling the story through your face and emoting with your upper body.” But if you watch much dance labeled “lyrical,” you will see that it is also about how high you can kick, because kicks are rarely anything but high as can be. (Fisher, 2014, p. 328)

It’s funny but also a bit depressing that you could say much about the ballet world: for all the stuff about “ballet is more than acrobatics,” it’s hard, much of the time, to see what the “more than” consists of, and to what degree. 

 

 

 

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The attentional commons and Leicester Square tube station

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Leicester Square tube station, Northern Line escalator, free of adverts

Leicester Square tube station on 12th April 2019: note the lovely lack of adverts

Nothing to do with music, except that I have to go to Leicester Square several times a week on my way to piano playing jobs, so when something changes about the station, I notice it. Recently though, I couldn’t quite put my finger on why I felt calmer on the way up the escalator from the Northern Line, until I realized it was because for the first time I can remember in all the years I’ve travelled on the tube, I could just stay with my own thoughts instead of being distracted by adverts every few centimetres, and I was reminded of the long rant I wrote about the “attentional commons”  and New Street Station in Birmingham.

For once,  I had a sense of place rather than that feeling that you could be absolutely anywhere, followed by the same adverts wherever you go. Even though it’s nothing but a cavernous white space, you notice the whole space, its shape, volume and colour, and can live in it and enjoy it for a bit, rather than being drawn at face level into the forced intimacy of those advertising panels, that do the opposite—they nobble your sense of who and where you are and what you’re doing. Leicester Square tube station suddenly felt like  a place, rather than an advertising space. Other cities do this much better: just look at this station in Prague,  Staroměstská, for an idea of how different things could be (and see this page for more pictures and descriptions of the Line A stations in Prague which have similar designs, in different colours)

Staroměstská metro station in Prague

Staroměstská metro station in Prague

It’s just a guess, but I think that you could probably reduce stress levels exponentially if you were to turn tube stations into places, rather than billboards. 

See also:

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Tchaikovsky’s hairpins

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Roberto Poli's book, The Secret LIfe of Musical Notation

The Secret Life of Musical Notation

The secret life of hairpins

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. 

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RIP Kevin Richmond

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Photo of Kevin Richmond in Prague, 2008

Kevin Richmond in Prague, 2008.

Very sad to hear by chance (through this posting on Ballet.co forums) of the recent passing of the dancer Kevin Richmond, far too young. When I first started playing for ENB as a pianist in the late 1980s, and on tours with the company when I was full-time there in the early 1990s, Kev was one of those rare people who was able to make the ballet world comprehensible and interesting for me as a novice musician in that field.

In 2008, I wrote a blog post about Kevin as part of my Advent Calendar that year, which was about favourite moments from conversations with dancers, dance teachers and choreographers.

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Learn quadrilles for a day in Charing, Kent, 28th April 2019

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Here’s a lovely idea for a Sunday in April—come to Charing in Kent for a day of learning to dance 19th century quadrilles with early dance expert Nicola Gaines.

Nicola and I have done a few of these workshops before, and they are great fun, but also a wonderful challenge, as there are so many variants and possible embellishments of the basic idea. They’re also just very jolly and social.

The day runs as follows:

10.45 Registration and coffee

11.15 Session One – Warm up, Steps and Patterns

1.15 Lunch – please bring snacks

2.00 Session Two – learning the first set and adaptations for use in class

4.15 Finish

It’s a bargain at £35 for the day, £25 for concessions, £20 for observers.

Download flyer with more information and application form

Location of Charing Parish Hall

Quadrilles — some background on the music

Readers of this site will know that I have a bit of a fascination for quadrilles. The interest began when I realised how much of the 19th century ballet repertoire owed to the rhythms and structures of quadrilles. Like other ballet pianists, I had searched the classical repertoire I knew for pieces that were suitable for battements glissés exercises and petit allegros in 2/4 or 6/8, and found very little. The day I discovered quadrilles, I realised I’d been looking in the wrong place all the time. (see earlier quadrille post).

Quadrille music is kind of the Hooked On Classics of the 19th century. Composers threw together all the best tunes from opera, operettas, and ballets, making cuts and changes of tempo or time signature just so you could carry on dancing to it in the form of the dance that you were expecting. Sometimes, you have to listen twice to realise that some deadly serious tune has been turned into a 32-count galop, or conversely—as in the article on Rossini below—you are taken aback to realise that “serious music” in fact has all the hallmarks of a quadrille (Odette’s 6/8 coda in Act II of Swan Lake is a prime example—it’s prime jigging-about music).

Any production of ROSSINI must bear his mark upon it, and must breathe his spirit: what that is may be best understood from the appearance of a set of “Stabat Mater Quadrilles.” This publication—a gross outrage upon decency, it must be confessed—shows the sort of ideas which ROSSINI’S music generates: and it shows also that those ideas are the very reverse of those which are conveyed in the words. Why is not PURCELL’S Burial-Service turned into a set of quadrille?—Not probably, from any regard to decorum if the speculation would be a profitable one, but simply because the thing is impossible.

(From The Spectator, No. 749, week ending Saturday November 5th, 1842, p. 1068)

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A guide to some 19th century repertoire for ballet class by Ethan Iverson

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Air de Ballet is a guide to 19th century piano repertoire for ballet class by Ethan Iverson, who used to be music director for Mark Morris’s dance company, among other things. The page is richly illustrated with scores, audio recordings and useful commentary. Although you can play all kinds of repertoire for class, the 19th century dance tradition (waltz, polka, mazurka) provides the workable rhythmic framework for exercises, even if your tunes come from Maroon 5 and Ariana Grande. 

My favourite creative tip from this page is the idea of improvising Czerny-esque etudes over the chord sequences of  jazz standards (listen to his recording of Ain’t Misbehavin’ for an example).  I’m also beginning to read some of the other articles on Iverson’s site, such as  Mixed Meter Mysterium, a brilliant article on Stravinsky. Well worth stopping a while and browsing! 

I’ve added the Air de Ballet link to my Playing for ballet class: Links, books, suggestions page. If you have any more suggestions let me know, and I’ll add them. 

 

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Ballet pianists on film

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Film clips of ballet pianists playing for class are so rare. There are films (such as the World Ballet Day online classes) where pianists play for a class that is being broadcast, but that is quite a different thing. The pianists are usually already in place in their corner, expertly making the class work, the piano mic’d and mixed in with a mic feed from the teacher, so that you never hear what a class sounds like as a natural observer, from a particular corner of the room. You don’t see the moment the pianist walks into the studio, whether they have music with them or not, how they are greeted (if at all) by the teacher, or what kind of people they are when they are not playing the piano.

So it was great to find this short clip, (starting at 28:20—should start playing there automatically)  in The Children of Theatre Street (1977) a feature length documentary, with Grace Kelly, about what is now called the Vaganova Academy. 


 

The voiceover intones mournfully, “Maria Ioseyevna Pal’tseva has walked these halls for 40 years. Like Madam Frankopolo [?], she has become part of the fabric of the school. The dancers come and go, but Pal’tseva remains, going from class to class with her purse and her old bag of music.” 

Meanwhile, Pal’tseva is filmed walking down the corridor; the camera shifts to behind the piano, and shows her ambling slowly towards it.  There is an almost embarrassing wait—as if editing hadn’t been invented in 1977—  while the pianist puts her “old bag of music” on the floor, and places her right foot on the sustain pedal almost before she has finished sitting down properly. And no wonder: without a second thought,  she provides a tinkling flourish to accompany the entrance of the teacher into the room. 

There then follows a short interaction where the teacher explains to Palt’seva what the exercise is, and what music she wants for it. It’s a noticeable contrast to the 2007 film about the young English dancer Henry Perkins who studied at the Bol’shoi, where the pianist was invisible, and just supplied music on demand as the teacher barked “AGAIN” repeatedly at his student. 

Both may be fictions. I doubt whether such interactions ever happened in quite that  way in real classes in 1977 (any more than they do now). Documentary makers seem to swing between portraying idealized forms of collaboration, or cherry-picking tense moments which they may even have induced themselves,  so I am likewise cautious about drawing any conclusions about the status of the pianist in the Bolshoi documentary.  But that’s precisely why I find these clips interesting. You have to unpick so many strands of fiction to get at any kind of truth, and to do so would involve a lot of difficult work. 

For more on this, see an earlier post on communication in ballet classes, featuring a great clip from Stepping Out. 

 

 

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More on the Nutcracker party galop

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Thanks to Kathie Brobeck who commented on one of my favourite posts, about the origins of the children’s galop in “Tchaikovsky’s” Nutcracker, saying that Steamboat is a Scottish tune. I have to say I’m still keeping my options open as to where the tune originated, and whether maybe it came to Scotland first via Spain/France. But Kathie’s observation that the tune is just called Steamboat in Scottish music circles sent me searching, and here, for fun, is another version of the tune. I have now heard so many versions of this tune in folk music contexts that it seems exotic when I hear it in The Nutcracker. 

 

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Dites-moi pourquoi, Giacomo

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Just a random observation this. There’s a little snippet of Les Patineurs (the red girls pas de deux, for which the music was taken from the Prelude to Act III of l‘Étoile du Nord)  which is almost note-for-note the tune of “Dites-Moi pourquoi la vie et belle” from South Pacific. 

For comparison, see/hear below—though I’ve no doubt the South Pacific clip will go offline before long 

 

 

Screen shot of music by Meyerbeer

Prelude to Act III of l’Étoile du Nord by Giacomo Meybeer, used in Ashton’s Les Patineurs—highlighted part is straight out of “Dites-moi pourquoi” from South Pacific (or rather, vice versa)

 

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