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Playing for ballet class: links, books, suggestions

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I’ve had a few messages recently asking for my advice on where to look for help on playing for ballet class, so it seemed like a good time to do a page on the subject. Please add your own suggestions in the comments. This isn’t a comprehensive review of what’s out there, it’s what I know, and a lot of it is stuff that I compiled myself. If you search for “ballet class sheet music” on the web, you’ll find links to loads of sites where people sell collections of improvisations/compositions for class. The lists below are to collections of music from the concert or ballet repertoire that are suitable for class.

Playing for ballet class is a bit like catering for a multi-faith wedding with food allergies: the suggestions below are the knives, chopping boards, saucepans and staples. Improvising and bringing in tunes that have local relevance or currency are ingredients.

Image of the score of a csárdás: a useful piece if you're playing for ballet class

A life-saving csárdas by Röszavölgyi – one of my “52 ballet playing cards” pieces that you are unlikely to come across in the standard piano repertoire.

Playing for ballet class: resources on this site:

A year of ballet playing cardsThis is a growing list (which will eventually grow to 52 pieces) of free, downloadable music for class, with sometimes lengthy explanations and illustrations.  Although the list is only about half-complete so far, there’s almost enough in there for a class already.

Tips for ballet pianists:  Not all the links here have music suggestions, but many do, these in particular:

Playing for ballet class: Anthologies of music and guidebooks

  • Air de Ballet, a page by Ethan Iverson. A guide to 19th century piano repertoire that is suitable for ballet class,  richly illustrated with scores and audio recordings. Iverson was formerly music director for Mark Morris’s dance company, so he really knows his stuff. 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). 
  • Russian Ballet Technique, As Taught, by Alexis Kosloff. [free, online]  It was published in 1921, but nearly 100 years later, there’s plenty in there that hasn’t changed. The link is to my blog entry on the book, which links to the online file.
  • Anthologies of music for ballet classes from balletmusic.narod.ru [online, free] Published collections of music for ballet classes scanned as pdfs.  The site’s in Russian, but use Google translate to see what’s there if you’re not a Russian-speaker.
  • A Dance Class Anthology (Royal Academy of Dance, 2005). I edited this book of 50+ pieces for class that was designed to get you out of most ballet class problems. It’s been out of print for a long time, but is now available again from the RAD Enterprises store. It matches exactly the Studio Series 3 album. If you want to preview tracks, you can do so at CDBaby
  • Syllabus books of the Royal Academy of Dance. I helped to compile and edit these books since 2007. The Vocational Graded syllabi in particular (Intermediate Foundation, Intermediate, Advanced Foundation, Advanced 1 and Advanced 2) have dozens of examples of suitable repertoire for class – even if you don’t play what’s in the book, the models will be useful. In the end of these books there is a compilation of music for “free” allegro enchaînements. Putting these together almost completely exhausted my list of suitable classical repertoire.
  • Dance and MusicHarriet Cavalli. The first part of the book is a guide for musicians and teachers, the second part is a collection of music for class. The physical format of the book isn’t ideal for a piano, but the material is useful.
  • The Ballet Accompanist’s Handbook by Laurence Galian (1989). Not an anthology, but a brief and unpretentious guide to playing for classes that has excellent practical suggestions for where to look for repertoire. I’m incapable of being concise, but if I could be, this is the book I would have written. All good advice in shorty paragraphs.

Suggestions for further reading/listening about playing for ballet class

A year of ballet playing cards #34: A triple jig medley (8c)

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Image of the free downloadable piano score of triple jigs for ballet class

Click to download the score

You may never need this playing card at all. I can’t remember the last time I was asked for a triple jig, but it was perhaps only once in the last 12 months.  I suspect that it’s one of those dance forms (like the gavotte, or the sarabande) that’s part of the didactic furniture of dance teacher training courses. No-one quite knew what it was for, or why it was there, but it had been in the family for years, and might have belonged to someone’s grandmother, and no-one liked to throw it away. If a teacher asks you for one, you could probably guess within a couple of decades and degrees of latitude and longitude when and where they trained.

For all that, I rather like a triple jig for the sake of variety, but I get hopelessly lost if I try to improvise one. This isn’t the most interesting music around, but you have to understand that there’s so much going on in Irish slip-jigging that you tend not to listen the music (see below). Triple jigs are a good replacement for those quick polonaises/boleros which are too fast for the polonaise that the teacher asked for. However, as a colleague and I were discussing recently, you can’t get away with it: if they asked for a polonaise, they’re going to demand to get what they asked for, like a grumpy diner in a restaurant, even though you’re offering them something just as nice.

Triple jig: the worst of all possible time signatures?

The triple jig is usually in 9/8, which is confusing as a time signature, because you tend to hear 6  beats, not 9, and to confuse matters more, the “triple” suggests (rightly) a kind of 3.  But even more confusingly, they often feel like a kind of additive time signature, 2+1. I can’t remember who pointed this out in an article or book, but I think they’re right.  Another problem is that teachers often remember a particular 9/8, and then ask for “a 9/” as if everything in 9/8 sounded the same. Not so. Here’s one of the most famous 9/8s in the repertoire, the sylph solo from the pas de  from La Syphide – but there’s very little else like it. If you can prove me wrong and find another piece like this, let me know, and I’ll put it in as a joker in the pack.

The “Western” 9/8 is a pretty dull affair, compared to all the things you might do if you have 9 bits of beat  your disposal. Nice as it is, I don’t think Dave Brubeck’s Blue Rondo à la Turk counts as a 9/8 – it’s kind of a four with an extended last beat, or a 3/4 + 3/8. This Armenian piece, by contrast, is another matter:

However, the more I listen to the two pieces side by side, the more possible it seems to hear the sylph differently. If I had more time, I’d strip the audio from the sylph solo, and replace it, perfectly synchronized, with the Armenian music. Both pieces have a gravitational pull to the end of the bar, not the beginning. The Armenian one has a metrical pattern of 4+3+2, but the effect of that last note feels the same to me in both pieces. Here’s my attempt at a mash-up of the two (with the percussion line just indicating the metric groups).

armeniansylph_0001

A year of playing cards #4: *THE* Talisman Pas de Deux

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talisman

Click to download the score

After my recent anxiety that I might never find any more suitable adage-y music for my card collection, The Talisman came to the rescue again.  At the time I did this, I hadn’t seen a piano score, but got hold of one just as I’d uploaded it.  Here’s my transcription of the Talisman adagio section, with a few bits of guesswork.

It’s not quite even, unfortunately, but you could make a version of it by returning to the second half of A once you get to the end of B, or do a really cheeky cut from halfway through the end of the 16th bar of the tune, into the C7 that goes into the reprise of the tune in F major (the last section is also 16 bars, although it doesn’t seem regular).  At the time I did this in August 2015, The Talisman was not particularly well known except among people who do it at galas. For some reason, that’s changed in the last year, and now I keep hearing about people doing it:  Isabelle Brouwers and Erik Woolhouse will dance it at ENB’s Emerging Dancer performance 2016, for example.

I’m a bit behind with the 52 cards project, but hoping to catch up in the next couple of weeks. Meanwhile, treat yourself to a bit Anastasia Stashkevich and Yonah Acosta in Talisman Pas de Deux. I’ve got a recording that I prefer over this one in musical terms, where the orchestra takes more time over the juicy moments, but this is one of the nicest videos.

A year of playing cards #19: A medley of (double) jigs (6h)

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Image of the double jig medley

A medley of double jigs: click to download the score

I’m a few weeks behind, not least because it’s that time of year when everyone has a show, or is preparing for one. I thought that while I had O’Neill’s 1001 open (see previous post), I’d fill another gap: jigs. Good job I did, because I ended playing for a lot of children’s classes recently, and boy, do you need jigs for that. Skips, galops, horses, they all need jigs (particularly the kind called the “double jig”). I hadn’t quite finished this set when I suddenly needed it for a skipathon, and – as has happened a few times already – I became one of the most grateful users of my own 52 cards project.

Make mine a double: the difference between a single and a double jig

If you need jigs at all in a class, double ones seem to be better than singles almost all of the time (double jigs are the one with the continuous 8th notes and slightly slower than single jigs, which—like Humpty Dumpty Sat on a Wall—alternate between long and short notes). I think it’s because they are (sorry about this) truly triple. By that I mean they’re not just 4/4 with a bit of a lilt, the melody actually moves in 3 (see an earlier post, And now for something completely sextuple for a fuller explanation). I can’t really identify what my criteria are for choosing these jigs rather than the many, many others in O’Neill’s 1001, except I like the ones that sound a bit like a The frost is all over that I heard on a friend’s album when I was a teenager – I think it was Planxty, but it might have been The Chieftains. I couldn’t resist including the jiggy version of Green Sleeves. The Vaughan Williams version is lovely, but it could do with a rest.

Harmonising these tunes for the piano is not as easy as it you’d think it ought to be, and I change my mind several times no sooner than I’ve put down a version. It helps to listen to some bands playing the tunes. Guitarists often use fewer chord changes than you’d be tempted to make on the piano, and bassists make particular shapes with their bass lines. Here’s a version of the first of the set The Joy of My Life. 

A year of ballet playing cards #47: A tango by Tárrega

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Tango by Tárrega: image of the sheet music

The tango by Tárrega: click to download the sheet music

Short and sweet today, a little tango by Tárrega that is barely arranged at all from the original guitar piece. It’s tempting to fill it out (and I probably would a little in class, by doubling the bass occasionally, and doubling the thirds of the tune in the left hand where possible). On the other hand, part of the appeal of the piece is its simplicity. I kept changing my mind about whether the first tune would sound better an octave lower or not. I think you could probably experiment with playing the first half an octave lower, and the second half an octave higher.

The cool and restrained tango, for a change

It was also tempting to cover the piece with Grainger-esque articulations and dynamics to try and mimic the touch of the guitar, but thought it might look a bit presumptuous. It was also tempting to pimp it up Godowsky-style. To play a piece like this, which has so little in it, is hard to do well, whereas the Godowsky arrangement of the Albéniz Tango has voluptuousness built into it, so it sounds pretty good even if you don’t play it well. To make the original, much thinner piece sound like something, you have to work much harder, and so it is with this. I figured that you can fill it out yourself, if you want.

The reason for choosing this unassuming piece is because the holy grail for the ballet pianist searching for new repertoire is the “tango”-that-isn’t-a-tango, the kind that teachers request for battements fondus, and which also work well for slow tendus, because they have a perpetual feeling of in-and-out in their rhythm.  This piece is in the right area, I think. If nothing else, it’s a lesson in less-is-more. The reason improvised tangos often don’t sound effective is because there’s a temptation to throw every harmonic trick going at them, or fill them out with masses of chords, forgetting that the real thing tends to just toggle between dominant and tonic a lot of the time – the interest is in the rhythm, and the way it’s played.  It’s interesting that in the second half, the G major section, the peak of the phrase is every second bar, which creates an interesting tension between the metre and phrasing. So far, my favourite performance is the one in the clip below:

Tárrega: the bloke that composed that Nokia ringtone

I came across this  because I was going to upload a piano version of the Gran Vals by Tárrega, better know as the Nokia tune/Nokia waltz/Nokia ringtone  as this week’s card. (My thanks to the student who told me it was originally by Tárrega). It would have been fun, but the more I looked at it, the less I could see how it could be useful in class, except for the fact that the last four bars (the ringtone) happen to be in truly triple metre, whereas the rest isn’t, so it would be great for an exercise that needed detail at the end of the phrase, or to slow down as you turned around on the barre or something. But the truth is, there is little use for the bog-standard waltz in class, because it’s essentially duple metre with triple subdivision. So apart from the increasingly rare occasion where a teacher actually asks you for a “little waltz” during tendus, say, there’s no reason to fill your toolbox with them (it’s probably full of them anyway).

A year of ballet playing cards #17: A six eight allegro (4h) from Verdi’s “Jerusalem”

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A six eight allegro by Verdi (piano score)

Click to download this six eight allegro

There’s a kind of allegro that’s in 6/8 that needs music like this. I don’t really know what to call it,  except “a six eight allegro.”  The canonical example for me is “Sempre libera” from La Traviata (below):

The trouble is that there’s only about 16 useful bars of that aria, and for this kind of exercise that comes forward in multiple groups, you need at least a hundred. Most of the things I know that fit the bill are equally short, or turn out to have too many notes to keep up the necessary speed without wilting. Also, the exercise usually needs lift and movement in particular places, so I usually end up improvising – until I found this piece from Jerusalem. 

Tip: Useful is not always interesting, and interesting is not always useful

I was going to skip this in favour of something that looks more interesting on paper, but when I came to play it, it felt and sounded better as performed music than it does on the page, and it’s also very handy because it goes on for ages. Even though I can hear a score in my head by reading it, there is often – as with this piece – a chasm between what it feels and sounds like as a physical experience, and what it looks like on paper. I’m certainly influenced by just how useful this is, so maybe a normal pianist (rather than a ballet pianist) wouldn’t feel that way.

What I love about this piece, the more I hear it and play it, is its constantly changing rhythmic shape. I wouldn’t have noticed this so much, or had the words to talk about it, had it not been for two instances recently where I was supposed to be teaching pianists, and learned something myself.

The first occasion was in Ljublana, (photo gallery here) leading a weekend seminar for ballet teachers and pianists at the Conservatoire for Music and Ballet. A  question came up about battements tendus with the accent in or out: how much does that affect the music that you should play? I wasn’t giving answers, it was a discussion between teachers and pianists. After nearly 30 years of playing for ballet, I noticed something for the first time: teachers, when they want to stress the accent in, appear to give more “accent” to the out preceding it. That figures logically, because if you want to chop a log harder, you lift it higher before it falls, and you have to show that the leg is out before it comes in on one. But it really messes with your metrical head, because you hear “accent in” as a verbal instruction, then you hear “AND a 1″ as a musical cue. Also, “accent in” doesn’t (I think) mean accent in the sense of chopping logs, but of where the close is in relation to the musical metre.

Franco-Italian hypermeter in the ballet class: try it, you’ll like it (and so will they)

So maybe this is a case for pieces that exhibit what Rothstein explains as “Franco Italian hypermeter” (see previous post)  I tested the theory by playing this piece (playing card 46) which has more than half a bar anacrusis (which is one of the requirements), and asked teacher Tom Linecar-Boulton during a London Amateur Ballet class to see if it did the trick. It seems to, and it illustrates a fascinating thing about the incommensurability (in my view, at least) of musical accent with ballet accents. There’s a lightness and accentuation about this which has a very different kind of body to it than non-ballet music, and “anacrusis” in music has too many implications about downbeat that may not work for dance.  What it has is a long “and,” not a heavy one, and the one has an accent which is not to do with volume or weight, but – I don’t know how to describe it – where it is. It’s like saying “I’m going to put this here, and that there,” without shouting about it.

Try this (at a slow speed) for tendus with the accent in. It's fun, and an example of Franco-Italian hypermeter

Try this (at a slow speed) for tendus with the accent in. It’s fun.

Franco-Italian hypermeter in a six eight allegro

The second occasion was yesterday, when I was talking to some music students who were going to have a go at playing for ballet classes. They were asking if it’s acceptable to have a stock of chord sequences that you improvise over. I said yes it was, and that it’s surprising how much a simple repeated sequence can be masked by the detail that you hang over it. I took this Verdi piece as an example. It’s in 6/8, but as Danuta Mirka would say, the “composed meter” varies – that is, the first two bars are indeed in duple with triple subdivision, but then the next bars, with the little grace notes, and the emphasis on each beat, are effectively in 3/8. As the piece goes on (I’ve sewn two together and done a bit of reworking to try to make enough for several groups), there are many variations on the rhythm of the phrase (with an anacrusis, or on the beat, with a half-bar anacrusis, or a short one) even though the basic duple structure is maintained. My favourite is this one:

17-4h_0003

That triple forte is the upbeat to the next “1”

“A bit lighter please” — try meter, not dynamics

This to me solves a conundrum with a certain kind of jump that jumps before the 1, yet mustn’t be heavy. When a teacher I played for recently kept saying “a bit lighter” I thought he meant just “quicker” but I think he really did mean lighter – but in the sense of not thumping either downbeats or upbeats, but maintaining a kind of tension between the two, as in this wonderful example.

You’d have to pick your moment to play this – if the dancers need the music to tell them what to do on every step, then avoid it – but if they know what they’re doing, the subtle shifts of grouping over the phrase bring all kinds of lightness and accent to it, in a way which is definitely Franco-Italian, and not German: what you have to avoid is obeying the (Germanic) rule that every downbeat has to have an accent. Think about Italian or French poetry, with its end-accented lines, and swoop over the bar lines, resisting the accents until the final bar.

I can’t find a recording of this that is at a tempo which I think would work for class, so I’ve done a very rough one here – my apologies for the botched job, but I’m sight reading, and the piece has only just come out of my musical oven.  Teachers, I’d love to know what you think about this, and whether I can give a name to this (is it particularly good for a certain kind of jump?).

If you can’t play this, or want to download it, right-click (or command click on a Mac) this link

The point of posting stuff like this is not to bring back Verdi’s Jerusalem because it’s the best thing for allegro, but to offer models for either improvising or finding other repertoire, and the changes of accent, metre, phrasing, rhythm, grouping and so on in this offers all kinds of ideas.

A year of ballet playing cards #29: A Chaconne and a grand dance (3c)

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Image of the chaconne by Purcell

Click to download the score of Purcell’s chaconne

Why is the chaconne so rare in ballet class culture?

I’ve no idea. Given that ballet’s history is supposed to have its roots in Italy and France, it’s odd that things like minuets, chaconnes, bourrées, sarabandes, gavottes and so on are some of the rarest things ever to be heard in a ballet class.  If there’s any cultural hegemony going on, it’s Austro-Hungarian: the waltz and the polka.  Of all the music that isn’t played in classes, it’s the chaconne that seems to miss out most. I don’t think there’s a reason why, except that the only kind of three people can think of in a hurry is the waltz and the mazurka, and those rhythms get embedded in the technique, I suppose. Can there really be something about ballet that requires the waltz? Or is it that chaconne requires learning a new rhythmic trick, and ballet habits are remarkably resilient?

Install a new chaconne instead of your old waltz

I discovered a while back that if you’re lucky, and the exercise isn’t too slow, you can replace the thick, porridge-like stir of a waltz played too slow for ronds de jambe with a Chaconne like this (albeit played rather too slow for a chaconne). It has a push on 1, but not the feeling of a wellington boot sinking into mud that the slow waltz has. The dotted rhythms and true triple metre (see earlier posts on the topic of triple meter) keep the music moving.

There’s something hypnotic yet interesting about the variations on the ground bass: it’s amazing how  much harmonic interest Purcell squeezes out of a single 8-bar bass line.  It’s also handy that there’s loads of it – 16 eight-bar phrases. I’ve put rehearsal marks on each one so you can pick and choose depending on the length of the exercise, but beware of – it’s the only time the phrase ends in a dominant.  There are some great recordings available, but I chose the one below because it has some baroque dance in it as well – which helps to give an idea of what a central tempo for this could be, even though it bears playing more slowly.

By chance, I started to input this just before going to a wonderful concert of the Shostakovich 1st violin concerto at the Barbican, and I was thinking of how the first of Shostakovich’s 24 preludes and fugues is a little chaconne, rather like the one in Purcell’s The Fairy Queen. Then In the violin concerto there’s also a kind of chaconne-like passacaglia in 3, which I felt peculiarly prepared for, as if inputting the Purcell had been a kind of mental warm-up.

On wikipedia there’s a wonderful list of other compositions that have used the chaconne as a basis. Well worth looking at for other ideas, if you liked this one.

 

A year of ballet playing cards #28: Fächerpolonaise Op. 525 by Ziehrer (2c)

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First line of sheet music for Ziehrer's polonaise

Click to download the score of the polonaise for free

In search of the serviceable polonaise for ballet class

A commenter on a previous post about polonaises asked me – since I’d said so many polonaises were unusable – which ones I would choose.  I realised I didn’t really have much of an answer, so it was clearly time to go on a polonaise hunt. I can’t pretend I’m that thrilled by this polonaise, but I’m no great fan of the polonaise to start with, and everyone needs a polonaise or three in their repertoire: so this one, which as Miss Brodie said of chrysanthemums (“such serviceable flowers”) is serviceable, so why not. “Serviceable” is no bad thing for class, for nothing is worse than music that draws attention to itself so much that it’s distracting.  If nothing else, the Fächerpolonaise is a good model of just how little one needs to do when improvising around a dance rhythm: as I’ve written before, less is usually more when it comes to harmony in dance rhythms.

Another reason I chose this music is because it has still has a  currency at Viennese balls. The clip below is from the Regenbogenball in Vienna (the “Rainbow Ball” for LGBT people and friends). If there’s a reason to hang on to these strangely antique traditions perhaps it’s to give people who were previously denied participation a chance to join in now. Dance and music might be a metaphor for this kind of thing: you keep the music going for long enough (i.e. over a century and a half) for the last couple in the room to get to the front.  There’s an essay to be written on that that would include a  reference to Elias’s Society of Individuals, but I haven’t got time. There’s also an essay to be written about the way the Habsburg Empire lives on (at least culturally) with extraordinary resilience – this also happens to be one of André Rieu’s greatest hits.

About Carl Ziehrer, composer of the Fächer polonaise

I ought to have heard of Carl Ziehrer before, but I hadn’t. The fact that this polonaise is Op. 525 will tell you something about his output – he actually wrote more dance music that Johann Strauss II. The more you listen to the music of Strauss’s contemporaries, the more that composers like Minkus and Pugni – and even Tchaikovsky – fall into context.  If, as Taruskin has said, leaving out ballet music from music history is a “scandalous omission”  then leaving out light music is a double scandal, because it conceals the extent to which composers like Tchaikovsky were surfing a much more popular wave.

You can add in or take away as many notes in the chords as you like – I’ve added a few from the piano transcription to thicken it up, but they’re not compulsory.

More… 

References

Taruskin, R. (2010). The Oxford history of western music. Vol. 2 Music in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

A year of ballet playing cards #02: Fauré ballade for piano and orchestra (2s)

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Fauré ballade for piano and orchestra - piano music

Click to download the score of the Fauré ballade for piano and orchestra (for piano solo, arranged for ballet class)

Searching for the lost chords

I’ve been meaning to find this music, the Fauré ballade for piano and orchestra, for nearly 18 years. It was in the score of Roland Petit’s “Proust” ballet, Les Intermittences du coeur that we did at the Deutsche Oper Berlin, and I played the piano part in the orchestra. Whatever the musical equivalent of a bunhead is, that’s me – I learned it, performed it and loved it, but I hadn’t a clue what it was, and it was only in researching it for this blog this week that I finally found out that it was once a piano solo, and that Fauré then arranged it for piano and orchestra, and a few other things that tie it very interestingly to Proust (for more on this, see here).

Fauré ballade for piano and orchestra: what am I missing in the piano solo version?

I’ve put the countermelody in small notes, because I think you could easily lose the tune if you tried too hard to play these, and you want the main melody to sing out – so I’d treat them as optional, so help me God.

If you’re squeamish about cuts, look away and don’t play my version, because I’ve had to fillet out the bits that are in 8 bar phrases (click here for the full version at IMSLP). As cuts go, they’re not life-threatening, and they’re worth it to be able to play this for class. It’s a very clever orchestration – the orchestra creeps up on you gradually like a feeling, rather than being the water you swim in, and then suddenly it’s on top of you and like all feelings that creep up on you, it’s a bit scary.

I’m putting this in my “don’t care if it’s three or four” category, but a lot would depend on how fast or slowly you take it, as to whether you can get away with it every time. It would also kill it to be either too slow or too fast, or too many times, so pick your moment carefully,

I hope you like it: F# is such a woody key, apart from anything else (if you don’t know what I mean, see below).

 

A year of ballet playing cards #15: A rumpty-tumpty waltz (Oh! Oh! Antonio)

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Oh! Oh! Antonio - first line of the music

Click to download the score of Oh! Oh! Antonio

I like it when teachers set grands battements on what I call a rumpty-tumpty 3.  My favourite pieces for this kind of exercise is the Zarah Leander song Davon geht die Welt nicht unterand Hands, knees and boomps-a-daisybut all good things must come to a brief pause, and so it was time to find another one, and Oh! Oh! Antonio is just what I was looking for.  If you’re wondering why I’m suddenly bringing music hall into this game, after all that Schubert and czardases, I have to point out that rhythmically speaking, behind every balletic variation, there’s a tarty music-hall number dying to show its frilly knickers, and a bit of decorum (which flies out of the window once you put some swing into a waltz) is the only thing that divides these songs from Paquita or Bayadère.  

How I discovered Oh! Oh! Antonio

I wonder what the chances are of anyone knowing this if you played it for class? I didn’t know it until last week, when it was used in Indian Summers, set in 1932:  Cynthia Coffin (Julie Walters) proprietor of the English Club in Simla leads the singing as the local English gather for the club’s re-opening. You never can tell: someone on a forum remembers his great grandfather (Welsh, who spoke no English) singing it to him as a child. Songs have a way of travelling through time. I always thought the Teddy Bears’ Picnic was a song from the 60s (because I heard it as a child) yet the tune was written in 1907, and the words in 1932.

In fact,  this song is also about the way songs get transmitted. You may have noticed that it begins almost note-for-note like Strauss’s Kunstlerleben (Artist’s Life) waltz Op. 316, written in 1867, and regarded as the “twin” of the Blue Danube. Now listen to the words of the second verse:

Her old hurdy-gurdy all day she’d parade
And this she would sing to each tune that it played.

So what you’re hearing are new words to an old tune. But there’s a third temporal layer to this: the third verse (not on the recording, but available here) has the line (just before the chorus)

She faded away, but they say in the streets
The ghost of that girl in Italian repeats…

So this is a song about people talking about the ghost of a girl singing a song that she made up to an old tune playing on her hurdy-gurdy. A Pathé newsreel film clip from 1923 of the “first wireless barrel organ” playing this song adds yet another layer to the story: here is a kind of hurdy gurdy playing, ghost-like through the ether, a song about people talking about the ghost of a girl singing a song that she made up to an old tune playing on her hurdy-gurdy. Incidentally, it’s wonderful to see people waltzing in the street as they hear the music. I nearly wrote “spontaneously waltzing” until I wondered whether perhaps Pathé had placed those people very carefully there to make the clip more interesting. Sadly, there’s no audio on the film.

Reanimating ghosts: songs and musicians

When Florrie Forde sings Oh! Oh! Antonio, she brings that ghost of a song back into the physical present (in 1908, that is).   That’s one of the things we do as musicians  –  let songs breathe a bit longer, or, if you like, plant them in ground where they’ll suddenly flourish again just when they were in danger of expiring. There is no natural process by which “great” songs stay hits purely on their own, it only happens by transmission, and the processes can be unpredictable and strange (and expensive, in the case of Pharrell Williams and Robin Thicke). They are “broadcast” both in the TV/Radio/Internet sense, but also in physical form as sheet music and records. They travel with people as carriers of songs, geographically and temporally.

Last week, I saw a 101-year-old woman teaching Are you lonesome tonight? to a young Filipino nurse in a care home in Streatham. I thought, that’s odd, she would have been 46 when Elvis Presley recorded it – surely this isn’t her generation of songs? But when I looked the song up just now, I discovered that in fact, it was first released in 1927, when she would have been 13 – which makes a lot more sense.

So let’s keep Oh! Oh! Antonio  going a bit longer—why not?  Sing along if you know the words (which you do, because I’ve put them in the score). It would of course be wonderful in any class where there’s an Antonio teaching or dancing, or maybe just for remembering your own Antonio-related history. There’s not an app for that, but there’s a song for it.

Update on 26th April 2015

As proof that the Internet’s power is limited by your diligence and ingenuity as a searcher, I’ve now come across a site that has the original sheet music for Oh Oh Antonio! Fuller and probably easier to read and play than mine, all credit to the person who put this site together.

Update on 31st Jan 2016

…and if you’d like to hear it or play it on the Ukulele, visit Colin Tribe via Youtube