Tag Archives: Giselle

A year of ballet playing cards #39 (KC): “Spanish waltz” medley

Viva Navarra score

Click on the score to download the free pdf of this medley of “Spanish” “Waltzes”

Why the Spanish waltz? Is there such a thing? 

I never intended to include this category of music in the 52 cards series. The only reason it’s here is because Matt Gregory from the Ballet Piano Podcast said I should do a blog post on it, since “a Spanish Waltz” one of those things where you play what you think you’re being asked for, while internally furrowing your brow, and thinking “What is a Spanish waltz? Is there such a thing?” 

If ever I have to use the term, I feel the need for a full conceptual Hazmat suit, together with a pair of tongs, a box of latex scare quotes and some hand-sanitizer. It’s nothing against the Spanish or the waltz, but “a Spanish waltz” as a concept is a hot mess of problems.  That’s not to say that the pieces I’ve put together in this playing card aren’t useful for all kinds of things—particularly, I think, for sissonne exercises. They’re also great for giving a kind of “flavour” to an exercise. But they’re not in a category called “Spanish Waltz,” except on teacher training courses. So is there such a thing? The answer, briefly, is jein, as they say in Germany—yes and no.

Yes, because if you say you want a Spanish waltz, like Indian chefs who will provide you with a chicken tikka masala, even though it is unknown in India, we can knock you one up in the kitchen with a few ingredients that we guess you want included—a bit of a hemiola, some triplets, a few flamenco harmonies, some imaginary castanets, maybe bits of borrowed melody from Spanish things, or an imitation of the Spanish from Nutcracker. There’s also something very triple about them—although the melodic phrases seem to be in two-bar units (i.e. two bars of 3), the rhythmic structure seems to be much more like a truly triple metre, which is why they’re in the “clubs” suit. 

No, because although we can have a guess at what you mean based on the exercise, there is no musical entity called a “Spanish Waltz.” It’s not a thing out there in the world that, like blackbirds or hermit crabs, can be identified by certain characteristics. 

If you came here for a definition, then I apologize in advance—I recognize myself as one of those academics in Zadie Smith’s short story For the King, who is “never able to say a word without qualifying it from fifteen different angles. To listen to them. . .is to be confronted with a mass of verbal footnotes” . You see? A footnote right there. I’m no expert on this subject—what it needs is a few dance historians, some musicologists, specialists in escuela bolera and its relation to ballet and so on. But here are just a few pointers to why the term is so problematic. 

Music of Spain, v. Music about Spain

In a classic text on the subject, James Parakilas explains that it is French and Russian composers who have “long been paired as the greatest, or first masters of Spanish music (by listeners who did not distinguish Spanish music from music about Spain.” For the French, he says, representing Spain in music “has been an exercise in rendering their neighbors exotic,” whereas Russian musicians found “a mirror of their own cultural situation in the corner of Europe most distant from themselves” . Spanish musicians don’t need to make Spain exotic for other Spaniards, but many of them have practised what Parakilas calls auto-exoticism—the condition of “being able to produce a marketable art only by exoticizing oneself and one’s culture”

If you’re a ballet pianist, you know that there are Spanish dances in Glazunov’s Raymonda. Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker, Minkus’s Don Quixote and bits of Paquita, the Spanish dance in Coppélia. Then there’s Fanny Elssler’s famous Cachuchadanced in Le Diable Boiteux (1836),  and her Bolero from Delire d’un Peintre. Other famous Spanishy dances are Rimsky-Korsakov’s Capriccio Espagnole, Glinka’s Souvenir d’une nuit d’été à Madrid, as well as his orchestration of a Jota Aragonesa that was also arranged by Gottschalk. The point is, though, that none of these are waltzes, and most of them are “no more Spanish than the Champs-Elysées” as Noël Coward said of Bizet’s Carmen .

One of the interesting side-issues in Parakilas’s chapter is that the bolero as a form is so similar to the polonaise, that it is very hard to tell the difference. Moreover, a lot of the characteristics we associate with polonaises quite possibly originated in the bolero, to the extent that Parakilas wonders whether Chopin might have “learned more about writing polonaises from his experience with the bolero than the other way around” (pp. 150–151), noting that after his Bolero Op. 19, the polonaises seem to come with bolero accessories.

Certainly, if you search IMSLP for zarzuelas you will find many examples of boleros that would make much better polonaises for class than most of the polonaises you probably already have in your repertoire. While we’re at it, there are also plenty of useful mazurkas, polkas and waltzes in there too. And I mean waltzes, not “Spanish waltzes,” although they are waltzes written by Spaniards.

Spanish wilis?

In his article on the music of Giselle, Rodney Edgecombe takes issue with an assertion by Marian Smith in Ballet and Opera in the Age of Giselle that the example below represents a “somewhat startling burst of Spanish music” . Edgecombe argues that this isn’t startling, or a burst, since “the waltzes Adam wrote for the wilis are consistently ‘Spanish’ throughout” .

So-called Spanish section of the Wilis in Giselle Act II

What Smith (2000) calls a “startling burst” of Spanish music in the wilis, Giselle Act 2

I’m not thoroughly convinced by the argument, but I can see what he means. Once you start looking for possible Spanishness, you can see it everywhere. What’s more, he continues, Spanish music (“in inauthentic pan-European paraphrases”) in the early 19th century was used as a general marker of passion, rather than Spanishness, citing the bolero “Di quella pira” from Verdi’s Il Trovatore as an example.  The sense of what he means here is useful, but some of the details, I think, are questionable:

The balletic bolero, which likewise functioned as a vector of vividness and energy, was often favoured for male variations. Albert himself dances one in the Grand pas de deux, not to honour the no-longer-extant cosmopolitan ball of the wilis, but because it’s a manly thing to do.

I can only think that when he says “balletic Bolero” he must mean the same rhythm as the wilis shown above, which is what Albrecht’s solo is, but this surely isn’t a bolero, is it? If you go with Edgecombe’s flow and call it a *bolero for a moment,  the first balletic variation that comes to mind is the equally misnamed “Bolero” in Act 2 of Coppélia, which is for Swanilda. If it’s the kind of bolero that is more like a polonaise (a bolernaise?) the only example I can think of right now is for a woman, Lucille Grahn’s solo in Pas de Quatre (1845).  Fanny Elssler’s Bolero was nothing like either of those, and the thing called a bolero in Don Quixote is nothing like any of those:

Musical score of Bolero by Pugni

The “Bolero” interpolated into Don Quixote, music from Pugni’s La Fille de Marbre.

Beginning to see the problem yet? Thanks for the useful indication “Tempo di Bolero,” by the way. Given that after 30 years of playing for ballet, I’m not sure what a bolero is, or whether this is one at all, and what speed the choreographer wants the dance, it’s not exactly an objective tempo referent.  The Ravel Boléro, which the composer originally called Fandango has a tempo marking of “Tempo di Bolero, moderato assai, ♩=72,” which is almost three times slower than most of the videos I’ve seen of the Don Quixote “bolero.” 

Sometimes, a grupetto is just a grupetto

Petipa danced in Spain and was ballet master at the Teatro del Circo in Madrid until his Spanish career came to an abrupt end when he eloped with the daughter of a local noblewoman, having first shot a marquis in the jaw in a duel in a case of mistaken identity . Which is another way of saying that Petipa probably knew his stuff when it came to Spanish dance and drama. The fact that Minkus’s music for Don Quixote doesn’t always sound very “Spanish” probably has more to do with the fact that we expect our “Spanish” music to come with extra hot musical spice with a side-order of castanets, because that kind of sound comes later, with Rimsky-Korsakov, Chabrier and de Falla, in different ways and for different reasons.

This is why Edgecombe disagrees with one of Marian Smith’s theories about the wilis’ music in Giselle. Smith thinks that contemporary audiences would have heard echoes of an oriental or exotic style that was supposed to underscore dances by wilis in national costume in the original libretto, later dropped. But in 1841, argues Edgecombe, “the idea of musical regionalism, by now a potent force in opera (Ruslan and Ludmila would premiere a year later) had scarcely begun to penetrate the world of ballet” .

Ironically though, musicologist Marina Frolova-Walker argues against reading too much into the apparent exoticism of the harmony of Ruslan, in what is a long and detailed dismantling of an analysis by Richard Taruskin that is too complex to go into here.  Briefly, her argument is this; If you see exoticism in Glinka’s use of the so-called Kuchka pattern (for the musos: 5-#5-6-♭6-5 over a static bassline), it’s because it later becomes adopted as a marker of the exotic. One of the most obvious examples would be the third part of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade where you can hear it in the cellos and basses: 

Part of Rimsky-Korsakov's Scheherezade (musical score)

In the left hand, the so-called “Kuchka pattern.”

In Ruslan, though, Frolova Walker argues, it’s still just part of Glinka’s generic musical language.  A bit like when my short-sighted Aunty Bess saw scaffolding on the remains of 11th century Corfe Castle from a distance, and said, in utter seriousness, “Oh, so they had television then?”

Anyway, back to Frolova-Walker: at the time Glinka wrote A life for the Tsar (1836), she says, critics

did not see anything wrong in giving a Western dance, the waltz, to an Oriental character, nor did they object that the dance had not been transformed to sound Oriental; the conventionalized presentation of the Orient in music was rudimentary and piecemeal at this stage, and audiences were quite accustomed to hearing Oriental characters sing minuets, sicilianas, and other European dances . . .

For the same reason, I wonder whether it’s reading too much into Giselle to say that all or indeed any of the wili dances are necessarily Spanish in character. Isn’t it possible that sometimes a grupetto is just a grupetto, not a symbol of Spain? Or at least, used without the composer meaning to symbolize it?

Albrecht, Germans, and horns

Now let’s go back to Albrecht. At the time of Giselle, a waltz would have marked out a character as German: Adam was proud of the local German colour he’d given to the score in the form of the waltz, and critics praised the Germanic spirit that he had evoked with his music . That being the case, is there any reason for paying more attention to the possibly Spanish overtones of Albrecht’s second Act solo, than to its Germanic, minuetty melodic features, which are what makes the Act I waltz sound German? In the example below, I’ve transposed Albrecht’s solo into D major and rewritten it 3/4. The point isn’t to try and hear the three together, but to note the similar features. 

Comparison of Mozart Minuet and two Giselle examples in music notation

The waltz from Act I, part of Albrecht’s solo, and a Mozart minuet

But perhaps even more relevant and prominent are those horns—symbols of hunting and forests—that play the opening bars of  Albrecht’s solo; and if you wanted to look for that “bolero” rhythm, you’ll find it—also on horns—in the Minuet from Handel’s Water Music HWV 348.  I’m not saying there’s a connection—only that you don’t have to go to Spain to find that rhythm. 

Handel Water Music HWV 348 Minuet music score for horns

Handel Water Music No. 1/VII HWV 348 Minuet. Here’s that “bolero” rhythm again

Just show me the Spanish waltz

All right all right. The take-home point is that there are all kinds of Spanish dances in three, but the one term and concept that takes you up a blind alley and leaves you without a number for a taxi, is Spanish Waltz. However, we ballet pianists have learned to adapt in the wild, and can usually summon up something suitable. It will be based, though, on all the things that we think ballet teachers might have in their heads, or might have danced—any of the examples above, none of which are called Spanish Waltz. For an example of a Spanish dance that contains all the necessary accoutrements, try Andy Higgs’s  on his children’s dance class album, The Witches’ Cauldron

And finally

When I first tried to investigate this problem, I was sharing a flat with the Spanish ballet dancer (and now teacher) Victor Alvarez. I asked him if there was such a thing as a Spanish waltz, and I think my question was, where can I find more things like the Act 3 male variation from Don Quixote, but more authentic? He burst out laughing and said “Nowhere! This doesn’t exist anywhere in Spanish music, except maybe in zarzuela.”  If you’re looking for more stuff like the dances in this short compilation, zarzuela is a great place to start, and it’s where I found the ones here.

If you’re still reading by this time, I hope you get my point: there is an enormously rich and important field to be investigated here. Teaching music in ballet training shouldn’t be reduced to giving one-line inaccurate definitions of things that don’t exist, because that’s all we have time and patience for. If that’s what “music” means, don’t bother teaching it at all. What’s more, there’s a kind of lazy exoticism involved that is rather embarrassing in 2020. I mean, no teacher is going to ask you for something kind of Chinese, are they? I hope not.

I suppose there is a case for talking about a Spanish waltz, if by that you mean a waltz written by a Spanish person, but it’s rather an odd thing to do, and it’s not what ballet teachers mean by the term. Javier Barreiro describes Genaro Monreal’s Clavelitos (see clip below) as a song where the composer set lyrics to a  waltz rhythm , which seems absolutely right to me. This isn’t “a waltz” in the sense of music for dancing waltzes to, it’s just a useful way of describing the broad characteristics of the meter of the song.



Barreiro, J. (2017, April 8). El maestro Monreal. Retrieved May 15, 2020, from https://javierbarreiro.wordpress.com/2017/04/08/el-maestro-monreal/
Coward, N. (2011). The complete verse of Noël Coward edited  and with a commentary by Barry Day. (B. Day, Ed.). London: Methuen Drama.
Edgecombe, R. S. (2015). The score of Giselle. The Musical Times, 156(1930), 27–46.
Frolova-Walker, M. (2007). Russian Music and Nationalism from Glinka to Stalin. New Haven and London: Yale University Press.
Meisner, N. (2019). Marius Petipa: the emperor’s ballet master. New York: Oxford University Press.
Minkus, L. (1982). Don Quixote: Ballet in three acts. Libretto by M. Petipa after M. Cervantes. Moscow: Izdatel’stvo Muzyka. Retrieved from https://imslp.org/wiki/Special:ReverseLookup/30799
Parakilas, J. (1998). How Spain got a soul. In J. Bellman (Ed.), The exotic in Western music (pp. 137–193). Boston, Mass: Northeastern University Press.
Smith, E. M. (2000). Ballet and opera in the age of Giselle. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Smith, Z. (2019). For the King. In Grand Union: Stories (pp. 213–224). London: Hamish Hamilton.
Tagg, P. (2019). Fernando the Flute (IV). Larchmont, NY: The Mass Media Music Scholars’ Press (MMMSP). Retrieved from https://tagg.org/mmmsp/fernando.html
Taruskin, R. (1997). Defining Russia musically: Historical and hermeneutical essays. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Sources for the “Esmeralda” pas de deux


One of the oddities about the ballet repertoire is that the more famous and frequently performed the piece, the more tricky its musical history, like the  “Black Swan” Pas de Deux, for example, which does not exist in Tchaikovsky’s original score, at least not in its entirety, as you know it, or where you’d expect to find it. Over time, people like Adam Lopez who writes so much for Wikipedia on the Imperial Russian ballet and its music, and the brilliant ballet music librarians Lars Payne and Matthew Naughtin (see “Black Swan” link above) have solved many of these mysteries.

There is one ballet mystery  which just won’t go away, however, and that’s the question of the source for the “Esmeralda” pas de deux. I don’t mean Pugni’s 1844 ballet, but the one with the famous tambourine solo for the ballerina created by Pyotr Gusev in 1949, and later produced by Ben Stevenson in 1982 for the Jackson International Ballet Competition (see Matthew Naughtin’s Ballet Music: A Handbook). 

Naughtin says that the opening is by Drigo (for a revival of Petipa’s L’order du roi), but by chance, while I was looking to see if there was a scan of Marenco’s Sieba (1880-1881), which is reputedly the source for the tambourine variation, I found a couple of pages of that score (i.e. Sieba) in Matilda Ertz’s doctoral thesis.  Look at example 29 on page 287-288  (pdf page 311-312, the opening of the tempest from Sieba) and you’ll see that the  latter half of it is note for note part of the adagio in the Esmeralda pas de deux. For the full thesis, see Nineteenth-century Italian ballet music before unification: Sources, style, and context” Matilda Ertz, (Univ. of Oregon, 2010).  It might be that some is by Drigo and some by Marenco—it’s certainly a very abrupt cut and bizarre modulation from B major down to A, at the point that the Sieba tempest comes in, and the materials don’t seem to be related at all. Incidentally, Ertz’s thesis is really interesting if you’re into ballet music. 

I haven’t managed to find a scan of the score of Sieba beyond these two pages, but it would make sense that the tambourine solo is from the same piece as the adagio—though if the attribution to Drigo is not correct, or at least, an erasure of underlying sources, then I wonder if we should question the tambourine solo’s origins too, until we see the evidence. I  can’t find the coda of Esmeralda in the source that Naughtin gives, either (Pugni’s The Pharaoh’s Daughter). I have seen that coda in another ballet, but I cannot for the life of me remember which one it is. 

Thanks to Adrian Mathers, the mystery of where the coda came from (see crossed out section above) is now solved. Matthew Naughtin was right, it is from The Pharaoh’s Daughter, and I had seen it before, but I had completely forgotten that where I had seen it was in the violin repetiteur of that ballet, not the piano score. It was Adrian who drew my attention to the fact that it’s in the repetiteur but not the piano reduction. You can see the Pharaoh’s Daughter repetiteur it for yourself, digitized in Harvard Library. The coda of Esmeralda is on pages 125-129. 

If anyone has either a piano reduction of Sieba to send me (there’s a copy available in the reading room of the British Library, I know, but I don’t have time to find it right now). 

Giselle and the Peasant Pas de Deux

While I’m at it, there’s another mystery to be solved—or at least, in my view it’s a mystery. How many times have we heard that the Peasant pas de deux in Giselle is by Burgmüller, and a piece called Souvenirs de Ratisbonne Op. 67? Well, Aki Kuroda has recorded it, and it sounds like this: 

In other words, it’s not the peasant pas de deux in its entirety, but one of the female variations, transposed from its original C major into D. There’s an awful lot more music that needs to be explained.  Now, I’m sticking my neck out here on the basis of not a lot of knowledge about Burgmüller, but from what I know of his music, I find it hard to believe he’s the author of the entrée polonaise, because it’s very polonaise-y, whereas his tend to be waltzes with a funny left hand. The pas de deux? Maybe. But the E major male  solo that begins with the whole-beat upbeat? That’s very Franco-Italian metrically speaking (see my post “compound errors” and the section on Franco-Italian hypermeter in this post for more on that topic) and not at all like the kind of thing Burgmüller writes usually—even one of his tarantellas begins on the first beat of the bar. You find Franco-Italian barring all over Pugni’s scores, but not Burgmüller’s. On the other hand, there’s something I don’t quite trust about the female solo in G major (2/4). That looks like the kind of solo that should begin on the upbeat, like these by Auber but it doesn’t. It looks like a French solo in German clothing. 

Whatever and whoever is behind this story, there is more to it than simply Souvenir de Ratisbonne. Cyril Beaumont in his The Ballet Called Giselle (1945) is more precise: he refers to “a waltz entitled “Souvenir de Ratisbonne” and a suite of dances which used to be performed by Giselle’s friends and their two leaders,” but I haven’t yet come across anything more than that in music scholarship. Contributions very welcome. 

“They would have…” — Coppélia, Scotch snaps and class (the social kind)


The Scotch Snap goes to Poland

My recent discovery that one of the interpolations in Coppélia for Franz’s variation is from a “Scottish” ballet (Gretna Green, by Guiraud) encouraged me to re-watch Philip Tagg’s wonderful hour-and-a-quarter long documentary on the so-called Scotch snap. I say “so-called” because that’s the chief take-home point of the documentary: it’s called the Scotch snap, but it was once as characteristic of English music as Scottish, and the speech rhythm from which it derives is still prevalent in English today. If there’s a reason why we think of it as Scottish, or “Celtic” it’s because the English musical tradition where it was once common has been wiped clean, “upgraded” as Tagg puts it, of such elements, precisely because they became associated with lower class, country people. I suppose you could compare it to the way that people with regional accents or sociolects  are taught RP in elocution lessons. English music from roughly Handel onwards became the Elisa Doolittle or Lina Lamont (see below—and for more on all this, watch Tagg’s video). 


In the Guiraud solo, that snap is an an identifier for “kind of Polish/Ukrainian” (i.e. 19th century Galicia), except that in the piece it came from, Gretna Green, the snap is Scottish. There is also the drone  D in the bass that suggests rusticity, but it’s the snap that’s the real giveaway. Here are the two side by side: 

The Scotch snap in Swanilda's "Friends" dance from Coppélia

The Galician “snap” in Swanilda’s “Frends” dance (Thème slave varié in Act I)

The Scotch snap in the (Scottish) ballet Gretna Green by Giraud

Guiraud’s Scotch snap from Gretna Green, used as Franz’s solo interpolated in some productions of Coppélia

As Tagg argues in his video, what this is about, surely, is not so much race, nation or ethnicity. but class. The same seems to be true of  Coppélia: it doesn’t really matter (at least to modern audiences, I suspect it did matter to Delibes) where Franz comes from, what matters is that he’s a rustic local, not a prince, or an urban(e) shopkeeper or toymaker.  In theory, Franz could be dancing to Chopin, since Chopin was Polish. But how wrong would that have looked?  Chopin is the wrong class of Pole, the concert-giving, salon-performer in Paris, the poet with a floppy cravate in Les Sylphides. Franz is a rustic, like those villagers in Giselle whose waltz is all Bohemian snaps. 

Extract from the Waltz in Act I of Giselle, showing the Scotch snap

The Waltz from Act I in Giselle, showing the Scotch snap (or Bohemian snap, if you like)

But I’m leaving out an important detail here. The music that Delibes *cough* “borrowed” the “Friends” tune from, is an art song by Moniuszko (see earlier post for all the details), and the “snap” doesn’t exist in the original: it’s something Delibes added. The notes at the same position in Moniuszko’s song are semiquavers, and they are for a single syllable. 

Poleć, pieśni, z miasta by the Polish composer Moniuszko (1819-1872). Source: IMSLP

Fair enough, there’s an acciaccatura in the piano accompaniment but does that amount to a Scotch snap? Not really, I think. 

They would have… 

I can guess how that Gretna Green solo ended up in Coppélia. It sounds kind of foreign, kind of rustic. That’s usually enough geographical detail and social context for the average ballet scenario.  I once heard a student ballet teacher tell a class of children, “Your hands are like this in this dance, because they would have…” That phrase, they would have has stuck with me ever since: she was talking about character/national dance, referring to people from another country as if they were not only remote geographically, but also historically. There was no detail about who “they” were, or where they were from, they were just “they.”  The construction would have seemed to imply that what these people did (whoever, or wherever they were)  could not be documented in terms of real people or events, but just as a list of possibilities, of permanent characteristics.  That sums up the strange universe of ballet pretty well.  We do this, they would have done that. I’m not sure what it was that the hands were supposed to be doing. Digging potatoes? Showing off handkerchiefs that they had embroidered?  It’s not the students’ fault: this is the casual, institutional racism, snobbery and ethnic nationalism of ballet that seeps from the walls of the art form. 

Rustics and rustication

Ballet apparently needs settings like these  to make it interesting, to give it what programme writers call “colour.”  Here’s an example from Pittsburgh Ballet, which is so representative of the genre, that you should not read anything into the fact that it’s that company or that author. It could be any ballet programme, anywhere: 

Nuitter and Saint-Léon changed the names of the characters, except for Dr. Coppelius, and moved the location from Hoffmann’s Germany to Galicia, a province of Austria-Hungary, because it was thought to be more colorful.  Today’s map finds Galicia in southeastern Poland and western Ukraine.  The “color” of the region can be seen in the brilliant colors, heavy embroidery and elaborate trimmings of the peasant costumes, widely enhancing the designer’s palette, both then and now.  It can also be heard in the rich nationalistic melodies and complex folk dances of the composer. (Source: Pittsburgh Ballet Programme Notes

Before continuing, let’s take a moment to remember that  “Friends” is not by Delibes, and nor is the Csárdás, and nor is this variation for Franz.   I’m not sure what  a “rich nationalistic melody” sounds like, or that Delibes “folk dances” are really that complex, but never mind. The main point is that ballet seems to need those Scotch snaps (or Celtic, Hungarian, Polish, Galician, Bohemian or whatever kind of snaps they are) to prevent the music from being a wall of  ballet gammon, or perhaps ballet mayonnaise. It’s a perverse form of “poverty tourism” where you can admire the rustics from the comfort of your box in the theatre, but at the same time shine a light on your own dullness, your lack of the rhythmic vitality demonstrated by  the people on stage. 

No-one, particularly not your average ballet audience, would actually want to go to those places of course. One of the punishment for academic misdemeanours at Durham University was (and still is)  “rustication,” i.e. being sent back to the sticks. According to a lecture by Dr Martin Pollack, this is apparently how Austrians (who annexed it in the 18th century) once viewed Galicia, a place you didn’t want to get sent (one writer referred to it as “Halbasien,” “half-Asia”), at least, until the job of Germanification had been completed, and the locals had been tamed. 

Of course, there is poverty, and there is staged poverty. Pollack mentions that his stepfather had been stationed in Galicia in the first world war (so less than 50 years after the premiere of Coppélia). His memory of those experiences included “wide wooded uplands, and impoverished hamlets where everything was built from wood, even the churches.”  The wooden churches were what surprised his stepfather most, since in his native Austria, he had never seen such a thing. One thing is for sure: it didn’t look like the set of Coppélia. 

The inhabitants of Galicia aren’t just a fictional people invented for the ballet scenario. They had names, and lived and died in villages with names.  Where he can, using archival records, Tagg names some of the English workers who went as indentured labourers to the US in appalling conditions. Likewise, you can find out about the inhabitants of Galicia: Poles, Ukrainians, Jews, and others at the time of Coppélia by searching the All Galicia Database which has records going back to the 18th century. Obviously, Coppélia is a fiction, not an attempt to portray real people. But it matters that Galicia is a real place, with complex histories, if you’re going to start saying local colour, and they would have…  

Esmeralda and the Truands

Next on my list is La Truandaise from Esmeralda, another example of the “Scotch” snap being used to denote otherness that is geographically vague (Bohemian? Gypsy?) but definitely poor. In the video below (assuming YouTube don’t block it) of Osipova dancing the “Truandaise,” the flexed foot is perhaps the movement equivalent of the Scotch snap. She does it, because (as a  ballet teacher might say) they would have flexed their feet (because they couldn’t afford to go to ballet classes, and find out about good toes and naughty toes). So how could she afford pointe shoes then? Best not to ask too many questions. 

The Scotch snap in Pugni's La Truandaise from his ballet "La Esmeralda"

Pugni’s “La Truandaise” dance from Esmeralda (1844)

Feed the birds 

Tagg demonstrates through many examples that the Scotch snap rhythm is common enough in English speech that it is bizarre that it should have come to denote anyone from the British Isles except the English (as “Celtic” has come to mean). Playing for class today, I discovered another example: “Feed the Birds” from Mary Poppins. Tup-pence, Tup-pence. I “discovered it” because as I was playing it, I thought first of all, “here’s a rather odd example of a “Bohemian” snap in a musical, until I realised that is not Bohemian at all, but English—and, fitting Tagg’s hypothesis, it’s a certain kind of Englishness—an old beggarwoman selling breadcrumbs for tuppence a bag. If you’d never seen Mary Poppins, and just heard the tune of Feed the birds, you might well think that it’s a tragic song from old Bohemia. 

Feed the birds  is an interesting case. According to the Wikipedia page on the song, the author of Mary Poppins, Pamela Travers, only wanted period Edwardian songs in the film, and had to be coaxed round to Americans writing the soundtrack. Oddly, it turned out to be an excellent choice, because the Sherman brothers portrayed Englishness in music particularly well with those “Scotch” snaps (there’s another one in A spoonful of sugar. The class issue is less clear there, though Mary is still only the nanny, however posh she might be). Listening back to “Feed the birds” with Tagg’s documentary in mind, I wonder what it is that I think I can hear—and it’s the very ordinary speech of my childhood. My dad, and the local shopkeepers saying “tuppence” or “tuppence ha’penny,” or “throppence.” The (musical) idea that the Scotch snap is Bohemian, gallic, celtic, Hungarian, or whatever, has blinded me to the rhythms of my own speech. Extraordinary. 

What a difference a demisemiquaver makes. And how much history you can write, just by focusing, as Tagg does, on detail like this.  And as one final aside, writing this post I came to hear of a novel I should have known about years ago, Joseph Roth’s, Radetzky March (Dr Pollack mentions it in his lecture), and am thoroughly enjoying reading it. I wish I had read it before any of my travels in what was once the Austro-Hungary, and I suspect it will make great background reading for Coppélia

Update: House of the Rising Sun, another candidate

Playing this for class the other day, I suddenly realised that the “scotch” snap features in this song, too: and it’s nothing to do with the words this time, because no-one pronounces New Orleans with the emphasis on the new (not even The Animals, later in the song), though many a poor boy is an example of the “scotch” snap in everyday English. 


It’s interesting to compare this with the 1933 recording of the related Rising Sun Blues by Tom Clarence Ashley & Gwen Foster. Ashley said he learned it from his grandfather, and the song—or a variant of it—may date back to the 16th century


The Scotch Snap: everything you needed to know, and a hundred more questions


This is probably the most interesting video I’ve ever seen on a musical question. If you want to know why, read on below the clip. As it happens, I’ve posted this on Robert Burns Day/Burns Night, so the topic of the Scotch snap couldn’t be more appropriate.

Philip Tagg: making sense of the Scotch snap at last

Philip Tagg and his articles have kept me sane since the day I discovered him somewhere around 1999.  He gets inside the same questions that perplex me about music, and is one of the few musicologists that make much sense when it comes to understanding dance and music.  One of the things that has intrigued me for years and years is the ‘Scotch snap’.

I’ve probably thought about it daily for about 10 years, mainly because of the Waltz in the ballet Giselle (1841) and that Mozart minuet in E flat, both of which exhibit scotch snaps in 3/4 time, and because my yearly trips to Prague have given me occasion to overhear Scotch snaps in Czech music, or at least folk music that’s played in Prague (which might be Slovakian or Hungarian, or Romanian, depending on who’s playing it, and when your maps were drawn).  One pianist I know deliberately plays the scotch snaps in the Giselle waltz as if they’re before the beat. When I asked him why, he said he’s always thought that bit ‘sounded silly’ if you play it like it’s written. Sometimes I’ve wondered whether some scotch snaps in classical music are  just notational errors:  I seem to remember reading that there are  instances where copyists would write a dotted rhythm using the semiquaver first as a kind of shorthand meaning the opposite. Can’t remember where I read that, unfortunately.

The Scotch snap and stress patterns in Croatian

And there’s more: as a student of living in Zagreb, I remember being fascinated by the comment of a Croatian translator who noted that since all stress in Croatian is on the first syllable, there was no iambic poetry in that language. Considering that iambs are so common in English (think of all those children’s skipping songs) the idea that a language could just exist without an iamb to speak of seemed bizarre. But I speak Croatian, so I know that it’s not.  Then there’s the added fact that Croatian/Serbian have accents of length as well as of stress, sometimes it’s really difficult to tell whether someone’s elongating a vowel, or stressing it – so someone could tell you that the accent is on the first syllable of a word, but to me it sounds like it’s on the second, because it’s a long vowel (the same is true of Czech sometimes).

The great thing about this video is that Tagg has done all the work that I knew needed to be done, but I wondered if I’d ever live long enough to start doing it. It’s a wonderful advert for the kind of interdisciplinarity that makes me get up in the morning, and which Tagg himself advocates in his 2011 article Caught on the back foot.  By the end of the video, there are just even more questions to ask, which to me is what good research is all about. And Tagg’s conclusion – that you should be looking for class divisions before ethnic ones if you want to understand issues like this in music – resonates hugely with a great article I read yesterday on the concept of the ‘ballet boy’ (Time to confront Willis’ lads with a ballet class?) – in which the author says that it’s class, not gender that’s the issue in ballet & Billy Elliot, but gender’s an easier issue to tackle if you’re trying to pretend that you live in a classless society.


Ebb and Flow


One of my favourite landmarks by the Thames

To the Peacock Theatre yesterday afternoon to see ENB school’s performance. Well, to be honest, mainly to see my friend Chris Hampson’s new piece for the men, Flow. I always have to remind myself how young these dancers are. When they graduate, musicians can get away with being a bit teenagery, geeky and badly dressed with a slouch even though they can play the oboe rather well, but dancers have to be fully finished human beings as part of what they do, and hell, were they good yesterday.

A single moment stands out and haunts me from the whole show. It was in Ernst Meisner’s joyous piece done to the Rachmaninov two-piano suites. Surrounded by Stravinsky, John Adams & Bach, Rachmaninov on two pianos could have sounded a bit arch and fruity but it didn’t, because the choreography rode the waves of the music so you felt like you were surfing it, not watching it. The single moment in question was when a line of dancers formed stage right, and in unison, turned their heads to watch an imaginary object pass overhead. The ‘imaginary something’ was a musical phrase. It’s one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen in a ballet, so simple it hurt.

There was something similar in Chris (Hampson’s) piece to the Bach C minor double piano (violin) concerto.  A simple flowing arm movement found the music in the music in a hundred ways, and in the slow movement, the soloist turns his head slowly to the back, then looks quickly to the front when the solo instrument enters, as if he has suddenly ‘seen’ the music.  A security guard in the audience was so taken with what he had seen that I saw him in the lobby trying out the recurring arm movement in different ways, amazed at what it felt like to move to music. Actually, that didn’t happen, I dreamed it last night, but that’s how intoxicating it was to watch.

I’d never really got into John Adams’ music before seeing Hallelujah Junction at the Linbury, which I loved, and Christopher Tudor’s piece to another Adams’ score made me realise this is my kind of music. Just wish there’d been more of it.

It’s no reflection on Michael Corder’s choreography, which is always  musical and sensitive (and the dancers did it excellently), that his piece to Stravinsky’s Dumbarton Oaks annoyed me. It’s not him, it’s Stravinsky, or rather ‘Stravinsky’ (as Taruskin might put it). I’m bored with ‘Stravinsky’, bored with the fawning ideology that presents him as the natural progression of music in the twentieth century, from which there can be no rhythmic going back. I spent the piece trying to work out what annoyed me about it, and concluded that the trouble with music that is consistently unpredictable is that it’s also consistently forgettable. The metrical ambiguity and change and melodic fragmentation leaves you with nothing but a series of passing snapshots, like watching a crowd in an electric storm at night.  It’s not even that I particularly dislike the music, it’s just  more analogous to a painting than to a dance. It has texture and flashes of colour, but no temporal quality. You can only stand as an observer and take in a moment at a time and then pass to the next one.

And so to Giselle Act II, which was the second half of the programme. Again, nothing against the dancers who did brilliantly, and I think the concept of doing a whole Act of a classic is great. But oh lord, this  Giselle of all things needs to be taken apart like an old sports car and put together from scratch.  It’s presented as a classic ballet blanc when even in 1841 it was nearer to Phantom of the Opera or Wicked. Giselle is the gothic ballet par excellence, so has enormous resonance for an era obsessed with  Twilight, but this production  glosses over that in a schoolmarmy, worthy way so that ironically, all the life really is taken out of it – the true corpse is the ballet, not Giselle the person.

There’s also something about listening to a recording of the music (complete with reverberant acoustics that suggest a concert hall a hundred times larger than the Peacock) that gives an auditory  unity to the score which ruins the surprise and melodrama of it.  I’ve  just been re-reading Marian Smith’s excellent Ballet & Opera in the Age of Giselle, and her argument based on utterly convincing evidence, is that we miss the point if we don’t understand how much Giselle borrows from the methods of opera.  The score is in many places made up of recitative-like interjections and abrupt changes suggesting verbal drama, but once it’s been engineered and passed through a sound system, and in the absence of life in the form of an orchestra or conductor it is flattened and straightened out into an acoustic sausage that is 80% sawdust. And what on earth is that darn fugue doing in the middle of this production? There are those wilis, being all 19th century and weird and gothic, when suddenly they do a kind of  Mark Morris style celebration in the forest to a fugue that is surely the most pointless episode in the history of ballet.

But that’s a side issue, a symptom probably of being in the middle of writing a dissertation on relationships between voice, gesture, music & communication. You notice these things when you look for them. In total, it was a magnificent afternoon, and I was in awe of the dancers’ extraordinary abilities and commitment. It’s for this that I’ve preferred spending my life in the dance world rather than music.