Tag Archives: Music

Lightly up, up, up: John O’Brien, legendary dance teacher

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John O'Brien in June 2016. Photo: Andrew Florides (www.andrewflorides.co.uk)

John O’Brien in June 2016. Photo: Andrew Florides (www.andrewflorides.co.uk)

When John O’Brien died on 11th May this year, I suggested to the RAD that they should do something to remember him, since he taught for many years there, quite apart from being the proprietor of Dance Books. It’s hard to imagine the world of dance scholarship, or discourse about dance generally, without the history of that shop and publishing company. What follows is the tribute to John I wrote for the RAD’s in-house staff newsletter. It’s one of quite a few such pieces on my site now, so forgive any small repetitions. No sooner had I finished it, than I thought of dozens of other things I could say about John and what made him such a great teacher and person, but I hope this is at least the beginning of a worthy tribute. 

Lightly up, up, up: John O’Brien

Mention the name John O’Brien to people above a certain age in the dance world, and they’ll usually start showing you one of the exercises that started his famous continuous body conditioning barre: lightly up, up, up, gently down, down, down, arm halfway across, and open out, out; or the leg-swings, followed by the leg-swings, bending the knees. He had started these body conditioning class for the orchestra at Ballet Rambert when he was a dancer there, and later taught developments of it at the Actors’ Centre, the old City Lit in Stukeley Street, and Pineapple Dance Studios, where he also taught ballet classes on Saturday afternoons that incorporated a continuous barre.

At RAD headquarters, John taught boys’ ballet classes on a Saturday morning, and body conditioning on the LRAD course, which is where I first met him in 1986, just before I left to go freelance. I then played for him almost exclusively for the next three years, sometimes for nearly every class he taught in the week, excluding the private lessons. On a free morning, I would sometimes drop into the RAD and play for him there for free, just for the joy of working together. One week, I accompanied classes he gave at Crystal Palace to an Olympic diving squad. They started the week looking muscle-bound and defensive. After a few days, they looked like dancers.

John became so well-known for those body conditioning classes, that people often forgot—if they ever knew at all—that he was first and foremost an outstanding ballet teacher and coach. At the same time, “body conditioning” doesn’t begin to describe what those classes were about—it was just a name for something that incorporated all kinds of approaches to working with the body, that inspired and helped generations of dancers, figure skaters, gymnasts,  actors, and anyone else who had an interest in movement. The seemingly endless list of people he’d worked with included Maggie Smith, Jane Fonda, Fenella Fielding and George Chakiris, yet he was humble to the point of complete self-effacement: he was not a “personality,” or the life and soul of the party, or a character, or someone who impressed you with the amount of their knowledge, or the wit of their one-liners. John’s presence in a room was deeply pacifying and refreshing, it had a kind of hum and energy to it that went out to others rather than drawing attention to himself. When he taught, it was never about transmitting knowledge, but about enabling, challenging and nurturing people until they were more fully themselves, and better at what they did.

Music and the continuous barre

Those continuous barres really were continuous. John would say “if you need to take a break, just stop, and drop back in again with the music when you’re ready.” He meant it, of course, and I often did take a rest for a couple of exercises, but he also knew that I couldn’t resist the challenge of trying to keep going. In one of the longest non-stop barres, we finally took a break after 45 minutes.

A lot of the repertoire I have now, I learned in those classes. It was before the days of iPads and electronic scores, so I had to arrange music books all over the piano and on the floor, just managing to switch between them and turn pages in time for the next exercise. Often, I would go straight from class to Zwemmers music shop in Litchfield Street to pick up more repertoire books: buskers’ books, the Irving Berlin songbook, or scores of ballets that John had mentioned, like Les Forains by Sauguet, a work I would never have known without him. He gave me several scores from his own collection, including a book of Gershwin songs that I now know by heart.

I would set myself challenges, such as trying to play everything in 3/4 time until I ran out of ideas, or everything in four, switching sometimes between double or half time. As I grew more confident, I would challenge both of us: to suddenly change from three to four or double to half-time between exercises, or play music that was minimal and quiet on one side, raucous and loud on the other. He loved the challenge, but was never caught out, probably because he had long ago practised with Marie Rambert some of the Dalcroze-inspired rhythmic exercises she had used to help dancers in the original cast of Rite of Spring. In the centre, his exercises would have Dalcroze-based challenges in them—step across left, step across right, in a foursquare rhythm, while doing something else with the arms, then saying the days of the week (which of course, come in sevens, and with different numbers of syllables, so they would never align with the feet or arms). The idea was not to achieve perfection, but to keep trying, to keep nagging the brain and body out of their habits. I am sure there are people who had been going to those classes for years, if not decades, but were still challenged by this part of it.  

Musicality

These are just some of the ways that John’s musicality was unique and extraordinary, which was why most musicians loved playing for him. Apart from anything else, you could play almost any song from any show from 1900 to the present day, and he’d know it, recalling the words instantly. I’d make him smile with ironic segues from one song to another, like Love and Marriage on one side to It ain’t necessarily so on the other. With his voice he kept an impeccable rhythm, secure but never controlling, as fluid and expressive as a conductor’s beat, and with a musician’s sense of phrasing. During the last few counts of the second side of an exercise, he would usually give the instructions for the next one, but sometimes this would be shortened into a single gesture right at the end of the phrase, raising his arm, for example, in preparation for the arm-swings that were about to come. Somehow you knew from the slightest breath or movement what he was going to do next, how much to hold back or push on with tempo. He listened not just to what you were playing, but how you were playing it, and always left space for you to play expressively. It didn’t matter if you made a mistake, or if what you played didn’t quite work: he kept the rhythm going for you and the dancers, so you could quickly find your place again. It was this that enabled me to try out so many things for class in our time together, because you could go wrong, and it didn’t matter. If there was a way to make them work, he’d find it, and if not, well, we’d try again another day.

You can’t teach this kind of musicality, but neither, I think, can you unlearn it once you have experienced it. Many years ago, I took Christopher Hampson (now artistic director and CEO of Scottish Ballet) to one of those classes, eager for him to see what had inspired me so much. He loved it, and began to use continuous barres in his own classes, always acknowledging the debt to John. Alex Simpkins, John’s partner, restarted the body-conditioning classes last year, working together with former members of the class, some of whom had been to them for literally decades. Playing for both Chris and Alex, I feel the same kind of freedom as I had working for John: a musical conversation in the class that often spills out into an excited verbal one afterwards. 

To a large degree, this has nothing to do with music at all, but with sensitivity and communication. John once said that for pianists in a class, it can be a bit like being on the outside of a dinner party, when you don’t know anybody, and nobody makes you feel at home until all of a sudden, somebody says something like “and where do you come from?” and then it’s fine. John was always looking for a way to open, maintain and develop that contact, to make the pianist feel welcome, at home, at one and engaged with the class, because he knew that if it was lost, or never there in the first place, both teaching and playing were a thankless task.

And on the other side

John was one of the most down-to-earth people I have ever met in the ballet world, which is why he was so refreshing to work with, yet at the same time, he had what I feel obliged to call, for clarity’s sake, a “spiritual” side—though I’m not sure I ever heard him use the word: it implies a division between body and spirit that was foreign to him. He was as many people know, a healer, and in his teaching, coaching, and classes, he always remained open to the mysterious, the numinous, and the transpersonal, in the sense of that something that happens between people who do things together that is intensely felt and experienced, but is difficult to identify or describe. There was nothing strange or awkward about any of this. It was a humility, an openness to something beyond himself, as natural as feeling the breeze through an open window. As he put it himself in class one day, rousing everyone to action with his characteristic big smile, “This thing’s bigger than all of us!”

London 1st June 2019

Other posts on this site about John O’Brien

On-screen commentary from pianist Joshua Piper during YouTube ballet class

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When I first learned to drive, I read a book about the police driving test, in which you had to do a “commentary drive,” which involves describing to the examiner (while you’re driving) what you are observing on the road ahead, explaining the decisions you’re making, the precautions you’re taking, and so on. I often think of this during ballet class, because as any ballet pianist will tell you, although we seem to “just” play when the exercise starts, there’s a whole series of observations, analyses and decision-making processes going on before we lay a finger on the keyboard, and then a dozen more as we’re actually playing, some of which are so quick as to seem unconscious and instantaneous. For the novice pianist trying to learn something about how to play for class, watching another pianist has limited use, because you don’t know why they’re doing what they do. Sometimes, they don’t know either, or have forgotten by the time class is over. That’s why the video below by ballet pianist Joshua Piper (aka heavypiano) is really useful: he’s filmed a real class, with him playing, put it on YouTube, and put a short text commentary over it, usually at the beginning and ends of exercises, so you can see why he’s doing what he’s doing. [If you can’t see the embedded video, click here to see it on YouTube]

He explains, for example, that at a certain point in the barre, the teacher likes a “less is more” approach to the music, so he holds back, avoiding too much subdivision, playing chords in light touches, which gives the dancers space to move, so to speak; elsewhere he talks about trying to maintain tempo, and create a feeling of ebb and flow, of introducing a bit of stride, but not too heavy. It’s a great lesson on making your repertoire stretch, too—adapting tunes according to the tempo and feel of the exercise, so that you only just realise by the end that you know the tune, but in a different form (I’m thinking here of his styling of Korobeiniki, a.k.a. the Tetris theme.

He emphasises that what’s happening in this class at times is fairly unusual: the teacher wants him to play quiet, thin, and spacious music for exercises that would often be accompanied by more robust, circussy stuff. But that’s why the video is so useful—it demonstrates how a particular pianist adapts his style to a particular teacher and the dancers, rather than making any claims that you can apply the same musical template to every ballet class in the world. It’s the necessity to adapt that is what makes the job difficult, but also rewarding. One of my favourite comments is where he says he’s trying to “imply round movement with my LH pattern” in ronds de jambe, an exercise that’s normally taken in 3/4, but which he’s playing in 4. Finding ways to trick people’s ears into thinking they’re hearing three when they aren’t is one of my tactics, too, as I’ve described in another post.

This is a great video, and Joshua Piper plays beautifully—but I also have to say he’s lucky to have this teacher, and that class (I’m guessing it’s Ballet Austin, but I’m not sure). There are other videos to be made, where the pianist—like a police driver explaining how he is going to manoeuvre a skidding car out of a muddy ditch while pursuing criminals— shows how they try to make the eternal fondu-tango-that-is-too-slow or the ronds-de-jambe-stirring-porridge-waltz still feel like music against the most challenging odds.

The more I watch and listen to this video, the more I love the way Joshua Piper plays, his repertoire, stylings, and commentary—and the video itself, too: it makes such a nice change to have a static, wide camera angle, and a focus on a good quality recording of the sound, rather than a body mic given to the teacher, and fetishistic close-ups of dancers’ feet and sweaty faces. Ballet on TV is so darn predictable. This video gives you a feel for the calm, peaceful concentration that you get in a ballet classes, and an idea of just how exposed and focal the music can be when you’ve got a teacher who isn’t screaming over the top of it.

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)

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. 

 

 

A year of ballet playing cards #54 (Red Joker): Odalisques from Le Corsaire

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Fragment of Odalisques from Le Corsaire (sheet music)

Click on the image to download the file

It’s that time of year again, ballet summer schools season, when teachers are supposed to tell you in advance what they are going to do in the repertoire classes, but they don’t decide until they’re making the coffee in the green room on the first day. Then they come into the studio, and see that they have a boy in the class that they weren’t expecting and it all changes again. Or they’re teaching a version of Swan Lake that has an interpolation in it that they didn’t realise was interpolated, and in fact not by Tchaikovsky at all, until today.

I’d bet money on the fact that if you play for summer schools, someone is going to say “Odalisques” to you, and expect you to know what they mean, and to have the score saved on your brain’s USB stick. As an aside, you might just ponder the fact that boys on summer schools get to be princes, heroes, idealists and poets. If you’re a girl? Here, I have a harem chambermaid solo for you. 

Repertoire classes in the YouTube era

Repertoire classes have got worse for pianists (and others) since YouTube, because people in Vladivostok post stuff from a rare Soviet gala that they digitized from a VHS tape that they recorded in 1986, someone in a vocational school in England sees it and decides that it would be perfect for Arabella’s solo at the end of year show. For the performance, Arabella plugs her phone into the sound system at the side of the stage, and gets her friend to press play on YouTube, because it’s 2018, and that’s how we roll. A week later, Arabella’s  teacher is teaching at a summer school and says knowledgeably “I thought we’d do the third act girl’s solo from The Cobbler of Archangelsk, do you have that?”  The recriminations when you say you don’t. “But Arabella did it in Minehead, and the pianist could play it by ear.” Don’t get me started. 

People seem to be frustrated when their flesh-and-blood supplier of music (i.e. the pianist) isn’t like YouTube. You can’t type <YAGP Elena Razumovsky 2014> on their forehead and wait for a result.  The look of bewilderment when you say you just don’t have something, or don’t know it; don’t get me started. 

Odalisques from Corsaire: a typical problem, and now a solution! 

The solos from the pas de trois from Le Corsaire for three Odalisques keeps turning up at summer schools and repertoire classes, and I keep printing off the handwritten score from IMSLP.  Le Corsaire is in the repertoire of many companies, but you can’t download or buy a score, or rather, the one you can buy is expensive and covered in all kinds of copyright notices because it’s someone’s version. Thank God for IMSLP, and for the two people who uploaded a couple of incomplete handwritten scores from cupboard in Russia somewhere.  But these are only just OK. The second odalisque takes up four handwritten pages of score with awkward page turns, whereas in my typeset version, it fits on a single page. 

Then there’s that moment where you thought you were safe with the solo, and then the teacher says halfway through the last class, “I thought as we’ve got a bit of time, we’d do the coda.” Have you got the coda? Of course you haven’t, don’t get me started. 

Then there’s that other moment where you triumphantly come into the studio with the score, play all the way through to the last page, and oh—wait! What’s that? The teacher looks at you like you just rammed her car at the traffic lights.  That’s not how it goes? Maestro, you must have cut some bars out? No, no, no, we don’t need that! Out comes the YouTube clip on the iPad, and you find that there’s another version that you didn’t know about. Don’t get me started. 

At least for Odalisques, help is at hand. Here, free to download, is the pas de trois, with the intro, three solos, and the coda. The Bolshoi version and the Mariinsky version (there might be several, for all I know, don’t get me started) have slightly different endings for the entrée and the coda. Because I’m nice, I’ve put both in. 

A useful pas de trois to keep by the bread bin

Apart from being useful if you are going to be playing for the actual pas de trois, Odalisques is handy material for class. The opening is a curious mixture of legato, wafty, and allegro-like music. It’s perfect for when you’re not sure what kind of music is needed, because it’s got a bit of everything. The three solos and the coda are all at that slightly awkward in-the-middle tempo that you need for some exercises. For sure it’s not the most interesting music, but it’s useful. 

A year of ballet playing cards #38 (QC): Prague Waltzes: Soft, strong and very long.

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Screen grab of piano score of Prague Waltzes by Dvořák

Prague Waltzes: click the image to download the free piano score

When is a waltz not “a waltz”? Most of the time 

If I ever get to play what I think of as  “a waltz” for class (you know, the rollicking, flowing, swaying kind that has a pendulum swing in it that propels you forward without ever getting tired) , I mentally crack open the champagne. Ninety percent of the time in class, you’re trying to find something that is waltz-like, but not exactly “a waltz.” I suspect the problem is that the waltzes we know from the concert repertoire were made more for ears than legs. I have rarely, if ever, found a suitable moment in a ballet class  to play Léhar’s  Lippen schweigen (“The Merry Widow Waltz”), yet that’s one of the first tunes that comes to mind when someone says “waltz.” Over ten years, many of the posts on this site have hovered around this topic in one way and another, to the extent that I’ve now created a page listing the “waltz problem” posts.  

The sound of three heads turning

Much of the music you’re asked for in class has zen-like conundrums in the specifications. A colleague said he’d been asked by one teacher  for a “melting march.”  Sounds familiar:  I tried to solve a similar problem with what I called a “chameleon-like March by Granados).  Waltzes for multiple pirouettes are similarly taxing: you need something slow, but not too squidgy. Rhythmic, but with space for allowing more turns without sounding naff. Elastic and steppy for balancés, but then with three sharp beats that can signify three “heads” for a triple pirouette.  

If there’s a model for the tune that can accommodate all this, then perhaps it’s the opening theme of  Kaiserwalzer Op. 437 by Johann Strauss II: 

 

But it doesn’t last long, and it’s played so often for classes, you can only use it sparingly. 

That’s why Dvořák’s Prague Waltzes is such a find. Like the old slogan for Andrex toilet paper, it’s soft, strong, and very, very long. If you’ll forgive the comparison, the design problems of pirouette music and toilet paper are not so dissimilar. Beats in waltz music need a softness combined with a tensile strength such that they can hold together and stretch without breaking, but also separate with a quick tug when you need them to.  And here you have it: pages and pages of pirouette music that does all the right things (though I’ve made a few minor cuts to make it class-ready).

Prague Waltzes is a useful model of what “waltz” can mean. This composition is evidence that waltzes don’t just go “1 2 3 1 2 3” — there’s a whole world of varied accents and tempos and rhythms within a single phrase. Most significantly, in my view, there’s a lift/accent/length/weight, call it what you will, in the middle of the bar rather than beginning, and often a sense of direction towards the third beat, not the first; sometimes there are three separate gestural beats in a bar, not three subsumed into one. Prague Waltzes also provides  many examples of how to vary and extend a waltz idea when you’re improvising. 

I also love the title, having spent every 14 of the last 15 years playing for the International Ballet Masterclasses in Prague. It’s a city I will associate forever with ballet, playing for some of the best and nicest people in the ballet world. I wish i’d had this music for some of them, however, considering how many hours of pirouettes I must have played for. 

Tempo for Prague Waltzes

I left the allegro vivace  on this arrangement out of deference to the orchestral score, but to me this doesn’t sound right given what’s on the page, and so the metronome marking range is mine.   I like the tempo that Jirí Belohlavek takes it with the  Prague Symphony Orchestra (I also like to think they must know what they’re doing with this Czech music).   For class, you could take it even slower, and pull it about in different ways as necessary. Belohlavek plays around with the tempo quite a lot for the sake of concert interest, but the opening sections are the kind of tempo which works well for a lot of pirouette exercises. 

 

The mysterious case of the Lyrical Waltz

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I’ve just had an email from a teacher, asking me what I understand by the term “Lyrical Waltz.” Short answer, I don’t understand anything by it, but the long answer is that I’m rather fascinated by how a term like this can gain such currency over a long time, without apparently having much meaning. 

Lyrical waltz: a potted personal history

The first time I heard the term “lyrical waltz” was when I started work at the RAD back in 1986. I think it was something that teachers had been told was a meaningful musical term to use to pianists. I used to improvise waltzes that started with  a dotted quarter note + three eighth-note pattern (as in the Sleeping Beauty lilac fairy attendants example below). I soon ran out of ideas. I think the reason I associated this pattern with “lyrical” was because somewhere in a syllabus book there was an exercise that had “lyrical waltz” as a tempo indication, and that’s roughly how the music went. 

Screengrab of the piano score of Tchaikovsky's Sleeping Beauty, Lilac Fairy Attendants

Lilac fairy attendants from Sleeping Beauty (Tchaikovsky). When I hear “lyrical waltz” I think of this rhythmic pattern of dotted quarter note + three eighth notes. But I’m not convinced that’s good enough.

What—if anything—is a lyrical waltz? 

Over the years, I have tried to work out what, if anything, a “lyrical waltz” is in musical terms, but have only come up with more questions. 

  • Does it mean something that has the quality of a song? That doesn’t really work, because there are plenty of songs that have a bombastic quality.
  • Does it have a melody that is song-like, rather than being motif-based like the Act 1 waltz in Swan Lake, or the opening of waltz of the flowers in Nutcracker, where you can hear the composer at work, rather than the singer. However, as soon as you start singing these tunes, they have a song-like quality, they’re singable. Back to square one.
  • Does it mean something that has more eighth-note motion than 1-in-a-bar feel? Not an infallible criterion, because there are 1-in-a-bar waltzes which could be described as lyrical, and eighth-note ones which aren’t.
  • Does it just mean slow? I don’t think so, because teachers who have ever asked for this didn’t (I think) want something ponderous
  • Does it mean something where the melody takes precedence over the accompaniment, i.e. something like La plus que lente by Debussy? Up to a point, but if teachers use  the word “waltz” at all, I presume they’re expecting more rhythmic predictability than this.

Lyrical waltz—a pedagogical category only?

By “pedagogical category” I mean a term that has arisen from a teaching context, but has little relation to the world outside, but has somehow stuck. Whoever started using it may have had a particular waltz in mind, like the “Lyrical Waltz” of Shostakovich, from which they extrapolated a category, without giving it much thought. I think this happens a lot—where people like a single tune, not realising that what they like about it is particular, not generic. Take La cumparsita which people have sometimes used as a generic template for “tango” — when it’s about the only tango that goes like that, and in fact, was never a tango in the first place, but a march. As an illustration of this in practice, a colleague told me of a class where the teacher had sung a tune while she marked the exercise, and then said “But don’t play that. Play something similar.” You guessed it: after a few try-outs, she said “You know what, just play what I sang.” 

Incidentally, this is the opposite of that odd, ballet-only scenario where a teacher will ask for “The same thing” by which they don’t mean literally the same thing, but something that is in metre, tempo, style and feel the same, without being, you know, the same. This is where the everyday German distinction between das Gleiche and dasselbe is useful.  There might be an interesting intersection here between musicology and everyday ballet class practice. In Music, Imagination and Culture (1991), Nicholas Cook writes of the tendency to “hear works as individuals rather than as exemplars of a type” (p. 147) and that this is  a “defining principle of the aesthetic attitude,” citing Dahlhaus’s Analysis and Value Judgement (1983, pp. 13-14). In my experience, ballet pianists are much more attuned to attuned to what dance forms are as a genre than classically trained musicians. Ask the latter for “a polonaise” and they’ll play an exemplar, of which they probably only know a couple of the Chopin compositions, without being aware of the things that make it a polonaise in the first place. 

Lyrical waltz—or little waltz?

One teacher I play for often asks for “A little waltz” and for some reason, I know exactly what she means, though it could also be the tone of voice and gesture that conveys the idea. “Little” to me here suggests something in moderate tempo, moderate volume, not bombastic, not grand, with a smooth melody line, perhaps like the Tchaikovsky E flat major waltz Op. 39 , or the Little Waltz by Teresa Carreño.  A piano piece, rather than an orchestral number reduced for piano. A miniature. Little is a more productive and meaningful term for me than lyrical, though I’m still not convinced it helps. I’m also referring mentally to particular pieces that have an overall quality elicited in performance more than composition. 

Lyrical—just a name, rather than a category?

I searched around for “lyrical waltz” on Google, and then for Valse Lyrique. Once you exclude Shostakovich or Sibelius, it’s not a huge list, so the idea that there was once a whole category of waltzes called “lyrical” is suspect (though you’ll find quite a few of them on ballet pianists’ albums, which supports my theory that it’s a pedagogical term, not a real-life one). 

In the US Library of Congress Catalog of Copyright Entries 1945 (Music) New Series Vol 40 Pt 3 No 10 there are more compositions in the index with the word “Valse” in the title than “waltz,” and only a handful with the term “lyric.” When you look at the list of adjectives associated with “valse,” (see below) apart from lyrique including erotic, beige, parfumée, you begin to wonder whether any of them have much meaning, except as a way of flogging a generic composition as if it might be particular. Perhaps lyrical is doing the work of organic, natural, new, advanced, healthy, free-from! in food-labelling. If we’re fooled by food labels, I’m sure we can be taken in by sheet music covers.

Picture of the index from the US Catalog of Copyright Entries for Music 1945, showing a list of compositions including the term "valse"

Extract from the Catalog of Copyright Entries (Music) 1945, compositions with the title “Valse”

Postscript: Is “a lyrical waltz” something to do with the body, not music? 

Once I’d written this, I began to wonder whether the term “lyrical” has some purchase with dance teachers because of the genre of lyrical dance, in which case maybe it means “the kind of music I can do emotionally charged slow bendy dance to.” That opens the field up more, without the need to get too metrical-technical about the music. 

See also a new post on this topic here: 

 

A year of playing cards #23: A fruity waltz by Tcherepnin / Cherepnin (10h)

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Screen grab of the sheet music of Grande valse by Tcherepnin

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

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

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

Tcherepnin’s Grande valse: the best bits

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Turning up and the joys of live music

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St Martin-in-the-Fields

St Martin-in-the-Fields, taken last week.

It’s not often that I write much about my PhD research on my blog. Part of that is a nervousness of opening the oven door before the cake is cooked, part of it a feeling of responsibility to hone my AHRC-funded research into well-formed work before letting it loose. But last night I experienced something as a punter, so to speak, that changed all that, and caused me to think about my research in a different way. It also made me realise why I have quickly grown to love St Martin-in-the-Fields so much. 

It was the day of the terror attack in Westminster, and I was due to go to St Martin’s for the 6.30 service, and then to a Lent group that I’d joined as something positive to do in addition to my self-imposed 40-day exile from Facebook. I was having a frustrating day working on my thesis: I just looked at the last draft that I’d cut and pasted together months ago, and despaired. The enthusiasm I’d felt for going to the Lent group when it first started was waning, because I was having a bad day—maybe I’d be better off staying at home and working. St Martin’s is only walking distance away from Westminster. Maybe I shouldn’t go. Maybe there’ll be chaos. Maybe it’ll be dangerous. I’m not so gung-ho about going out when danger is imminent; you won’t find me saying I’m not scared. But I’d committed to the Lent group, that was the whole point. Turning up was important.

So I turned up. And during the distributing of the bread and wine, the pianist started playing, and I recognised within a few beats that it was Fauré’s Cantique de Jean Racine. Or rather, I recognised that the music was Fauré before I realised that it was the Cantique, because the introduction does what Fauré does so characteristically—to insert tiny melodic detours into an otherwise normal accompaniment, tiny burrs in the harmonic texture. You don’t notice the detail itself (unless you have to play it; then you notice it because it takes care and expert attention), you only notice its effect, like those pictures made up of thousands of smaller pictures that you cannot see unless you go up close.

The introduction to Fauré’s Cantique de Jean Racine. Those little passing minor seconds make Fauré Fauré.

I could hardly believe my ears. Surely they weren’t going to sing that, here, now, for us? But they did. I know every bar of that music, not as a performer, but as an enraptured listener. I first heard it when I was about 17, playing bass in the Hampshire County Youth Orchestra. We were going to accompany a choral society, and Gary Holmes, the conductor, told us a bit about the music: it was a lovely piece that people often chose for weddings. When you’re seventeen, and you’re playing this music in a full orchestra, with a large choir, it envelops and enthrals you in a way that rarely comes again, but the effect is lifelong. I have loved this music ever since then, and last night. I gave thanks inwardly for all the chances that made that happen, including the casual remark of a conductor that shaped the way I greeted the music then and forever after.

The Choral Scholars of St Martin’s in the Fields, barely more than a handful of singers, performed this with such warmth, breadth, commitment and unmannered beauty, I could hardly contain the joy it gave me. At those Bread for the World services on Wednesdays, you gather for the eucharist  in a circle near to the altar. I was standing just a few feet away from them, amazed that people just like you and me, dressed in normal day clothes (no choir robes, no ceremony, no fancy outfits) can stand there and produce this miracle of sound. I’m a musician myself, and maybe for that reason  it’s actually very rare that I perceive it as extraordinary, or can enjoy it.

But last night was different, and I suddenly wondered whether I understood, after all, one of the things that has mystified me about the people I’m writing about in my research. I have interviewed many dancers and teachers, and had many ad hoc conversations about music. There is something a bit strange about the ballet world: she shall have music wherever she goes, I often think to myself. In a world where it would be so easy to use recorded music like everyone else, you still find pianists used for class. It’s expensive. It’s difficult, and yet they still do it. Sometimes teachers nearly bankrupt themselves by paying for pianists when there are only a few people in the class, and as you walk past the studios, you think, why don’t they just use a CD? And when I ask them why, they say things like I don’t know. It’s  nice to have a pianist. I don’t know why. It’s just nice.  One of the things I’ve had to consider is whether to elevate this remark into something meaningful like Dora’s “it depends” in Antoine Hennion’s  article on taste , or to wonder whether pianists are a kind of luxury that doesn’t bear scrutiny easily, like having a butler.

Last night, however, as I looked across at the singers, I found myself thinking the same: This is nice. I thought of all the things that made this experience difficult: they need to rehearse, they need to turn up, they need to be present for other people not just as musicians, distanced from their audience, but participating with them in these rituals. I thought of all the organising, the structures, the planning, that had to be in place for this to happen, right down to getting the scores to sing from, and putting them away afterwards. There are multiple performances going on, and they have to do all of them well. In that sense, there is something about being there and singing that is caring. It’s being there for someone else, doing your thing, and doing it well, and perhaps not even being appreciated properly (though in fact, the vicar did thank them at the end, and you could see that they were delighted to have been acknowledged). I’ve also been quietly in awe from week to week, as another musician, of the improvisations of the pianist as he closely watches the progress of the eucharist, playing appropriate, thoughtful music to ease the transitions and cover the gaps. It’s familiar territory for me, however different the context.

I wondered to myself whether this is something of why live music in ballet classes means so much to people. It’s not even about what the pianist plays, though that can be part of it. It’s about the fact that they’re there, they turned up, and they did something for you. It might in truth be not that difficult for them, but for you it was magic. Or they may have struggled against lethargy or competing demands to get there, but you have no idea of that; it made your evening. You can’t explain these things in terms of music, or Philip Auslander’s  “liveness” , much as I admire and refer to his work. Why you can’t is what I’m grappling with in my thesis, as I discuss the way that dancers and teachers think about these things, and now I find that I am no more able to explain my own joy than anyone else’s, but I don’t want it taken away from me. 

As the service ended, they sang Verily, verily I say unto you by Tallis, like an afterthought, as if it was nothing at all,  though of course, it was everything. There was a brief pause, and then they left, and the congregation began to disperse and talk. I looked over, and noticed one of the singers adjust her brightly coloured trainers, smile, turn and go. Just another Wednesday in London. It was the kind of moment that Daniel Stern describes in Forms of Vitality ,  where a whole world is contained in a moment that we know in all its complexity, instinctively, immediately, but could spend a lifetime trying to put into words. I guess I should know by now, considering how long I have been trying to write about music in everyday life that it might be the everydayness of some musical experiences that makes them special, but it took Fauré and those trainers to make me realise it. And as it happens, that moment also captures just something of what  I love so much about St Martin’s. 

References

Auslander, P. (2008). Liveness: Performance in a Mediatized Culture (2nd ed.). Abingdon: Routledge.
Hennion, A. (2007). Those Things That Hold Us Together: Taste and Sociology. Cultural Sociology, 1(1), 97–114. https://doi.org/10.1177/1749975507073923
Stern, D. (2010). Forms of vitality: Exploring dynamic experience in psychology, the arts, psychotherapy, and development. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

 

A year of playing cards #5: An operatic adage by Dvořák

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"Song to the Moon" by Dvorak

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The curse of the operatic adage 

I think I only have about three of these in my repertoire, which is why it was high time I got another. The way that some ballet teachers mark adages, you’d think the world was just full of voluptuous music that went “and one and a two and a.” I guess my worst fear is when you’re thinking of what to play, you settle on something fairly plain that will work, and then the  teacher does that inclined head thing, gives you a knowing smile, and says “Something inspiring.”  You have to hope they don’t add “…for a change”. This is the stuff of nightmares, because it usually wipes out what you’d decided to play (which is another reason not to decide what to play until the last minute. You never know what tempo or adjective is going to hit you in the few nanoseconds before you play the first note of the introduction).

This aria from Rusalka is just about perfect. The tune really does go “one and a two and a” so there’ll be no fumbling about while the class finds the beat, and half way through, it goes all Maria Callas. I’m afraid I’ve had to do inexcusable metrical surgery on the first part, leaving out a whole 8 bar phrase in order to make it regular, but it’s hard to hear the joins unless you know the aria really well.

Playing tips

You have to have heard this before trying to translate it into piano music. The opening muted strings are hard to reproduce on a piano, and you have to do a lot of work to get the tune out on top, but If you’re lucky, you won’t have to fill it out with semiquavers, though that’s a possibility if you don’t have a very good piano or nice acoustics.

Watching this video is a rather fascinating lesson in how to play for adage well. Listen to the elastic, free, fluid vocal line in the “chorus” bit, and look how the harp accompanies it with almost metronomic rhythmic precision. It must be really precise, because in fact, the last semiquaver that you hear in the bar (part of a single group in my piano reduction) is not the harp (which is silent on the last semiquaver of the bar), but the last note of the pizzicato string figure (quaver, quaver, semiquaver semiquaver) that accompanies the harp.

Pianists tend to be “expressive” and pull the timing around in the bar, but for adage you need to choose your moments very carefully. To provide the right kind of support for a dancer who is doing the equivalent of the vocal line, you have to be as rhythmically solid as that harp and those strings, but at the same time hint at the elasticity of the vocal line. It’s something like the Chopinesque rubato where the accompaniment remains steady while the right hand floats free, but somehow conceptually different. Hard to put into words, but easy to see in this clip.

Metre issues

I’ve put this in “Spades” (Adage) because it’s quite definitely an Adage (see here for an explanation), but on the other hand, it’s about as truly triple metre as metre gets, which is common in some Czech music. Yet more proof that “three” is a big subject in music: so many ways to be triple.