A waltzer at Winter Wonderland, 2018. With no competition the most horrible experience (the waltzer) I have ever had. I thought I was going to die or throw up or both.
For no reason except that I love the story, here’s an interesting fact about the waltz in 19th century Innsbruck.
According to Eric McKee (2014) after 1780, the term deutscher Tanz, which until then meant any German spinning dance, began to refer to dances—like the Walzer (waltz)—where couples made circuits around the edge of the dance space, while also turning in their own, smaller circles. If you’ve ever been on a waltzer at a fairground, that’s the principle: a surprising case of a fancy name reliably describing the thing it’s applied to.
For that reason, McKee refers to the waltz, Walzer, and Deutscher with the collective term Deutscher–Waltzer. The difference between these dances and the later “Viennese waltz” was that in the earlier forms, couples tried to co-ordinate their travel around the room with the other dancers, so that it was in effect a very large group dance. By contrast, in the first decade of the 19th century, couples began to treat the ballroom as a kind of anticlockwise circular motorway, choosing to create other smaller “lanes” inside the space, and varying the length of their stride so they could dawdle or overtake, choosing their own, independent speed.
And here we come to my favourite bit of McKee’s description:
However, in some regions an ordered an arrangement of dancers continued to be practiced. As late as 1816 in a dance hall in Innsbruck, upon his second warning a man could be reported to the police commissioner for passing ahead of another waltzing couple of the ballroom dance floor (Fink 1990, p. 39)
[The Fink citation at the end is part of McKee’s text. The quote above is from McKee 2014, p. 175)—see references for details].
Having seen the dirty looks that dancers in open classes can give to someone who fails to get out of the way at the end of a travelling exercise, or who is still working out the steps in their head in the middle of the studio while others are about to crash in to them, I can see the attraction of being able to call the police when you’re beyond narked. I’d be interested to know what the police commissioner thought about this—and what similar dancing crimes would be so heinous as to warrant a call to Cressida Dick?
As allegro was about to begin during a ballet class yesterday, I started to smirk thinking about something I’d read in Derek Parker’s fascinating book, The First 75 Years of the Academy, a brief history of the Royal Academy of Dance published on its 75th anniversary in 1995. It was a reminiscence about the teaching methods of Judith Espinosa, who “spoke Cockney in the old Dickensian manner” (pronouncing the letter v as w, apparently), and was rarely seen without a cigarette. For those used to universal smoking bans, it’s hard to believe that this was probably in a ballet studio, but even I remember having an ashtray on the piano during company class. In addition to chain-smoking and speaking Dickensian cockney, she also shouted so loud that people feared for her vocal health.
Put all these together, and now imagine the way that she set her choreographic “scenas” in class:
“You’re fishermen’s wives—you’re waiting on the beach for the boats, but there’s news that all the men have been drowned in a storm; you’re wild with grief. [To the pianist] We’ll have a waltz.” The First 75 Years of the Academy, p. 12
The style is hilarious, but what I was smirking at just as much was the familiarity—to anyone who’s played for class—of the abrupt return to musical mundanity with “we’ll have a waltz.”
In a previous post about the so-called “lyrical waltz” (a term sometimes used by some ballet teachers) I took a long time to come to the conclusion that perhaps “lyrical” in this instance is not so much a quality of the music, as of what may be done to it. The more I think about this, the more I am convinced of that explanation, and am enjoying developing the idea further by applying some theory to it.
I think that for the teacher who asks for a lyrical waltz, the boundaries between the properties of the music, and what it affords, are blurred. You could go further: music has only the properties that we assign to it, using whatever categories and terms we happen to bring to it; so for the teacher, if music affords lyrical movement, then the music itself is deemed to be lyrical. A nappy bucket, likewise, is so called for the things that it affords, or is commonly used for (washing nappies) but there is nothing inherently nappy-like about the bucket.
Think of music as a bucket, and it’s easier to see that there no such musical object as a waltz in the sense of something that has intrinsically waltz-like properties, but there are “waltz buckets”: pieces of music that you can fit the movements of waltzes to. This is much clearer with contemporary ballroom dancing, where the waltz-like qualities or propensities of music that you’ve hitherto only been able to hear as a ballad become evident when you see waltzing done to it, as in the example below from Strictly Come Dancing, where waltzing to Hallelujah points up the three-ness at one level of the metrical structure. Having said that, what happens on Strictly is so far removed from the practicalities of everyday ballet classes that it’s not a great example, frankly.
What confuses the issue is perhaps the fact that there are so many musical compositions called waltz that seem to “call forth” waltzing, as if it was something about the properties of the sounds themselves that did the calling-forth. But if you have ever stood unmoved and unmoving while some dance music played that seems to be animating people around you into joyful, seemingly spontaneous dancing, you’ll probably have to admit that enculturation is important (unless you’re the kind to say that there was something better about the waltz than there is about whatever is being played in clubs now).
Enter Tia DeNora, and theories of affordance and perception
This has been articulated theoretically by the music sociologist Tia DeNora in After Adorno (2003), in relation to music, obviously, rather than nappy-buckets:
Music comes to afford things when it is perceived as incorporating into itself and/or its performance some property of the extra-musical, so as to be perceived as ‘doing’ the thing to which it points. (DeNora 2003, p. 57)
Earlier, she has explained this with reference to marching music:
Music may also afford the imaginative projection of bodily movement, as when one ‘pictures’ a type of movement when hearing a type of music. The example of marching music serves to illustrate these points. On hearing march music one may (but not automatically—see below) be reminded of or begin to imagine—to ‘picture’ marching. One may, in other words, become motivated or aroused in relation to a type of agency—marching—to a particular movement style, and one associated with a particular set of institutional practices and their particular agent-states, such as bodily regulation, coordination, and entrainment. One may ‘become’ (produce one’s self as) a ‘marcher”—that is, on the occasion of music heard, one may adapt one’s self to its perceived properties and so become, via the music, a type of agent, in this case, one imbued with march-like, militaristic agency. (DeNora 2003, p. 47)
A ballet teacher asking for a lyrical waltz is a rather strange reversal of this, in that she is in effect saying “Play me a piece of music in waltz rhythm that will enable me to picture myself moving lyrically, so that when I hear it, I and the class will then be motivated or aroused to move in that way.” Or perhaps, more accurately, the subtext is: “I have been told by my teachers that if I use the term lyrical waltz, you will play me a piece of music in waltz rhythm that will enable me to picture myself moving lyrically” etc.
The trouble is, the teacher usually does not know how to define a lyrical waltz in terms that have any meaning or currency for musicians, and cannot cite or sing any examples of one; but like Justice Potter Stewart and hard-core pornography, she will know it when she hears it. (In Jacobellis v. Ohio, 1964, giving his reasons for deciding that something should not be considered hard-core pornography, the judge said, in a statement which has since become famous, “I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description; and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it. . . “).
Implications for teaching
It is things like this that make playing for ballet so wretchedly difficult at times. At the same time, trying to unpick the problems theoretically fascinates me, particularly when this has implications for the way that music is taught or thought about in ballet training. For example, the teacher who says “Can’t you hear it in the music?” may be barking completely up the wrong tree. DeNora speaks (in the quotation above) about institutional practices and movement styles, and how the conventional association of particular music with such practices is what enables us to perceive (or perhaps tricks us into perceiving) a certain piece of music as “march” music, or whatever. That being the case, what will enable the student to “hear” music as lyrical is to do lyrical movement to it, in the style and manner encouraged by the teacher. The music alone holds no clues, no “information” on its own.
To a limited extent—and I’d be interested to know if the experiment could be repeated elsewhere with the same results—my late colleague Holly Price and I discovered this in relation to teaching about “dance rhythms.” You could chalk-and-talk til you were blue in the face about the properties and characteristics of dance rhythms from a musical point of view (e.g. the waltz is in three four time, the polka has this rhythm, the hornpipe has these characteristics), but it was much more effective to just get a class of students to polka, waltz or hornpipe or whatever, around the studio for a couple of minutes to the relevant kind of music.
The lyrical waltz and the not-so-grand allegro
An associated problem, though, is that both music and movement are adaptable. You can do the same movement to different kinds of music, and the same music will fit different kinds of movement. Only in the last few weeks—and I’ve been playing for class for over 30 years— I realised that a certain kind of grand allegro is ideally accompanied by the kind of (wait for it) lyrical, 6/8 music that opens the pas de trois in Swan Lake, or the entrée of Odalisques from Le Corsaire.
The pas de trois from Act I of Swan Lake by Tchaikovsky.
The entrée of the “Odalisques” in Le Corsaire. It’s more allegro than it looks
I realised about Odalisques because I was playing for a repertoire class where the teacher explained to the students the amount of energy and dynamics they needed to put into the movement, which made me realise how “allegro-y” it was, contrary to the way it looks on the page and feels under the fingers. As for Swan Lake, this was a rare example of a teacher (the wonderful Romayne Grigorova) citing the prime example of what she was after.
In both cases, the music may not seem to be dynamically the equivalent of grand allegro (which is the test that I think a lot of us ballet pianists would apply) but it affords a certain kind of grand allegro, and the music would be associated in the minds and bodies with the choreography customarily done to it. It seems counterintuitive at first glance, but it makes sense: this is about doing energetic movements with grace and lyricism (there, I said it again).
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.
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.
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.
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.
Elastic or expressive timing is a feature of music in ballet classes that I’m rather nostalgic for. When I meet teachers who still do it, I feel as if I’m back home again. Recently, I’ve found that I need a particular category of waltz for company classes with multiple pirouettes, where the tempo needs to be forgiving, accommodating, like stretch fabric jeans that can be a couple of sizes larger than the label suggests. Schmaltzy is what we would have called it a few decades ago, but it’s a long time since I heard that word.
How I learned to love the schmaltzy waltz again
When I first started working in ballet, I’d be slightly appalled if a teacher wanted part of an exercise slower than the beginning, to make space for a different kind of step or more pirouettes. Now I enjoy the interaction with the teacher, enjoy the challenge to get the tempo change right and still make it sound musical.
You can’t do this with any old waltz, and particularly not with the kind that has an overwhelming metrical level, rather than switching between several through the course of the tune. I’ve put Deutsches Gemüthsleben in the “hearts” section because it has places where it’s in six (see various posts on triple meter), but the opening is very definitely in three. Sections E and F do what the Swan Lake Act 1 waltz does, which is to drive the accent to the second bar and fourth bars. At the ends of sections, the three-in-a-bar is suddenly more marked. In other words, what appears to be simply “3/4” has several different kinds of metre both internally (within a single phrase) and from section to section.
I’d never heard of Kéler until I read that he was the source of the Hungarian dance that made Brahms famous when he plagiarized it in its entirety, believing it to be a folk tune (like folk tunes just precipitate in the ether like ectoplasm, huh?), but I’m glad I found him. See more in Nancy Handrigan’s wonderful thesis On the Hungarian in Brahms, especially pages 55-56, and for the proof, listen to the original Kéler below (scroll to 2:56″ if it doesn’t start there automatically).
I haven’t found a performance of this Deutsches Gemüthsleben Walzer that I like, or that does justice to its potential for elastic timing (some of which Kéler writes into the score), but it’s remarkably similar to the waltz in Der Rosenkavalier, which is the feel I’m looking for (see below – scroll to 5:40 if the technology doesn’t make it start there automatically).
It might also not escape your notice that both Kéler’s melody and Richard Strauss’s have a lot in common with The Lonely Goatherd from The Sound of Music, and also — i noticed much longer aftewards — with the “Waltz of the Flowers” from The Nutcracker. Perhaps these falling thirds against an unchanging major floor is music’s answer to Gemüt, and perhapsGemütlichkeit is the best way to describe character of the schmaltzy waltz that you need for a certain kind of pirouette: music that’s warm, roomy, comfortable, supple, supportive, like an armchair by the fire in an old pub.
This is probably the nicest and most useful waltz for grand allegro I’ve found in a long time. It just sounds like ballet. You can use it straight off the shelf, and it’ll work instantly, and I love it.
The same goes for the adage from the Talisman pas de deux (my last entry) which I tried out in class today. It sounds just like all the things teachers seem to have in their heads when they mark adages, yet so few pieces actually deliver.
It also has within it a brilliant example of the difference between “normal” waltz metre and truly triple metre.The first and last sections are in “normal” waltz metre, i.e. in what we could otherwise notate as 6/8, with a weaker second main beat of the bar, whereas the middle section is truly triple, with accents every three. It’s hard to think of a better example to make the point with.
It’s not the cleanest score I’ve produced, but I’m trying out my little Akai LPK25 for the first time, and getting used to using laptop commands (i.e. without a numerical keypad) for a big editing job in Sibelius. It’s hard work, but I’m so glad to have finally done what I’ve been meaning to for years, and buy a little touring keyboard for inputting scores. I remember reading once that Czerny had so many projects on the go that he’d have a room full of desks with a project on each, and go round each one for an hour each, and then move on to the next one. It hasn’t got to that yet, but I found myself rather naturally using one side of the table for PhD work, and the other side for playing work. It makes it so much easier to put things down when I get in.
My desk in the apartment in Prague where I input the Talisman pas de deux coda
You can never have enough grand allegro, and this is handy because it’s in a class of pieces that are ballet music, which means that you have to be careful where you play them, but on the other hand, it’s repertoire that’s not often performed, so either people won’t know where it’s from, or they’ll smile and go “Isn’t that…??” and you look good because you know weird stuff that you found on Youtube. The solo is at 48’46” in the clip below. It should start there automatically when you click, but if it doesn’t, drag the slider to the correct time.
Sheet music for Drigo’s Diane and Acteon pas de deux from Esmeralda, with that fabulous coda, and gutsy male solo, from one of the best ballet music sites on the internet. This is one of the most confusing things in the world of ballet music, since to gala-goers, Diane and Acteon and Esmeralda have nothing to do with each other.
Esmeralda male variation music: the meter (for geeks only)
This should reallybe in the Clubs suit, not Hearts, because it’s actually a truly triple meter, not the dodgy six-eight kind—the phrases end on the eighth count, not the seventh. What fooled me was the melodic phrasing, which is in two bar units, which definitely feels duple. But look more closely, and not only are the cadences on 8, but also the harmony changes every bar, which strengthens the case for truly triple metre even more. Also, the introductory vamp before the first jump is one bar long, not two, which aligns somewhat with what William Rothstein has to say about “Franco-Italian hypermeter.” I transcribed this from the recording, so I don’t know whether in fact Drigo did write in 6/8, in which case the single count vamp would align with that theory even more. If it were the case, then the “extra” bar in the middle is not extra at all, because the melody begins on the half-bar in a 6/8 (but don’t try actually playing it that way in class).
On the other hand, it could just be a kind of compositional economy: given that you’ve already got an eight-bar phrase of entrance music, you don’t want to prolong the vamp any more than absolutely necessary, so keep it short, if you must have one. Maybe it’s there to provide the dancer with a run-up into the first jump (the vamp-like nature of the music telling the audience that what’s happening isn’t yet dance, just preamble to be ignored.
Once you start thinking about Rothstein’s theory (see other posts here and here) it makes something apparently as unimportant as an introduction suddenly fascinating, and it opens up all kinds of possible discussions about metre, grouping, phrasing, accent, and so on. For me, dance makes those questions particularly obvious because you’re dealing with accents and trajectories that happen in time, but they aren’t “musical” in the sense of being tied to time signature or accent. It’s like seeing a landscape compared to an ordnance survey map.
Thanks to Grant Kennedy in Australia for this as an idea for adage/ronds de jambe, anything turgid, anywhere that you need a very slow waltz for ballet class. As it’s from the ballet La Bayadère, you’d want to avoid it for company class if it’s currently in the rep – but as it’s a principal solo, I reckon you could get away with it as long as it’s not a recent memory (especially if it’s in a men’s class).
The threeness of the very slow waltz for ballet class
Over the last few years, I’ve become increasingly convinced that ballet classes require just about every kind of triple metre under the sun except what most of us know as a waltz. Polonaise, mazurka, polka mazurka, kujawiak, sarabande, chaconne, redowa, to name those I can remember. But even things that look like waltzes on the surface in ballet often have non-standard features: slow tempo, 8th note rather than quarter note motion, and here’s an odd one: a lean towards the second bar of each two-bar unit, not weight on the first. For the prime example of that, think of the famous Act 1 waltz from Swan Lake – it’s all about the first beat of the second bar, and there’s nothing at all on the first beat of the first bar. I can think of several other examples in the ballet repertoire. (For more on my obsession with triple metre, see earlier post).
I reckon that this waltz from La Bayadère is marginal to the waltz repertoire by virtue of its extremely slow tempo. There are, it’s true, several valses lentes in the concert repertoire, but La plus que lente by Debussy is only just a waltz, and not really that slow. The nearest relative of the waltz in today’s “playing card” would be Sibelius’s Valse Triste. But even that has livelier moments. Nikiya’s death waltz is deathly slow, and every darn beat in the bar has weight. This is a bar where you’ll wait forever to get served.
And if you’d like to see what they do in the ballet.
“Such serviceable flowers” The polka mazurka as the chrysanthemum of the ballet class
You’ll probably look at this and think it’s a bit dull. I can live with that, because I know you’re going to thank me one day when you get some really awkward exercise that needs to be like doing a hill-start at traffic lights every bar. As Miss Brodie says of chrysanthemums in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie “Ah chrysanthemums. Such serviceable flowers.” A withering remark, but nonetheless, if serviceable is what you need, then a polka mazurka (or a bunch of chrysanthemums) is the thing.
Truly triple meter and the polka mazurka
I’m very glad that I made the distinction from the start in this series between 3s that were really more like 6/8s (hearts) and 3s that are really 3s, because this is a perfect example of truly triple meter, and why polka mazurkas, twee and 19th century as they are, are often much better for pirouette exercises than waltzes. See previous posts on triple metre, and waltzes and mazurkas.
I’m making up all the articulations in this transcription, because I have no score to refer to, so I’m just writing down what I can hear. Listen to the recording, because everything about this piece is about articulation and tempo, rather than notes (and that’s why it looks a bit dull on the page).
Wurf-bouquet means a “throwing bouquet” (presumably like the one you throw at weddings), and my guess is that there’s some musical gesturing going on in the melody, where the three-note motif (and the way the anacrusis is held back in performance) is meant to represent the preparation and throw of a bouquet. It’s the kind of thing we get used to doing in music all the time if you play for class. I haven’t transcribed the ending of the piece – it goes back to the beginning, and then spends about a minute winding down, which is not much use to anyone in class.
There are some interesting similarities between this and the opening of the Grand pas classique in Paquita, which will tell you pretty much for certain that what we have in the ballet is a polka mazurka. That being the case, as lovely as the production below is, I’m guessing it’s probably a bit racier tempo-wise than the original might have been. I could be wrong – one of the useful things Zorn told us was that Russians waltzed faster than most of the rest of Europe at the end of the 19th century, so maybe that applies to the polka mazurka too. The long-short-short-long pattern in some of the bars is identical, and is worth keeping in your tool-box as a means of slowing down waltzes for pirouette exercises.