Piano Variations and Adaptations
for Ballet Class
Lieder for Barre
Barre: Figuring It Out
There’s a familiar catalog of tensions for the beginning ballet accompanist. For instance, you don’t have much repertory so you (and everyone else in the studio) become aware that you play the same pieces a lot. And you’re often unsure understanding the teacher’s counts and tempos so at first you ask for clarification, and then you stop asking because you realize that everyone in the studio silently hates you when you do. And you don’t really understand the fundamental character of ballet steps and how the piece you're playing can support it or undermine it, and so again and again the teacher stops you after a few bars and says “Something else, please...” and you don’t know what that something-else is, and everyone is silently hating you all over again while you figure that out. Things get better because most teachers are patient with a beginning accompanist (at least up to a point) and if you want the job you work at figuring out how to do it, and you start getting good.
We all have our own ways of figuring things out, and the categories and metaphors we use to organize what we gradually learn about playing for class are personal and intuitive. Early on I decided that there are two landscapes in ballet class, each with its climate of tensions and metaphors: Barre and Centre.
From the beginning Centre was easier for me than Barre. For Centre I needed an adagio, a sparkling 2/4, and the rest could all be waltzes. For me there wasn’t serious tension about repeating myself because I drew my Centre repertory from that Fort Knox of sparkling 2/4’s and waltzes, the Minkus ballets in easy piano reductions. There was an issue of stamina; in a big class the Centre allegros can go on for seven, eight, nine minutes without stopping. I developed stamina. I thought of Centre as “The Gig,” “The Show,” “Curtain Up,” and that bit of fantasy inspired my building repertory beyond the obvious Minkus.
Barre was different.
Barre meant I had to be ready with a string of 15 or so pieces of varying tempos and meters, all of them short--except for the two “Big Guns” (as I thought of them): Plies and Ronds de Jamb a Terre with no-stopping-between-sides. Along with my Big Guns I figured out that the rest of my 15 or so pieces should “personify” in music the series of exercises at Barre, and that I should be aware not only of the usual order of those exercises, but their usual character and tempo so that I could play my personifications in fairly quick succession, because usually Barre moves fairly quickly.
I figured out that, typically, the short Barre exercises are made up of repetitions of particular ballet steps that are organized into clear and simple structural symmetries. I figured out that the barre exercises are literally, explicitly, repetitive training workouts for the dancers. But I thought of them as “crystals” in their clarity and symmetry. I thought of them as little “poems” with their rhymes and regularities. And then I figured out that, as a ballet accompanist, I could come up with lots and lots of short pieces that are "crystals" and "poems" that personify the dancers' workout.
I came to love Barre more than Centre, and, until now, I've kept this to myself: Centre is for the dancer, Show Time; but Barre is for the accompanist making up little poems, little stories, little jewels, about the dancers working their treadmills and getting ready for Curtain Up.
Playing Lieder in Ballet Class
You might think that anyone who knows and loves German lieder and who takes ballet class would welcome the accompanist playing them for exercises, but that isn’t a given. Playing Schubert lieder in class isn’t like playing the Gershwin Songbook. Gershwin’s songs are usually foursquare structures, but apart from some of his strophic output Schubert’s lieder are more or less through-composed—in ballet class terms: mostly “uneven.” When I began arranging Schubert lieder for class I was fully aware that I was reducing the songs to their squared-off melodic content. To get that squared-off content I often had to change the lengths and rhythms of Schubert’s melodic lines, and those lengths and rhythms were determined by Schubert’s artistic response to the poet’s words. It’s the “uneveness” that gives Schubert’s settings their dramatic and organic individuality. Worse yet, I also sometimes changed the emotional mood of Schubert’s writing to adapt it to specific barre exercises.
I admit all this so as to forewarn listeners who might, very understandably, be disapproving. To everyone else I say that my Schubert lieder arrangements are variations and adaptations for ballet class, not transcriptions. I play them often and with pleasure, and over the years singers who take class have told me they greatly enjoy dancing to adaptations of music they love and know intimately.
As I’ve explained in my notes to the other albums of this library I organize my ballet class repertory into three broad categories, Adagio, 3/4 and 2/4, which are subdivided into “Short,” “Long” and “Extended.” As to Adagio, “Short” means 2 sets of 8 on each side, “Long” means 4 sets on each side, and “Extended” means 8 sets on each side. Since this is an album of barre music further subdivision of the 2/4 and 3/4 tracks isn’t very useful; all of them are relatively “short,” and none of them is particularly “long” except the expected big guns (plies and ronds de jamb a terre).
The Playlist and The Index
The playlist of this album orders the tracks by Schubert’s song title, not the Deutsch catalog number, and I have let the initial word of Schubert’s German title determine it’s place in the alphabetical order even when the initial word is an article. Each track title includes a parenthetical reference to a particular barre exercise, but the reference is meant as a description, not a prescription.
I supply an Index of the tracks sorted in the order of a typical ballet class barre, and, again, the assignments are descriptive, not prescriptive:
(click on title to link to score in pdf)