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6 - Music as Storyteller: The Musical Conventions of 1890s Music-Hall Ballet

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  09 June 2021

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Summary

Popular ballet music was virtually identical to Opéra ballet music in both form and function. Written to complement a particular libretto, ballet music closely followed the dramatic contours of a given plot. It set the scene, delineated characters, underscored the mime, and acted as a support for dance. Scores composed for music-hall productions also had to be as clear and predictable as possible, with musical cues that could be readily deciphered by a broad public. Music was therefore the most conservative component of a music-hall ballet. Composers adopted the stylistic and formal conventions of state-theater ballet music and preserved these formulas without significant change into the early twentieth century. The result is that while music-hall ballet scores ranged considerably in their rhythmic, melodic, and harmonic complexity (see chapter 7), their overall structure and the formal and stylistic conventions of their dramatic and dance music remained remarkably static throughout the history of the genre.

Dance Music

Dance and dramatic music were separate entities, each with its own function and conventions. Dance music was highly standardized and had a relatively narrow stylistic range. It needed to have a steady pulse with rhythms that propelled a dancer forward, an even number of measures, and balanced phrases. Dance music also needed to be simple enough to recede into the background and not distract from the choreography. Virtually all dances therefore consisted of repetitions of tuneful periodic melodies in small binary or ternary forms.

Of all dance types, ballet variations were subject to the most rigidly observed set of conventions. Composers nearly always used an ABA form with a twoor four-measure lead-in to set the tempo and a brief, sometimes more rapid, coda for bravura finales. Although variations could be as short as three sets of absolutely square sixteen-measure periods—no more than vignettes for the ballerina to make a cursory appearance on stage—most were double that length, and a few longer still. Variations usually had contrasting A and B sections with rhythmic patterns appropriate for different types of movements. One section might be suitable for delicate steps on pointe and pirouettes, the other for small jumps and turns across the room.

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Publisher: Boydell & Brewer
Print publication year: 2015

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