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Music And Musicians

( Originally Published 1898 )

To say that dance-music is different from all other music, is to utter a truism ; but all dancers do not know, and many musicians seem not to know, in what this difference particularly consists. As an illustration, it may not be inappropriate to write a brief account of the origin, character, and popularity of the polka, the dance of all others best adapted to the comprehension and ability of beginners.

Czerwinski (a high authority in matters relating to the dance) says, " Somewhere about the year 1831, a young peasant-girl, who was in the service of a citizen of Elbeteinitz, in Bohemia, performed a dance of her own invention, one Sunday afternoon, for her own special delectation, and sang a suitable tune to it. The schoolmaster, Joseph Neruda, who happened to be present, wrote down the melody, and the new dance was soon after publicly performed for the first time in Elbeteinitz. About 1835 it rude its entrance into Prague, and then obtained the name of polka, from the Bohemian word pulka , or half, from the half-step prevalent in it. Four years later, it was carried to Vienna by a Prague band, In 1840 a dancing-master of Prague danced the polka with great success at the Odeon in Paris, whence it found its way with extraordinary rapidity to every dancing-room."

The polka was introduced in the United States about the same time it appeared in Paris. Col. Gabriel de Korponey, a Polish gentleman whose absence from his own country was considered a " military necessity," came to this country in 1840 ; and, being without sufficient means to live up to his tastes and habits, his wife and infant being with him, went on the stage temporarily in New York, Washington, Philadelphia, and Baltimore, where he had engagements to dance the polka and Hungarian mazurka at two hundred and fifty dollars a night. His military accomplishments being discovered by the authorities at Washington, he was appointed professor of cavalry tactics at West Point, and served with distinction in the Mexican war, where, on one occasion, he assaulted and carried a difficult position by mounting an infantryman behind each cavalryman in his command ; charged the enemy, and, when at close quarters, wheeled the command, dropped the infantrymen, and retired with the horsemen. The foot soldiers being thus safely placed in the most advantageous position, charged with irresistible elan, and the Mexicans were routed.

After the Mexican war, Col. de Korponey retired from service ; and, meeting my father in Philadelphia, they formed a connection, and taught dancing together for several years in the Southern States. But, begging pardon for this biographical digression, I will return to the polka.

It will be seen from Czerwinski's account, that the music was accommodated to the dance, and not e contrario, as many musicians will contend should be the case.

In a bar of music written for a polka or schottische, and sometimes for a march, there are four distinct beats or notes (no matter how many tones) of equal and arbitrary value ; and, when played for a general assemblage of dancers, this mathematical precision should be undeviatingly adhered to from the beginning to the ending of the composition, never altered, accelerated, or modulated, to suit the whim or preference of an individual among the dancers, or to display the taste, expression, or pleasantry of the musicians. Dance-music can be played with both taste and expression by a competent timist, without destroying either its evenness or regularity, when proper regard is paid to the material requirements of the dance in the length, character, and duration of the step, gesture of hands and arms, and, in short, the carriage of the whole person.

Therefore, while it is not claimed that one must be proficient in dancing in order to play dance-music properly, it is suggested that musicians who play for dancing would afford their employers more of pleasure and satisfaction, and themselves more of profit and reputation, if they would take some pains before attempting to play a piece, for figure-dancing especially, to acquaint themselves with the relations existing between measure in the music and motion in the dance.

For an illustration, observe the manner in which our musicians here at balls play the third and fourth figures of the " Lancers." In the third figure, they compel the dancers to make the salute with a quick and stiff movement abruptly terminated ; while in the fourth figure, the chord intended to express the salute is distended, distorted, and drawled out, until, in some instances, spinal paralysis appears to be imminent, so long and so painfully are the dancers kept en salaam, awaiting the indicative cessation of tortured sound precedent to the beginning of the next four bars of music.

Again, with reference to waltzes. Now that the taste of society for the moderate, easy, and graceful movement of the glide has become almost universal, it would certainly seem that musicians, from interested motives if from no other, would by this time have accommodated their music to the great and indisputably commendable change in this most graceful and enjoyable of all round dances. That they have not done so is no less surprising than -true ; and the fact may be attributed to a number of causes : first, ignorance of the character, mechanism, and andante of the dance ; second, the professional idea of trade-work with which they agree to furnish so much sound for so much money, the job to be completed in as little time as possible ; and finally, the egotistical contempt with which they regard all dance-tunes as compared with what they call the " aesthetic," the cc magnifique," the '' meum est " of music.

And so, in defiance of good taste, society's preference, and their own professional reputation and interest, our musicians go on playing waltzes with the same rapid time and " staccato " accent with which they played them when the " deux temps," " hop waltz," and " redowa " were popular and fashionable, sometimes jumping from " three-four " into " six-eight " time, and jumbling notes, chords, and bars together in inextricable confusion.

It is not to be wondered at, that intelligent clergymen, and others with refined tastes and correct moral principles, should preach and exclaim against the waltz and other round dances, when they are performed to music that compels the dancers to whirl and prance and jostle each other without regard to grace, dignity, or propriety. And it is not altogether fair to apply the fable of " The Dog in the Manger " to Lord Byron, in criticising his bitter and yet beautiful satire on " The Waltz." Although Byron was lame, and could not dance, he had a true poet's sense of the beautiful and appropriate ; and his travesty on the waltz was a protest against the abuses to which he felt the exciting dance must lead under the influences of bad music, bad management, bad take, and ignorance.

It is the office and the duty of the dancing-teacher to correct these abuses, to elevate by his precept and example this taste, to enlighten this ignorance, and to improve this management wherever he may find it, when, as is invariably the case, it militates against the real beauty and dignity of his art.

Therefore, without making the shadow of a claim toward being considered a practical musician myself, I may surely, without meriting the imputation of vanity, claim to know the difference between a concert-polka and a ball-room polka. The one illustrates the idea and theory of a dance carried through all its possibilities, as self-suggested to the composer, the ideal brain-dance of an individual enthusiast ; while the other is a simple arrange. ment of regular tones arbitrarily controlled by certain. mathematical and peremptory physical movements. Perhaps I write a little severely on this subject ; but, if so, I write from feeling and conviction, owing to the fact that I have never yet danced after agreeable music at our large balls, and have never been able to employ competent musicians at my own annual hops, except on the one occasion of my closing ball in May, 1876, when the orchestra was led and controlled by Miss Bingham at the piano.

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