Musical Notes by K-Mozart

Valley Performing Arts Center

Music on Ice

February 10, 2014 by Christine Gengaro, Ph.D.

The Winter Olympics in Sochi are underway. Controversies aside, the Games have given athletes from all over the world an opportunity to compete on the world stage. Although I’m just a casual watcher of the Olympics, I did manage to catch some figure skating and ice dancing over the weekend. These are historically among the most popular sports at the Olympics, and they are also the sports that feature music.


I think the presence of music makes these events more fun to watch, and they add even more drama to the proceedings. Sunday morning, I saw Elena Ilynkh and Nikita Katsalapov, a Russian pairs-skating duo, skate to music from Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake. Tchaikovsky’s music has long been a favorite of figure skaters and ice dancers, because the composer had a knack for drama, and of course he composed the music of his ballets—The Nutcracker, Swan Lake, Sleeping Beauty—specifically to accompany graceful body movements. Skaters in competitions from amateur to elite seem drawn to Tchaikovsky’s music. Tchaikovsky’s so-called Overture-Fantasy Romeo and Juliet seems practically tailor-made for use on the ice; it has an energetic theme that represents the vendetta between the two families and the recognizable love theme for dramatic contrast. Although it is not a ballet, it has drama to spare.


Opera overtures are sometimes used for skating routines, but the famous arias have been off-limits in their original form for years because figure skaters are prohibited from using music with words. (Ice dancers have no such rule anymore). There are, of course, instrumental versions of arias like “Nessun Dorma” and “Casta Diva,” and these have been popular choices for figure skaters.


Film music has provided a wealth of choices for figure skaters as well, as it is often dramatic and evocative of action. The music of John Williams (Star Wars, Superman, Harry Potter) has been used for decades, but he’s by no means the only film music composer heard at the rink. The legendary Ennio Morricone (Cinema Paradiso, The Mission) has written beautiful melodies that lend themselves perfectly to movement; Ludovic Bource’s score to The Artist was a favorite this past season; and Hans Zimmer’s scores for Inception and Gladiator provide excitement, tension, and high drama. Just a glance at a list of compositions used in the past season in international competition turns up names like: Vangelis, James Horner, Dave Grusin, Maurice Jarre, Max Steiner, Danny Elfman, and Clint Mansell.


I think the choosing of music is extremely important because it influences the choreography so much, and it sets the mood so effectively. The people who do the choosing are likely concerned with a number of factors. Pacing is probably tops on the list. In both figure skating and gymnastics there are athletes who excel at explosive jumps, leaps, and combinations, and those by contrast who exemplify grace, smoothness, and ballet-like movements. The music has to play to the athlete’s strengths. It is common, especially in longer programs, to have lively outer sections with a contrasting slower part in the middle—a format that mirrors the fast-slow-fast structure of baroque and classical concertos. The presence of fast and slow music allows the athlete (is it wrong for me to think of them as performers?) to show off skill in both areas: expression in the sections with slower tempos and more legato lines, and technical brilliance and athleticism in the faster parts. Of course, there are plenty of amazing feats of athletic strength in the slow parts and expression in the fast parts; every moment of a routine is packed with elements.


When choosing music, recognizable pieces are likely more desirable, but I think there’s a fine line to be walked here. The athlete and coach may want to audience to be familiar with the tune—or at least part of it—but not so familiar that the listener already has an idea of its interpretation. Of course, there are times when the figure skater/ice dancer hopes that the audience knows the story that belongs to the song, because they intend to retell it on ice. The Russian pair who danced to Swan Lake at least nodded to the narrative of the ballet. One of my favorite pair routines of all time—Jamie Salé and David Pelletier’s gold-medal winning dramatic rendering of Love Story in 2002—was enhanced by the familiar story (at least in my experience). And yet, there are beautiful exceptions.


Who could forget Jayne Torvill and Christopher Dean’s record-breaking skate to Ravel’s Bolero? They performed this routine—which received perfect 6.0s for artistic merit—thirty years ago on February 14, 2014. Bolero has no story of its own, of course, but Torvill and Dean gave it drama. Both in their fifties now, Torvill and Dean are actually going to recreate this legendary performance in Sarajevo for the thirtieth anniversary.


Thirty years ago, when I saw Torvill and Dean skate this routine, there was no way to see it again or watch it repeatedly. But now the Internet and DVRs have made it possible for us to relive these great moments and hear this great music over and over again. There’s no way Tchaikovsky could have imagined that his compositions would be so popular with ice dancers and figure skaters, and yet on Sunday, almost one hundred and twenty years after Tchaikovsky revised Swan Lake and made it into the version we know today, two athletes brought Tchaikovsky out on the ice with them.


The Olympic coverage now names the piece of music on the bottom of the screen as the athletes take their marks. Perhaps a young boy or girl watched Elena Ilynkh and Nikita Katsalapov skate their routine and heard the music and fell in love with it. If they missed the name of the piece or composer, they just rewound live television until the name came up. If they liked the music a lot, maybe they went to their laptop or tablet and found a performance on YouTube or downloaded the song from iTunes. And just like that, Tchaikovsky got a new fan, courtesy of the Sochi Olympics and ice skating.


Dr. Christine Gengaro is an award-winning educator, and a successful writer and musician. She has been on the faculty of Los Angeles City College since 2004. A graduate of the Ph.D. program in historical musicology at the University of Southern California, Dr. Gengaro currently serves as the program annotator for the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra. She has also written notes and other materials for the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, Camerata Pacifica, and the Mozartwoche concert series in Vienna. Her research interests include music and film, music and literature, and classical music in popular media.

Dr. Gengaro's first book, Listening to Stanley Kubrick: the Music in His Films, was published by Scarecrow Press in 2013.

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