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  • Writer's pictureGraham Abbott

The Waltz

This music is a minuet, a movement from one of Haydn's symphonies. The elegant minuet was the most popular and pervasive courtly dance of the 18th century. It was not only danced to throughout Europe but its music became a musical form in its own right, being found in symphonies, chamber music, and sonatas where actual dancing was never an option.

The minuet was always in triple time - that is, in three beats to the bar: 1,2,3,1,2,3... but its style was such that it flowed forward with a lightness that matched the movements of the dance which inspired it.

Despite its ubiquitous presence in instrumental music, the actual minuet dance itself was one favoured by the upper classes. To dance the minuet well was regarded as an essential social grace. However there were variations of the minuet which spanned the social divide, and by the later 18th century the distinctions between a true minuet and these newer, less stuffy forms of the dance were becoming rather blurred.

In the period of Haydn and Mozart two other dances became rather popular, and the music for them clearly grew out of the minuet. They were the Ländler and the German Dance. To our ears, their music is almost indistinguishable from each other, but the ländler and the German dance were both in triple time, like the minuet, and despite the local variations in their dance steps, they were characterised by a rougher, more earthy approach to their pulse. They also were clearly marked by accompaniments which went "_,2,3,_2,3" in the middle parts. Music like this started to sneak even into minuet movements, such as in the third movement of Haydn's symphony no 86. The actual minuet has the rougher feel of the German dance, but the trio (starting at 2’35) is a ländler, straight out of the countryside, especially with its "_,2,3,_,2,3" accompaniment. [listen]

For his part, Mozart too wrote many dances which seemed to push the minuet into a more earthy ambience. Near the end of his life, Mozart wrote a number of sets of German dances for court balls in Vienna, but interestingly one of these sets - K606 - he actually called ländler. They are as Austrian as can be, and hearing these it's easy to understand that Mozart loved to dance and was apparently very good at it. [listen]

Later composers in the Viennese tradition also wrote ländler and German dances, most notably Schubert. This ländler from around 1816 clearly uses the "_2,3" accompaniment. [listen]

By the early 19th century - when this music was written - there was another dance which was growing out of the ländler, and it would soon sweep all before it. This became the dance craze of the 19th century, and continued into the 20th as a symbol of elegance, even decadence. This dance was the waltz.

Thomas Wilson: Correct Method of German and French Waltzing (1816)

The origins of the word "waltz" are obscure, but it is thought by some to derive from the Latin verb volvere, meaning to turn or revolve. The waltz of course is a dance in which the couple revolves, swirling in circles around the dance floor and it was already coming into vogue in the last decade of the 18th century. The marked difference in the dance was - apart from the swirling motion - the fact that the couple held each other closely, something which scandalised many sections of society across Europe. Efforts were even made to ban the dance, something which of course would only ensure its increased popularity. Objections were raised to it on medical grounds because of the speed with which the dancers twirled each other around the dance floor, but the moral objections based on the proximity of the dancers were uppermost in the minds of those who tried to have the dance prohibited.

In addition to writing German dances and ländler, Schubert wrote dances which he explicitly called waltzes, the first major composer to do so. However the most important development in the musical acceptance of the waltz as a form in its own right (as had been the case with the minuet) was the publication of a piano work by Weber, his Invitation to the Dance, which appeared in 1819. This brilliant rondo for piano instantly elevated the waltz to the world of the concert platform and gave it the public respectability it needed. It is, in fact, regarded as the first concert waltz, a waltz specifically designed for listening rather than dancing. [listen]

The real place where the waltz took hold, though, was as a real dance, in the ballrooms of Europe. In the early 19th century the age of the musical superstar was beginning, with virtuoso performers like the violinist Nicolo Pagnini and the pianist Franz Liszt being only two of dazzling talents touring across the continent at the time. With the emergence of the waltz, superstar composers started to attract huge followings with their dance orchestras and a steady stream of new dances to satisfy the public's thirst for such music to dance to, while at the same time writing music of real artistic merit.

Nowhere was the waltz craze more extreme than in Vienna. The two bandleader-composers who were responsible for this were Joseph Lanner and Johann Strauss the elder. They worked together for some years before parting company in 1825 and establishing a friendly rivalry. Both men helped to developed the waltz "set" or suite, a string of short waltzes strung together to make a larger work. Strauss's earliest works in this form are fairly basic, but soon this framework provided both men (and many others) with a form in which their individual creativity could shine.

Lanner's waltzes are delicate, especially when played by solo strings, as in this recording of the opening of his Evening Stars waltz of 1841. [listen]

After Lanner's death in 1843, Johann Strauss senior briefly ruled the Viennese ballrooms alone. His waltzes seem to stress rhythmic elements more than melody, and while Lanner never left the borders of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Strauss senior toured frequently and became an international celebrity. This is his waltz called Tausendsapperment (a word meaning “The devil take it!”), written in 1833. [listen]

Strauss didn't have to wait long before he had a rival to replace Lanner in the fiercely competitive world of Viennese dance music. His son, Johann Strauss II set up a rival orchestra to his father's in 1844 and rapidly became flavour of the month, garnering rave reviews right from the start.

Strauss senior died five years later in 1849, leaving his eldest son to rule the Viennese. Two other sons, Josef and Eduard, also became well-known composers and bandleaders, but no-one eclipsed the popularity of their eldest brother, who eventually became known as "The Waltz King". It was as a composer of melody - more akin to the style of Lanner than that of his father - that Johann II excelled. His interest in the latest musical styles led him to take risks and do anything but simply repeat the same formula again and again. It was in the 1860s that he produced the famous waltzes which are now synonymous with his name: Accelerations, Morning Papers, On the Beautiful Blue Danube, Artist's Life, Tales from the Vienna Woods, and this, Wine, Women and Song. [listen]

Before we continue looking at the Viennese dance tradition we should consider the ways in which the waltz had infiltrated the concert and theatrical worlds, quite apart from the ball room. As early as 1830, Berlioz had used a waltz for the ball movement of his ground-breaking Symphonie Fantastique, and the piano waltzes of Chopin began appearing at the same time. Liszt's piano waltzes are just one more manifestation of the keyboard waltz which is a thread running through the whole of the 19th century.

The connection between the waltz and the human voice was made by the Italian composer and conductor Luigi Arditi in his stand-alone coloratura showpiece Il bacio (The Kiss), written in 1860. This is an aria written entirely as a waltz and it started a craze for such pieces. [listen]

After 1860, the concept of the "waltz song" took hold, in both opera and operetta. In French operetta, there are examples in Offenbach's La belle Hélène of 1864 and many other similar works. Suppé, writing operetta in Vienna, included a waltz song in his Beautiful Galatea of 1865.

In grand opera the idea of the waltz being the foundation for vocal music was taken up, again in Paris, by Gounod. The second act finale of Faust predates Aditi's aria by a year, but perhaps Gounod's most famous waltz song is given to the young Juliet in his 1867 operatic treatment of Shakepeare's "star-cross'd lovers". [listen]

Ballroom scenes in operas, operettas and ballets naturally lent themselves to the use of waltzes - one need only think of Strauss's own Die Fledermaus of 1874 - but waltz songs - and especially waltz songs for coloratura soprano - were all the rage at the time, and nearly every show had to have one. Five years after Gounod's opera, Sullivan chose to give his heroine just such a song as her act one showpiece in The Pirates of Penzance. [listen]

As dances within operas, waltzes go back as far as Weber's Der Freischütz of 1823 where a waltz is used to set a country scene in the first act. [listen]

Eventually the waltz could be included in an opera not just to set a scene, but - to quote Grove - "as an acknowledgement of public taste". It was used in this way in Balfe's The Bohemian Girl, which dates from 1843. [listen]

In ballet, too, waltzes were all the rage. In the same decade of the 1870s, Délibes' Coppélia and Sylvia, and Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake, all had prominent waltzes. Tchaikovsky's two ballets of the 1890s - Sleeping Beauty and Nutcracker - likewise included waltzes. The Act One waltz from Sleeping Beauty is one of Tchaikovsky's most beautiful creations. [listen]

Waltzes feature in Tchaikovsky's operas, too, most notably the famous waltz in Yevgeny Onegin. [listen]

Back in the ball room, one of the major non-Viennese composers of waltzes was the Paris-based Emile Waldteufel. Like the Strausses, he produced hundreds of dance compositions, but his most famous, dating from 1882, is Les Patineurs (The Skaters). [listen]

In Vienna, Johann Strauss II died in 1899. His later career had been devoted to the theatre, mainly operetta, but waltzes drawn from his stage works continued be played in ball rooms of the period. The waltz was the mainstay of high society up to the first world war, with one of the most famous composers of the post-Strauss period being Franz Lehár. Like Strauss, Lehár excelled in both waltz composition and operetta. His Gold and Silver waltz is one of the most popular dances of all time. [listen]

Waltzes continued to appear in opera, sometimes in the most unexpected places. The scent of flowers and the amorous advances of the Flower Maidens are clearly suggested by the slow waltz music Wagner used in the second act of Parsifal, first performed in 1882.

Even though danced in ballrooms well into the 20th century - and forms of the waltz have been petrified even to the present day into competitive aspects of ballroom dancing - the waltz was usually used in opera after 1900 to evoke a bygone era. Sometimes that era was viewed nostalgically; sometimes it appeared with more sinister intent, evoking decadence or even depravity.

In 1905, Lehár's operetta The Merry Widow used a waltz in the most nostalgic of contexts. [listen]

Richard Strauss - apparently no relation to the Viennese Johann Strauss family - used waltzes in several ways in his operas. The waltz is clearly evoked in that most decadent and sensuous of operatic moments, Salome's erotic dance before Herod, written in 1905. [listen]

In Der Rosenkavalier, written in 1911 Strauss uses waltzes to anachronistically but effectively evoke the elegance of Vienna. [listen]

Much later still, in Arabella (composed in 1933), Strauss naturally and appropriately uses the waltz to evoke a Viennese ballroom of the 1860s.

Camille Claudel: La Valse

It's as a device to create wistfulness or nostalgia that most composers used the waltz in instrumental music of the 20th century. Perhaps many took their lead from Saint-Saëns, who cast his famous Danse macabre as a waltz in 1874, and used the dance as the basis for his Wedding Cake caprice in 1886. There's a waltz in Mahler's fifth symphony, and Stravinsky uses a waltz touchingly in Petrushka.

Ravel's piano and orchestral waltzes cover a multitude of moods, and Prokofiev even wrote suites of waltzes. Shostakovich used the waltz in a bitter-sweet way, and there are waltzes to be found throughout English music, such as in Walton's Façade and Britten's Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge, to name only two.

I'll finish, though, with a more recent evocation of the waltz, and of 3/4 time in general, in Stephen Sondheim's 1972 musical, A Little Night Music. This extraordinary piece deals in its plot with combinations of three in many manifestations, a fact which led the composer to writing the entire score in triple time or in rhythms which are in groups of threes. Waltzes feature throughout the score, such as the "night waltzes" which we'll use to conclude. [listen]

This article is based on a Keys To Music program first aired on ABC Classic FM (now ABC Classic) in June, 2009.

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