Sunday, 20 January 2013

The Waltz I: Early Days

With the coming of the New Year, we found ourselves once again watching the famous New Year's Day concert from Vienna's Musikverein. It's one of those things we do as a family, year in and year out (whether the rest of the family wants to or not!). It marks the coming of another year just as surely as Norman Lebrecht's annual denunciation of the very same concert (for its Nazi past and the Vienna PO's reluctance to involve women performers). What would a New Year be without any of those things? I shudder to think! 

This year's conductor was Franz Welser-Möst, returning for a second bite of the cherry. He gave us the odd piece by Papa Strauss, plus plenty of Johann the Younger and Josef, a couple of 'the others' (Lanner and Hellmesburger) and a piece by each of the big birthday boys of 2013 - Wagner and Verdi. 

It set me thinking about the dance form most famously associated with old Vienna - the waltz. What have the great composers made of it? 

The dance developed throughout the closing decades of the 18th Century, rising from rural origins and then moving into the cities. It seems to have grown out of such three-four time country dances as the Ländler and other such Deutsche ('German Dances'). As they migrated into the ballroom, chasing out the old courtly minuet in the process, so they gradually evolved into the waltz. The 1790s was the decade when named waltzes began to appear, but the Ländler & Co. held out for some time and the waltz wasn't really to sweep all before it until the 1820s when Joseph Lanner and Johann Strauss set up an orchestra and became the first two great Viennese waltz composers - at first working together then  parting company and becoming highly competitive rivals. 

The 1820s also saw some of the greatest names of music dipping a toe into the world of the waltz. Actually, the year was 1819 when Carl Maria von Weber lifted the waltz into the world of art music with his magnificent piano piece, Invitation to the Dance - though the piece was only published in 1824. The work (which has also became popular in the delightful orchestration by Berlioz) begins by evoking the invitation by a gentleman to a lady, an introductory passage that was to become the template for many of the slow introductions of the great waltz sequences to come. What follows is a waltz sequence - a chain of waltzes, with the main waltz returning at its culmination. There's then a little coda where the gentleman leads the lady back to her seat. The piece is not just a masterpiece in its own right, it was also vastly influential. Lanner was so taken by it that he drew on its title, themes and - above all - structure for several of his own pieces. Indeed, it is a template that will be instantly recognisable to anyone familiar with the music of the greatest of all Viennese waltz composers, Johann Strauss the Younger. 

To get a flavour of what Joseph Lanner did with the waltz sequence, why not try his Styrian Dances (Steyrische-Tänze), Op. 165? What do you make of the tune at 1.27 though? Does it ring a bell with you? Well, if you know Stravinsky's Petrushka it most certainly will. You'll recognise it as the tune of his waltz The Ballerina & the Moor (beginning at 3.27). The next tune that appears in Petrushka is a tune from another Lanner waltz - his best-known work, Die Schönbrunner, Op.200. (The Lanner tune begins at 0.30 and Stravinsky's take on it, as linked to above, appears at 4.05). It's funny what turns up in Petrushka!

As Lanner's music was achieving lift-off, a surprising name enters the the world of the waltz - Beethoven. Did you know Beethoven wrote waltzes? Well, there are very few of them and they are certainly to be classed among the chippings from the master's workbench. However, the Waltz in E flat major, WoO84 (1824) is an undoubted winner, with a charming main tune and a beautifully imagined trio section, and I'm sure you'll be as pleasantly surprised by it as I was.

At around the same time a less surprising name also entered the field - Schubert. He wrote a good number of waltzes, including two outstanding collections - the Valses nobles, D969 and the Valses sentimentales, D779, dating respectively from 1823 and 1827 (it seems). Both sets were published in the composer's lifetime and achieved popularity. They may not be his deepest thoughts but they are quite delightful. Getting to know them has rather opened my eyes to their influence on Schumann, several of whose dance-inspired pieces include waltzes that have a strong affinity - in shape and sound - with those of his hero Schubert. See if you can hear what I mean in, say, Papillons, Op.2 (1831) or Carnaval, Op.9.

The titles of Schubert's two sets of waltzes were famously taken up by Maurice Ravel. His Valses nobles et sentimentales borrows more than those titles however, being a chain of waltzes directly inspired by the example of Schubert's pieces - though they sound very, very different from anything Schubert ever wrote. As was his way, Ravel soon orchestrated his piano original and removed it even further from the soundworld of Franz Schubert. The work is a masterpiece in either form. (Another great tribute to the waltz from Ravel was to come, but I'm getting ahead of myself - and that piece needs placing much later in the story for reasons that will become clear).

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