Sunday, 20 January 2013

The Waltz II: Hats off, gentlemen - a genius!

Returning to the 1820s and a young composer who began writing waltzes at the age of 14 (though the earliest are now lost) - Chopin. Chopin's waltzes are widely considered the greatest collection of waltzes of the first half of the 19th Century. Paradoxically, quite a few leading critics of Chopin tend to rank his waltzes on a lower rung of the ladder of greatness than several of his other genres (nocturnes, mazurkas, preludes, etc), regarding them as generally lighter pieces, but there are some absolute belters among them and many stand among the pinnacles of waltz form. I'll introduce you to them in chronological order, so you can trace Chopin's development. 

Waltz in A flat major, Op. posth - written between 1827-30, with an elegantly whirling main theme and a short bugle call-based episode.
Waltz in B minor, Op.69/2 - written in 1829, with a wistful main theme whose late return features a delightful new lead note (an A natural) and added touches of chromaticism. The contrasting episode takes us into B major, before dipping back into the minor in preparation for the return of the opening melody. A lovely, late-teenage work. 
Waltz in D flat major, Op.70/3 - written in 1829, it opens by entwining its main theme with a counter-melody - a principle of elegant voice-leading also found in the waltz's central passage. 
Waltz in E minor, Op.posth - possibly written in 1829, this is a more dramatic and brilliant kind of waltz, full of glinting figuration, though the main theme's companion brings in a more lyrical aspect. The middle section is a lovely, Italianate affair.
Waltz in E major, Op.posth - written in 1829-30, a tuneful waltz of much charm. 
Waltz in E flat major, Op.18 - written in 1831-32, Chopin's first published waltz. Styled "Grande valse brillante", it remains one of the composer's best-known waltzes, with a range of moods ranging from the vivacity of the opening to the yearning at the heart of the 'con anima' section. This waltz, like Weber's Invitation to the Dance, is very much a dance-poem. 
Waltz in G flat major, Op.70/1 - written in 1832, this has a vivacious main section and a middle section with a gorgeous Viennese-style lilt and melodiousness. 
Waltz in A minor, Op.34/2 - from 1834, this is one of my favourites. It has some lovely plays of major and minor, giving it a wider range of moods.
Waltz in A flat major, Op.34/1 - from 1835, this glitters and is replete with plum tunes. 
Waltz in A flat major, Op.69/1 - from 1835, this has a wistful melody of great charm. The 'con anima' section also has a folk-like melodic tic which Chopin transforms into pure lyricism. A 'trio' follows - a lilting song in thirds. 
Waltz in F major, Op.34/3 - from 1838. A whirligig of a waltz that is as dizzying as it is delightful. 
Waltz in A flat major, Op.42 - from 1840. A trill and softly-calling sixths invite us to the dance - a brilliant one with several tunes connected by a passage of quicksilver quavers. There's a particularly lovely song-like tune, harmonised richly, at the waltz's heart and a sparkling coda with a 'that's all, folks!' ending. 
Waltz in F minor, Op.70/2 - from 1841. A lovely, poignant opening melody, much Italianate beauty, sighing suspensions and elegantly-turned 'coloratura'-style writing makes this another favourite waltz.
Waltz in D flat major ("Minute"), Op.64/1 - from 1847, a much-loved waltz. Its central section is sublimated bel canto with added bell-like grace-notes on its tune's return. 
Waltz in C sharp minor, Op.64/2 - from 1847, a captivating waltz with a beautiful, gently lilting melody and a whirling continuation. A graceful bel canto melody in the central section only adds to the piece's appeal.
Waltz in A flat major, Op.64/3 - from 1847, this is the most intriguing of the Op.64 set, with its strongly rhythmic yet flexibly-shaped main theme. Trills transfer us to somewhere new before the left hand sings a fresh melody beneath pulsing chords. The music modulates and the delightful main theme returns.
Waltz in A minor, Op. posth - from 1847-9, this gorgeous, sadness-tinged waltz has a tune to, alas, die for and some elegant, bubbling decoration. 

And for the sake of 'completeness', a couple of waltzes classed as 'spurious':
...and a genuine Chopin waltz, that doesn't bear the title 'waltz':
Sostenuto in E flat major - a slow, lyrical waltz in a simple ternary structure. 

It seems a shame to tear ourselves away from Chopin and his magical waltzes, but on we must go and other beauties await.

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