The waltz had entered the ballroom and crossed into the world of piano miniatures and great composers. It soon found its place in the symphony. That bold step was taken by the young Hector Berlioz in his Symphonie fantastique of 1830. The second movement of that revolutionary work, Un bal ('A Ball'), conjures up the scene - a glittering ballroom - with harps and tremolo strings. The vision then appears and it's a waltz. The theme (and especially its continuation) is a characteristic Berlioz melodic take on the typical waltz tune and its every appearance is accompanied by fresh orchestral colours. The symphony's famous returning theme - the idée fixe (a melody recurring in all five of its movements) - appears midway and is recalled at the movement's close, acting as a distancing device in a not dissimilar way to the 'invitation' elements in Weber's Invitation to the Dance.
It was a while before the waltz reappeared in a symphony but when it did it became a regular player in that composer's symphonic team. Who was that waltz-loving composer? Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky. A full four of his symphonies contain waltz elements. The main section of the ballet-like Alla tedesca second movement of the underrated Symphony No.3 in D major, ('The Polish') is a waltz (and a lovely one at that). The main theme of the first movement of the fate-dominated Symphony No.4 in F minor (beginning at 1.19) is marked 'In movimento di Valse', though the waltz element is just one of several contending rhythms in a complex symphonic movement. For a full-scale waltz movement though we have to wait until the Symphony No.5 in E minor where the scherzo is replaced by a movement simply marked 'Valse'. "Replaced by?" Well, perhaps it's better to say that the waltz functions as if it were a scherzo. The trio section, indeed, brings more traditional scherzo elements more clearly into play. As the Fifth Symphony is almost as fate-dominated as the Fourth all this waltzing cannot go on forever without a reminder of Fate's fateful fatefulness and just as the movement has been especially tempting Fate by enjoying itself in a major key the symphony's ominous motto theme quietly intervenes to bring the movement to a sombre close. This gesture was obviously inspired by the return of the idée fixe in Berlioz's symphony. (Tchaikovsky was a great fan of Berlioz). The Symphony No.6 in B minor ('Pathetique') has a second movement also in waltz form, though any gentleman and his lady choosing to try to dance along to it (just like any listener attempting to conduct along with it, unsuspectingly) may well end up tripping up over each others feet as the movement isn't in triple time, but in 5/4 time (a constant play of 3 + 2) instead. This tricksy waltz establishes a broadly (if insecurely) relaxed mood. The Pathetique is, however, far from being a relaxed symphony and the movement's central episode - a long chain of melodic sighs over an obsessive pulse - saps away much of the movement's geniality and it ends in gloom.
If you've just taken a listen to it and feel in need of an emotional pick-me-up, there's none better than Leonard Bernstein's loving tribute to this very movement in his Divertimento for Orchestra, whose second movement is marked 'Waltz' and dances in an even tricksier rhythm - 7/4 time.
Elements of distancing, absurdity and irony have been detected by critics in some of Tchaikovsky's symphonic waltzes. There's no doubt about the presence of those elements in Mahler's use of the waltz in the Im Tempo eines gemächlichen Ländlers second movement of his Ninth Symphony. As you can see from the marking, this isn't a movement in waltz form, adopting one of the waltz's main precursors instead - the Ländler. However, the movement's indolent dancing takes a violent turn for the worse when the Ländler turns into a waltz - a nasty waltz that bites! Mahler had been down this route before, with the Scherzo of his Fifth Symphony being a double-satire on both the Ländler and the waltz. The waltz rhythms become dislocated, the melodies are distorted and the orchestration drains the music of any Viennese sweetness. The shadowy, ghoulish scherzo of the Seventh Symphony concentrates its satirical fire purely on the waltz. This is a fantastic movement, in every sense.
Where Tchaikovsky and Mahler lead Shostakovich was bound to follow. The scherzo of his Symphony No.5 in D minor is strongly waltz-like, albeit a heavy-footed kind of waltz. It has clear Mahlerian overtones of biting sarcasm (whilst also being great fun), reminding me of the equivalent movement in Mahler 7 especially. What (or who) exactly is being bitten remains a matter of intense and often bitter debate.
As you may have realised, all these waltzes take their partners in symphonies that have a sort of programmatic impulse behind them, however veiled and suggestive. The waltz isn't there for purely abstract reasons. The waltz may be too freighted with meaning and suggestion for it to lend itself to purely abstract use in a symphony.
I'll end this post was one of my favourite symphonic waltzes, one which rather proves that point and yet also partly disproves it - the second movement of the magnificent Second Symphony of Carl Nielsen. This symphony is the one he based on 'The Four Temperaments' and this movement depicts his vision of the 'phlegmatic' man. In the great Dane's own words:
"His real inclination was to lie where the birds sing, where the fish glide noiselessly through the water, where the sun warms and the wind strokes mildly round one's curls. He was fair; his expression was rather happy, but not self-complacent, rather with a hint of quiet melancholy, so that one felt impelled to be good to him... I have never seen him dance; he wasn't active enough for that, though he might easily have got the idea to swing himself in a gentle slow waltz rhythm, so I have used that for the movement, Allegro comodo e flemmatico, and tried to stick to one mood, as far away as possible from energy, emotionalism, and such things."That said, you need not know anything about Nielsen's programme to relish every second of this movement as a purely abstract symphonic movement in an abstract overall structure. Knowing or not knowing, either way it's compelling music.