Sunday, 20 January 2013

The Waltz IX: La Valse

All the macabre and triste waltzing of the last post might have put you in the mood for a bit of Danish light music. So it's a big "Hej" to "The Strauss of the North", Hans Christian Lumbye. Inspired by hearing old Johann Strauss, Lumbye brought the new Viennese style to Denmark and became immensely popular with Danish audiences as a result. His waltzes are marked by their melodic appeal, their energy and their orchestral colour - all qualities found in his loveable Amélie Waltz, his Memories from Vienna and his Hesperus Waltz. Lumbye's most famous piece, however, isn't a waltz. This is as good a place as any to introduce you to it though (if you don't already know it) so, ladies and gentlemen, let me present to you the Copenhagen Steam Railway Galop. This is one of the gems of light music - a depiction of the elegant crowds at a railway station, the wheezing of the train into motion, the train at full speed and its arrival at the next station to the cries of the station staff. Delightful!

Moving westwards (perhaps on a train leaving from Copenhagen), French waltz lovers had their own equivalents of Lumbye and the Strausses, most notably Émile Waldteufel (whose name, in a nice Lisztian twist, means 'Forest devil' in German!). You may never have heard of Waldteufel (which is your loss!) but you will have heard of at least one of his pieces - Les Patineurs ('The Skaters Waltz'), whose opening has more than a little of The Blue Danube about it. Yes, it's not quite in the same league as Johann Strauss II's great waltz, but The Skaters Waltz has all the charm and elegance of French ballet music. Waldteufel usually stuck to the tried-and-tested formula of introduction-waltz sequence-reprise (coda) on the if-it-ain't-broke-don't-fix-it principle. The results can be vivacious, as in Tout Paris ('All Paris'), and highly melodious, as in Très Jolie ('Very Pretty'). As a fan of Emmanuel Chabrier and his inspired, glittering orchestral showpiece España, it's fun to hear Waldteufel's transformation of it into his España Waltz. Of course, Waldteufel tames the wildness and originality at the heart of Chabrier's ingenious piece, but it's charming stuff nonetheless.

Chabrier wrote a set of three Valses Romantiques that are among the many semi-hidden delights of French piano (here two piano) music. The composer's music was adored by Debussy, Ravel, Poulenc - and most other French composers of note - and you can, I hope, hear why here. The harmonic ingenuity, the genius for melody, the glamour and elegance, the poetry - all self-recommending qualities - are found throughout this set of waltzes. The third of the pieces is widely regarded as being the most remarkable for its anticipations of composers to come. Just as irresistible is the sparkling Scherzo-Valse from his Pièces pittoresques. Gems, all of them. No survey of the waltz would be complete without them.

Chabrier, incidentally, was another of those composers who began their composing with a waltz. His Op.1 is a 'grand waltz' called Julia. (No link, sadly). Another French composer whose Op.1 was a waltz was George Bizet. His Grand Valse de Concert is a brilliant confection of the kind that often gets dismissed as 'salon music' - and a masterpiece in waltz form it certainly isn't - but it's not a bad start from a young man who was going to go on to write a work of genius like Carmen, is it? Hope that getting you to listen to it straight after hearing the mature magic of Chabrier wasn't too cruel a trick to play on poor Bizet!

Another French master of the stage, Léo Delibes, whose ballets Tchaikovsky said he would have loved to have written, wrote a well-known waltz for his comic ballet Coppélia. I've read a few slight sniffy comments from critics about Coppélia but it's a piece I've long had a very large soft spot for. It has so many good tunes and it's delectably scored. There's nothing but happiness to be had from it - and there's a bonus waltz in the almost-as-well-known Waltz of the Hours. Splendid waltzes, both of them. His other ballet Sylvia has a waltz too - and, guess what, it's a delight too!

Delibes wasn't the first Frenchman to pop a waltz or two in a ballet, unsurprisingly. Adolphe Adam's ground-breaking Giselle (the first ballet to give us the Wilis) had one by the start of the 1840s.

Famous French waltzes come from all direction in the second half of the Nineteenth Century. Another is the waltz from Faust by Charles Gounod. This has long had an independent orchestral life, but if you wish to hear in its original form, where Méphistophélès leads Faust and the villagers in a waltz - a Mephisto Waltz! - please feel free to click here.

Listen also to Jacques Offenbach's Gaîté Parisienne, as arranged by Emanuel Rosenthal (yes, it's not really a ballet by Offenbach), and you will hear some more catchy French waltzes that should fill you with feeligns of élan, joie de vivre and bonhomie. Of course, you wan't just hear waltzes. Hmm, what other dances will you hear? There's only one way for you to find out!

The country that first put the waltz in a symphony, thanks to M. Berlioz, was clearly in love with la valse but, being French, they were more than willing to put a little emotionally distance between themselves and the waltz and invest it with a certain nonchalance. Saint-Saëns actually wrote a piece called Valse nonchalante, Op. 110. The Danse Macabre showed that Saint-Saëns could caricature the waltz, and there's surely a hint of underlying irony in his exceptionally brilliant Étude en forme de valse, Op.52/6 - though the irony may be directed at exceptional brilliance itself! (The Belgian violinist-composer Eugène Ysaÿe wrote a version of the piece for violin and piano, entitled Caprice d'après l'Étude en forme de valse whic brings a Paganini-like flavour to Saint-Saëns's pianistic tour-de-force.)

'Nonchalance' isn't le mot juste to describe the Valse-caprices of Gabriel Fauré. What is? 'Urbanity' perhaps. Fauré turned out four beautiful, sparkling pieces in waltz form - the Valse-caprice No.1, Op.30Valse-caprice No.2 Op.38Valse-caprice No.3, Op.59 and Valse-caprice No.4, Op.62. None of them touch the emotional depths of his greatest piano works (the nocturnes and barcarolles especially) but they are exquisite nonetheless. Their virtuosity is feather-light. The earlier pair were favourites of Saint-Saëns and show something of the manner of his Étude en forme de valse - as well as reflecting the style and spirit of Chopin. The later pair are somewhat closer to the true spirit of Fauré, with captivating touches that lift the works well beyond the ordinary - to a place where we also find Kitty-valse from the Dolly Suite.

'Nonchalance' is certainly the word, however, to describe some of the waltzes of SatieJe te veux and Tendrement, for example, which bring us close to the world of popular music, the cabaret, the 20th Century, or the Waltz of the Mysterious Kiss in the Eye from La Belle Excentrique, which nears the indifference of tone found in those little waltzes of Stravinsky - or in Satie's own Stravinsky-like Valse du chocolat aux amandes. More conventional is the Fantaisie Valse.

Debussy's waltzes carried him from the lovely but emphatically Romantic Valse romantique of 1890 to the more more characteristic and somewhat nonchalant La plus que lente of 1910 (a piece subsequently orchestrated with the exotic addition of the gypsy cimbalom.) Both are minor pieces in the Debussy canon, but neither is to be missed by lovers of the waltz. 

The macabre, madness-afflicted waltz that we encountered in the previous post gets a French outing (in 1903) from a most unexpected source - Jules Massenet. His Valse folle has a Mephistophelian side to it, with plenty of French glitter and an almost Bartok-like bite to a few of its bars. Unlikely, you think? Well, give it a go and see what you think!

Other composers still felt the deepest affection for the waltz. One such was Reynaldo Hahn, whose Premières valses are a loving tribute to the form, seeming to feel most at home in the first half of the 19th Century. There are eleven short movements, the first bearing the Weber-inspired title Invitation A La Valse. There's also a Valse Noble (a nod to Schubert) and a tribute to Chopin ('A L'Ombre Reveuse De Chopin'), thus paying homage to many of the founding fathers of the classical waltz.  "Dear Reynaldo", wrote Proust, "your waltzes achieve the complete coincidence (in the geometric sense of the world) where all expression is stripped away, save that which you want us to savour, art or life.'

Ravel was, of course, making such a nod with his Valses nobles et sentimentales (albeit with many a 20th Century twist), as referred to it my first post on the waltz - where I also promised another piece by the composer that would have been out of place there. That piece is La Valse). The score sets the scene:
"At first the scene is dimmed by a kind of swirling mist through which one discerns, vaguely and intermittently, the waltzing couples. Little by little the vapours begin to disperse, and the illumination grows brighter, revealing an immense ballroom filled with dancers. The blaze of the chandeliers comes to full splendour. An Imperial Ball about 1855."
There are three continuous sections. The first, The Birth of the Waltz, opens to miasmic rumblings. Out of this quiet chaos emerges the rhythm of the waltz. A tune rises from the bassoon eventually reaching the strings and the oboe, with the brass stressing the rhythm with ever greater oomph. We then come to The Waltz Itself. Here the violins then the oboe give us to the big waltz tune, with the percussion flecking its process. Other instruments take the lead as the waltz passes into through various moods, from serenity to passion. The speed intensifies and the waltz begins to become harsh. Finally comes The Apotheosis of the Waltz, where the waltz is belted out in a great blaze of orchestral colour and becomes ever more hedonistic and hallucinatory, being engulfed in great swirls of sound with baying brass prominent. The violence grows ever more intense and the piece reaches a fever pitch of brutality, with fierce dissonances raging. The waltz hurtles forward nightmarishly and crescendos into wildness before collapsing fiercely. Many see La Valse as a damning indictment of the pre-World War One culture that brought about the catastrophe of that war - a world that collapsed at the end of the war, just as Ravel's Valse collapsed. La Valse is, thus, as much a history of the whole of the world of Imperial Vienna as it is of the waltz itself.

The waltz had, indeed, reached its apotheosis. There are very few significant French (classical) waltzes to come from the years after La Valse. 

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