Sunday, 20 January 2013

The Waltz VI: Love-Song Waltzes

As the Strauss Family reached its peak of fame in the 1860s, Johannes Brahms took to writing waltzes. Brahms adored the music of Johann Strauss II, famously writing "unfortunately not by Johannes Brahms" over a quotation of the theme from The Blue Danube. His own waltzes, however, don't owe very much to the Strauss Family, (like Ravel) following much more the example of Schubert. Yes, young Franz's Valses nobles and Valses sentimentales are the obvious progenitors of Brahms's Waltzes, Op.39 (Nos.9-16 here), though the spirit of Schumann and his inward-looking piano cycles are also discernible. 

These 16 short pieces (all in simple binary form) were originally composed as four-hand duets but the composer subsequently arranged them twice for solo piano - one set for "clever hands" and the other "perhaps for more beautiful hands", as he put it so charmingly. I think they are truly wonderful. I'd go so far as to say that they are my favourite waltzes of all, a collection of magical miniatures, so varied in character and mood as to make the continuous hearing of the whole set a joy from start to finish. They are 'popular' in style yet also full of intimate feeling and deep craftsmanship. 

One thing that has always puzzled me is the relationship between the penultimate waltz from the set, No.15, and "Brahms's Lullaby" - his world-famous Op.49/4 song Wiegenlied: Guten Abend, gute Nacht. Op.39/15 is also called 'Wiegenlied' and shares quite a bit of its material with the song  that so many mothers have sung to their babies over the last 150 years, though there are marked differences of direction taken by each piece once we've passed the opening phrase. Which one was based on the other? Or, to put it another way, which came first? Seemingly, the songs were written in 1867-8 while the piano waltz was composed by 1865, which seems to make the piano piece the ur-lullaby (as it were). Fascinating! (OK, probably not). 

Just after writing the Waltzes, Op.39 Brahms began writing his Liebeslieder Waltzes, Op.52 for vocal quartet and piano (four-hands), following them (given their great success with the public) in the mid 1870s with the Neue Liebeslieder Walzer, Op.65. These love-songs in waltz form (all but one based on frivolous, amorous poetry) are another of the treasures of Brahms's art. The Op.52 ones have always been closer to my heart than their successors, full of delightful things as the second round of songs are. They bear no relationship (beyond their title) to the Liebeslieder Waltz, Op.114 of Johann Strauss II. If you were wondering.

Alas, Brahms's friend and mentor Robert Schumann was more the sort of composer to slip into the spirit of a waltz during the course of a piece rather than doing a Schubert, Chopin or Brahms and explicitly writing waltzes. The nearest he came to writing a collection of waltzes was his fanciful Papillons, Op.2 - one of the pieces which seems to me to show the direct influence of Schubert's waltzes on Schumann's style. Most of the thirteen movements of Papillons take waltz form (with a couple of polonaises chucked in for good measure) and the final movement sees phrases from the opening waltz alternating poetically with phrases from the old Grossvaterlied (which Schumann associates with philistinism). 

There is said to be a very direct link between Schubert's waltzes and Schumann's masterpiece, Carnaval, Op.9. It's claimed that the opening Préambule makes reference to Schubert's Trauerwalzer, D365/2. I've listened a few times now to both pieces and I can't say that I can hear any connection whatsoever between the two. Am I missing something? There are, regardless, two explicit waltzes in Carnaval - the first of which bears a Schubertian name, Valse noble. The second is the Valse allemande. I love them both. 

Brahms's friend Antonin Dvorak, a master at translating popular dances into popular classical music, wrote quite a few waltzes. I made the mistake of listening to his own set of Waltzes, Op.54 straight after listening to the Brahms Op.39 set. The Brahms pieces are so subtle that the open brilliance of Dvorak's waltzes then came as a shock. Listening to them again on their own terms - and they were designed to be something different from either Chopin or Brahms - reveals their own genius, marrying as they do Slavonic melodies with the demands of the Austro-German waltz. They are valses brillantes, designed to delight audiences (as his wonderful Slavonic Dances had already delighted audiences. There are all those little shift of mode and mood that you expect from the composer and tunes galore. I was new to these ingenious piano pieces, but the orchestral Prague Waltzes, composed in the immediate wake of the Op.54 pieces, were familiar to me. They are a likeable mixture of Strauss Family-style populism and Dvorak-style Slavonic melodic traits. 

The waltz was spreading its wings and heading east.

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