Sunday, 20 January 2013

The Waltz VIII: Macabre Dances

The clock (harp) sounds the hour of midnight. Death tunes his violin to the devilish interval of the tritone and the flute strikes up...a waltz. Death then plays another waltz tune on his violin and dances a Danse Macabre. The waltz grows broader and skeletons join in the dance, their bones clattering on xylophone. A fugue strikes, up then a waltz take on the requiem Dies Irae chant emerges. The dance swirls up again and the music begins its hurtle towards the main climax. The horns sound the approach of dawn, the cock crows on oboe. With a final echo of Death's dance tune the skeleton's retreat and disappear. 

Long before Alfred Schnittke tried to send shivers down our spine with his nightmarish waltzes, composers like Saint-Saëns (in 1874) had realised that the waltz makes the perfect candidate for the danse macabre. He wasn't the first. Over a decade earlier (1859-62) Liszt had composed the first of his Mephisto Waltzes. The work has the subtitle, Der Tanz in der Dorfschenke ('The Dance in the Village Inn'). The story, taken from Lenau, runs as follows:
"There is a wedding feast in progress in the village inn, with music, dancing, carousing. Mephistopheles and Faust pass by, and Mephistopheles induces Faust to enter and take part in the festivities. Mephistopheles snatches the fiddle from the hands of a lethargic fiddler and draws from it indescribably seductive and intoxicating strains. The amorous Faust whirls about with a full-blooded village beauty in a wild dance; they waltz in mad abandon out of the room, into the open, away into the woods. The sounds of the fiddle grow softer and softer, and the nightingale warbles his love-laden song."
The work was originally composed for piano and orchestra but the composer swiftly made arrangements of it for solo piano and orchestra. The orchestral version must have given Saint-Saëns ideas, though Liszt's vision has much more passion than the Frenchman's genial score. This danse is rather more macabre, with wild waltz rhythms, distorted melodies and uproarious climaxes - and a voluptuous melody. 

The Mephisto Waltz No.2 was dedicated to Saint-Saëns and written around five years after the Danse Macabre and some twenty years after the Mephisto Waltz No.1. As a piece of music, I think it's a finer achievement than either of them; indeed, it's one of Liszt's best works. It opens with a play of tritones, just as 
the Danse Macabre did, but its coup-de-theatre it to end with cadences on the same devilish interval - dashing the listener's expectations that the Waltz is about to end in a blaze of major-key glory. There's something though that might strike you as you're listening. Why doesn't it sound like a waltz? The reason is that the piece is written in two time signatures simultaneously - 6/8 and 2/4 - and the two cut across each to such an extent that the waltz rhythm is largely cancelled out. The fact that the waltz rhythm is in no way obvious even to a reader of the score also helps in this respect. So we've arrived at a waltz that doesn't sound at all like a waltz. How diabolical!

The harmonic adventures of the Mephisto Waltz No.2 are carried further in the Mephisto Waltz No.3. You can smell Scriabin in the air of its chains of fourths and its use of trills. Again, you won't find yourself tapping your fingers to a Viennesy 3/4 time beat as the piece has a dual time signature of 12/8 and 4/4 and the cancelling-out of the waltz rhythm is carried out in such a thoroughgoing way. The Third Mephisto Waltz is an exciting and wonderful piece. I'd never heard it before today. I will be hearing it again soon.

The Mephisto Waltz No.4 was unfinished and forgotten until the 1950s. Heroic Lisztian Leslie Howard made a completion of it in the 1970s and the piece has been recorded. Unfortunately, it isn't of the same high standard as its predecessors, sounding rather more obvious than Nos. 2 and 3 whilst lacking the thematic distinction of No.1. It has its moments but the excitement and the mystery found in the others isn't found so abundantly here.  

Another Mephisto Waltz I'm very fond of came from the pen of Prokofiev - his Mephisto Waltz from the film score Lermontov (usually heard in a version for solo piano). Prokofiev understood what Liszt was up to and his waltz has several of the distinguishing features of Liszt's works - including the play of triple and duple-time that at times disguises the waltz element - though it has to be said that the um-pah-pah rhythm makes itself felt far more often in the course of the Russian's work than it ever did in the Hungarian's devilish dance-poems. Of course, Prokofiev brings to his Mephisto Waltz all his usual genius for melody. 

Another great Russian who sensed the macabre element latent in the waltz was Rachmaninov. His towering Symphonic Dances features a ghostly waltz as its central movement. The sinister opening brass chords and the eerily swirling woodwind features help set the scene. The wan waltz tune then enters into this haunted landscape (and what a tune it is!). The sinister chords return but the waltz tune begins to surge romantically. All is beginning to go swimmingly but then - in the manner of the Liszt Mephisto Waltzes - the rhythms tangle to such an extent that the waltz rhythm is cancelled out. The tune tries again and again but it seems to lose its reason as it rises in passion and the waltz rushes towards its confused end. 

The associations of death with the waltz are also brought out in Sibelius's very beautiful Valse triste - a piece from his incidental music to a play called Kuolema ('Death'). The original programme note sets the scene:
"It is night. The son, who has been watching beside the bedside of his sick mother, has fallen asleep from sheer weariness, Gradually a ruddy light is diffused through the room: there is a sound of distant music: the glow and the music steal nearer until the strains of a valse melody float distantly to our ears. The sleeping mother awakens, rises from her bed and, in her long white garment, which takes the semblance of a ball dress, begins to move silently and slowly to and fro. She waves her hands and beckons in time to the music, as though she were summoning a crowd of invisible guests. And now they appear, these strange visionary couples, turning and gliding to an unearthly valse rhythm. The dying woman mingles with the dancers; she strives to make them look into her eyes, but the shadowy guests one and all avoid her glance. Then she seems to sink exhausted on her bed and the music breaks off. Presently she gathers all her strength and invokes the dance once more, with more energetic gestures than before. Back come the shadowy dancers, gyrating in a wild, mad rhythm. The weird gaiety reaches a climax; there is a knock at the door, which flies wide open; the mother utters a despairing cry; the spectral guests vanish; the music dies away. Death stands on the threshold."
If strains of madness added to the macabre are what you are looking for in a waltz then look no further that the waltz from the Rasputin-based film Agony (beginning at 4.33) by Schnittke. As was established in an earlier post, Schnittke turned the waltz into the ultimate danse macabre on many occasions. Over in America, Jerry Goldsmith was putting Liszt's Mephisto Waltz to use in the context of a horror film that bore the same title as the Hungarian's diabolic work. His score to The Mephisto Waltz certainly takes the idea somewhat further than Liszt could possibly have imagined, using plenty of avant-garde tricks to add to  the horro - though the old Abbé would doubtless have got a kick out of it. Goldsmith also employed the waltz form in his score to The Boys from Brazil - a thriller about the cloning of Hitler. Here the lightness and unMephistophelian nature of the main waltz tune is intended to ironically underline the horror of Nazi evil. 

As Schnittke and Goldsmith show, the spirit of Liszt's Mephisto Waltzes lived on into the dying decades of the last century - and will doubtless continue to do so. 

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