Sunday, 20 January 2013

The Waltz X: The Last Waltz?

As the First World War drew near, audiences in Central Europe were being treated to waltzes from a composer who combined the melodic and rhythmic spirit of the Strauss Family with the scrumptious late-Romantic harmonies of Richard Strauss, Puccini and the like. Even Gustav Mahler was enamoured of the composer's best-known waltz - Lippen schweigen ('Silent Lips'), better known as 'the Merry Widow waltz'. Its composer Franz Lehár  was a man with a remarkable gift for writing achingly memorable melodies, such as the main theme of Lippen schweigen, and setting them against rich and masterfully-scored accompaniments. Though I seem to have known that tune since I was evicted from my pram, it was the quality of the various melodies that go into making the Gold und Silber ('Gold and Silver Waltz') such a popular favourite that first alerted me to the delights of Lehár. If you've never heard it before, please take the opportunity to do so now. As you will hear the waltz follows the traditional pattern, as does Wilde Rosen ('Wild Roses') - a piece of which the composer himself was particularly fond. In Wilde Rosen you can hear the ingenuity with which Lehár weaves delightful counter-themes around some of his melodies. This is typical of the man. Just listen to the orchestral richness of the Altwiener Liebeswaltzes ('Love Waltzes from Old Vienna'). The composer himself conducted extracts from several of his operettas, including waltzes from The Count of Luxembourg and Eva, helping to spread his own message. Lehár continued to enjoy success between the wars, but as a popular phenomenon his was a dying art, losing out - especially after the Second World War - to the encroaching form of the musical.

Talking of of the many gems from George Gershwin (and, of course, his brother Ira) was a song originally written for a review called The Show Is On about a lady who likes just one composer...and it isn't Lehár or Gershwin. By Strauss!: 

When I want a melody
Lilting through the house
Then I want a melody
By Strauss
It laughs, it sings
The world is in rhyme
Swinging to three-quarter time 
I suspect she would have been a fan of Arnold Schoenberg's arrangement of Strauss waltzes though I also suspect that she wouldn't been quite so keen on Schoenberg's own take on the form - the Waltzer from the Five Piano Pieces, Op.23. This is among the composer's first wholly twelve-tone works - and is unquestionably the first ever twelve-tone waltz. You won't be able to dance to it, despite the waltz rhythms. It's more of a fantasy-piece. As for his Strauss-waltz-arranging disciples, well, Anton Webern wrote no original waltzes of his own. Alban Berg, however, made conscious allusions to the Viennese waltz in his beautiful Violin Concerto of 1935 (very clearly in the 'Wienerisch' section around five minutes in). These, however, are essentially memorials for the waltz.

Of course, as we saw in Russia, the waltz lived on beyond the end of the First World War - and beyond La Valse - even if its glory days had well and truly gone. You see a waltz movement here and a fleeting glimpse of the waltz there among the works of many a famous 20th Century composer, but - as with the Schoenberg and Berg examples - they are fleeting things, memories, nostalgic or ironic glances backwards, parodies, mockeries. The waltzes in Richard Strauss's Der Rosenkavalier were already tending in that direction before the Great War, and his only concert waltz, München was originally written in 1939 but then re-written with a minor-key section in 1945, with the addition of the words "ein Gedächtniswalzer". It was a memorial waltz - a memorial to Munich, its opera house and to the waltz.

It needed a memorial. Of course, in popular music the strains of the waltz lingered on. Film composers also found many-and-varied uses for the waltz. Light music composers kept the waltz flame flickering too. Composers of musicals often reach for a waltz. My survey of the music of Paraguay's greatest composer Barrios showed the waltz thriving in the bars of Latin America. Ballroom dancers the world over are still dancing away to waltzes. Many sub-species of the waltz have sprung up across the globe. But among the major classical composers the waltz went into serious decline. Given that people still love a good waltz, that's a shame, isn't it?

Let's not end on a triste note about la valse. I've got quite a few miscellaneous waltzes to offer you, to round things off.

Fancy a pair of Edvard Grieg Valse-caprices for piano duet? Dating from 1883, they make a charming set. I think the first is the best, with a melodic appeal that should win its many friends. It really does speak the language of its composer, albeit with waltz rhythms rather than with Norwegian folk rhythms. The major/minor shifts in the trio section of this Valse-caprice are particularly characteristic. I'd never heard them before but I was aware of Grieg's involvement with the form. His series of sixty-six Lyric Pieces contains many an attractive waltz. I've always enjoyed playing the Vals, Op.12/2 - another gem where unpredictable major and minor shifts add a touch of Griegian magic. For a spirited take, please try the Vals, Op.38/7 - short but charming. The Norwegian folk influence is felt in the captivating melody of the Valse-Impromptu, Op.47/1, another magical number, with its tune based on an unusual (but very characteristic) take on the minor scale. The Valse mélanconique, Op.68/6 is more conventional but has much to recommend it.

Moving from the far north to the far south of Europe, we find the waltz flourishes in the hands of the Chopin-soaked Enrique Granados. His Valses Poéticos takes the traditional form of an introduction, waltz sequence and reprise-coda. From lightness to melancholy, nobility to sentimentality, Granados's richly-imagined set offers the listener many rewards. Listen out in particular for the 6th waltz - the one marked 'sentimental'.

Such pieces come from the heart of the Romantic piano composer tradition. We've already looked at Liszt's Mephisto Waltzes - those waltzes that were so hard to hear as waltzes. Liszt wrote quite a few non-devilish waltzes too. I'm not sure that many pianists would agree that the early Grande Valse di Bravura isn't devilish, given the devilishly difficult demands it places on the performer! This is an entertaining piece in the most brilliant salon style of the time. From the more intimate side of Liszt's nature came the lovely Valse mélancolique - one of many works the composer reworked over the years. You can trace this process in action by journeying (happily) through the transformation of the first version of the Petite Valse favorite into the second version of the Petite Valse favorite and from there into the Valse-Impromptu. Delightful music! Nor must I forget the Valse oubliées. These are very special waltzes from Liszt's later years. No.1 has always been a favourite, for understandable reasons. It has all the best tunes. No.2, however, is a dazzling and dream-like fantasy, full of beauty and not to be missed. No.3 enters into visionary harmonic worlds to come (as late Liszt was so often to do) and is, if anything, even more airy and beautiful. No.4, ironically, was literally a forgotten waltz for many years, only being rediscovered in America and published in 1954. It is even closer to the soundworld of Scriabin and full of flare and fire. The Valse oubliées are indeed something special, unlike...

Did you know that Liszt's son-in-law Wagner wrote a waltz? The Zuricher Vielliebchen Walzer for piano of 1854 is that most surprising of things. I think you'll agree it's hardly a masterpiece, but it's a charming trifle nonetheless. Who'd have thunk it? That's really it though for Wagner and the waltz (except for an arrangement he made of Wine, Women and Song) - unless you are prepared to countenance my passionate belief (which I will defend to the death - and beyond) that the Flower Maidens' beguiling Komm o holder Knabe from Parsifal is a waltz!

Let's leap across the Atlantic and forward in time (before working backwards again). Two of the three great ballets of Aaron Copland feature waltzes. There's the Saturday Night Waltz from Rodeo - a lovely slow waltz announced by the 'tuning-up' of the 'fiddlers' of the orchestra. There's also the no-less-lovely slow Waltz that precedes Billy's death in Billy the Kid. Both give a flavour of how the waltz had become a popular dance in the America of yore.

Charles Ives had penned a characteristically off-centre take on the waltz a quarter of a century earlier. His Waltz-Rondo of 1911 has strange and purely coincidental echoes of the Ravel Valse nobles et sentimentales, among other anticipations. It's a rich and fascinating piece that's as oblique a take on the waltz as Schoenberg's Op.23 piece a decade later. Less complex (but charming) is the Waltz parodying the popular waltzes of the time that Ives wrote in 1895, as arranged by Jonathan Elkus in 1971. (The original song can be heard here). This is the waltz as a sentimental song (or a take thereon).

American composers of Ives's were still showing themselves to be smitten by the great masters of the classical waltz, especially Chopin. There's Horatio Parker, for example,with his Chopinesque Valse gracile of 1899 and George Chadwick with his equally Chopin-inspired (and highly agreeable) Three Waltzes of 1890.

This American process is a rewind of the process we have been seeing in Europe - the move from the real thing to parodies and nostalgic memories of the real thing.

Let's end with another American composer but one who began as an Austrian composer and whose music is Viennese to its fingertips, Erich Korngold. His work in arranging rare Strauss operettas brought a fair few of them back from the dead. Korngold's music is rich in influence, sharing some of the spirit of Franz Lehár whilst also being aware of Schoenberg. Of course, Korngold is best known for his film music, all written for the studios of Hollywood. A man of the past and the future then. I've enthused about Korngold's music (at length) before, so this is my second bite of the cherry here. It's such a tasty cherry though that I'm always happy to keeping nibbling at it.

As well as those arrangements of Strauss operettas, Korngold wrote a pastiche singspiel called Walzer aus Wien ('Waltzes from Vienna') which drew on Strauss's less-known music (the Broadway version was called The Great Waltz) to tell a story from the life of the Waltz King. For a flavour of what must be a wonderful piece, please take a listen to the waltz-aria Frag mich Oft . (A second delicious aria may be heard here.) One of Korngold's final works was a short orchestral tribute to the great man, Straussiana, drawing on an obscure Strauss polka and an obscure Strauss waltz. There's not a hint of irony in it. This is love.

Korngold wrote waltzes of his own, including in his remarkably prodigious youth. I like the story about the teenager's Vier fröhliche Walzer all being dedicated to friends at school - all girl friends - and his father confiscating the young composer's manuscript to try to deter him from thinking about girls! The pieces were re-discovered later. As you would expect from the extraordinarily gifted youngster, the waltz Margit sounds like the work of a fully mature composer and contains a rich flow of melody and harmony. For a waltz from a work from the composer's actual maturity, please try the warmly nostalgic second movement from the Suite Op.23 for two violins, cello and piano left hand or the delightful finale of the String Quartet No.2, Op.26 - both first-rate waltzes. If you ever feel yourself wanting to sing along to a Korngold waltz you will be in good company - as you can hear from the composer's own performance (on piano) of the waltz-song Die schönste Nacht from his operetta Die Stumme Serenade. Try it for yourself with the waltz, Feast in the Forest, from his legendary film score The Adventures of Robin Hood or with Pierrots Tanzlied from the composer's most famous opera, Die Tode Stadt.

Resisting the urge to end with Engelbert Humperdinck's The Last Waltz, that's the end of this short series of posts on the waltz. Hope I didn't leave out too much! 

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