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ClassicsOnline Home » GREAT WALTZES (The) - The Essential Collection
By Brian Reinhart
The Great Waltzes – The Essential Collection
Originating among the rural villages of Austria and southern Germany, danced to by kings and queens, used in films and advertisements, and played on street corners, the waltz has had a chequered history. From its heyday in the nineteenth century it has inherited an aura of glamour and nostalgia which still has the power to tug at our emotions. Today, although no longer commonly used in its original function as dance music, the waltz still exercises a compelling influence over our imagination. Its enchanting rhythms and sinuous melodies have infiltrated our musical consciousness, and entwined themselves into the heartbeat of our everyday lives.
There is nothing quite so evocative as a waltz. Whether lilting or fast-paced, wistful or energetic, the familiar, flowing triple-time rhythm is irresistible. Originating in the eighteenth century among the peasants of Germany and Austria, the graceful dance soon spread to the city, where it found its way into the ballrooms of the Viennese aristocracy, and from there to countries all over the world. Since then, the waltz has appeared in countless guises—in opera, film, ballet and in the concert hall.
Johann Strauss II (1825–1899) is the undisputed grandfather of the waltz. Composer of The Blue Danube, possibly the most famous waltz melody ever written, he was extraordinarily prolific, composing, among other works, over 500 dance pieces. Known during his lifetime as the ‘Waltz King’, his music epitomises the glamour of nineteenth-century Vienna.
Surprisingly The Blue Danube, written in 1867, was in fact only a mild success at its first performance—although it has gone on since then to become one of Strauss’s most celebrated dances. Similarly well known is the Emperor Waltz, written over twenty years later in 1889 to celebrate the Austrian Emperor Franz Josef ’s visit to the German Kaiser Wilhelm II. It is a telling symbol of Strauss’s fame that his waltz—a transformation of its origins as a simple village dance—was considered a fitting tribute for kings. Tales from the Vienna Woods, dating from 1868, is in a sense a tribute to those humble roots. The title evokes an image of idyllic rural life, and the music features a prominent part for the zither, a folk instrument popular in Austria and southern Germany. It is perhaps ironic that this was one of Strauss’s best-loved waltzes, cementing the genre’s favoured position in fashionable Viennese society. Roses from the South was written in 1880. Its themes are taken from Strauss’s operetta The Queen’s Lace Handkerchief (premiered the same year), although the waltz has far outstripped the stage work in terms of popularity.
Not all Strauss’s waltzes were written as instrumental works, although this is largely how they are known today. It is interesting that The Blue Danube, which originally featured a song text by Josef Weyl, only encountered real success when Strauss transcribed it into a purely orchestral version for the 1867 World’s Fair in Paris. Wine, Women and Song (written in 1869) was likewise not originally an instrumental work—commissioned for the Vienna Men’s Choral Association’s ‘Fool’s Evening’, it was intended as a choral piece. The title comes from the old German saying (first attributed to Martin Luther) ‘who loves not wine, women and song remains a fool his whole life long’—appropriate given the name and nature of the occasion for which it was commissioned. Similarly, Voices of Spring was originally accompanied by a solo soprano. It was premiered in 1882 by the famous coloratura soprano Bianca Bianchi at a charity concert patronised by the Emperor Franz Josef.
Although the ‘Waltz King’ enjoyed a long and highly successful career, he was not without rivals. The younger composer Émile Waldteufel (1837–1915) became as established in Paris as Strauss was in Vienna, and was even invited to play before Queen Victoria at Buckingham Palace. Estudiantina (1883), one of Waldteufel’s best-known waltzes, is actually an arrangement of a melody by Paul Lacôme—although it is Waldteufel’s version which has become justly famous. The charming Skaters’ Waltz of 1882 was inspired by the skaters at the Bois de Boulogne in Paris, reflecting Waldteufel’s impressions of his adopted city (he was born in Strasbourg, but lived in Paris for most of his life). Solitude (1881) and Très Jolie (1878) were composed at around the same time, when Waldteufel was at the height of his renown.
Twenty years or so before Strauss’s career began to garner him widespread fame, another composer was born whose name would also become inextricably linked with dance music. Pyotr Il’yich Tchaikovsky (1840–1893) is renowned for his symphonies, concertos, orchestral suites and operas— but above all for his ballets. The suites taken from Swan Lake, The Sleeping Beauty and The Nutcracker are mainstays of the concert hall to this day, and have been used in everything from Bela Lugosi’s Dracula to advertisements for mayonnaise.
Swan Lakewas Tchaikovsky’s first ballet, although its imaginative fusion of myth and magic are typical of his later work. It was heavily criticised at the Moscow premiere in 1876, but has since proved immensely popular with audiences. The first performance of The Sleeping Beauty took place in 1890, and, unlike its predecessor, the ballet quickly became firmly established in the repertory, and is now one of the most frequently staged of all Tchaikovsky’s works. The waltz from Act I features one of the most famous tunes in classical music. Joyful and celebratory, the piece has been used in countless film soundtracks, becoming familiar even to those unaware of its origin. The Nutcracker—the last of Tchaikovsky’s triumvirate of ballets—received its premiere in 1892. The ‘Waltz of the Flowers’ is one of the most recognisable pieces from the work, partly due to its inclusion in the popular 1940 Disney film Fantasia. It is one of a number of well-known dances that take place in the Land of the Sugar Plum Fairy (several of which are also used in the film).
The waltz form appears in many other works by Tchaikovsky, including his Serenade for Strings of 1880, which features a graceful example of the genre as its second movement. His opera Eugene Onegin (1879) likewise includes a vigorous waltz, in Act II.
Franz Lehár (1870–1948), an Austrian composer of Hungarian descent, is probably best known today for his operettas, particularly The Merry Widow of 1905. Act I contains one of the most touching moments in the operetta—commonly known as the ‘Merry Widow Waltz’. He also wrote several stand-alone waltzes, however, including the sprightly Gold and Silver. It was written for Princess Metternich’s ‘Gold and Silver’ Ball, which took place in January of 1902. The unprecedented success of the first performance transformed Lehár overnight from a little-known military bandmaster to a celebrated luminary of the Viennese musical scene, and a fitting successor to the mantle of Johann Strauss. He soon left the army, and was appointed Kapellmeister at the Theater an der Wien.
The Parisian composer Adolphe Adam (1803–1856) is remembered today largely for his beautiful Christmas carol O Holy Night, but he was in fact a very prolific composer, writing a number of successful operas and ballets. Of these, Giselle (1841) is the most popular, and the title role is highly sought-after for ballerinas today. The waltz from Act I remains one of the highlights of the ballet.
The Romanian soldier and composer Iosif Ivanovici (1845–1902), though extremely successful in his day (he was published by over sixty publishing houses across the globe), is now remembered mainly for a single work: his waltz The Waves of the Danube. It was an immediate sensation at its first performance, which took place at the Paris Exposition of 1889.
Tickets to the 1911 premiere of Richard Strauss’s (1864–1949) opera Der Rosenkavalier sold out almost immediately, and the work has continued to be a box-office draw ever since. In fact, the only criticism made of the opera at its first performance was the inclusion of so many waltzes in the music— although this can be attributed to the fading popularity of the genre rather than to any defectiveness in Strauss’s score.
The Armenian composer Aram Khachaturian (1903–1978), born exactly a hundred years after Adolphe Adam, brought the waltz firmly into the twentieth century. His music is familiar to millions of people, thanks in part to its inclusion in all kinds of film soundtracks from Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey to Ice Age: The Meltdown. Khachaturian wrote extensively for the theatre, and his Masquerade Suite, composed in 1941 for a production of Mikhail Lermontov’s Masquerade, includes a passionate, dramatic waltz.
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