This is the sixth in a weekly series that will seek to break down the mists and myths that put people off the vast treasure house that is classical music. Each time, I’ll take a theme and choose 5 pieces or excerpts (from over 600 years’ worth of music) and then round it all off with one larger work.
Hence 5&1 from 600!
It’s the stuff of little girls’ (and probably not a few little boys’) dreams: a vast portrait-lined hall, say, glittering in a forest of sparkling chandeliers, filled with serried ranks of men in white tie and tails, radiant women in sumptuous gowns, and the sounds of an orchestra on fire. But this is no fairy tale. Welcome to the grandest balls of nineteenth century Vienna. Welcome to that epitome of Viennese style: the Waltz.
Music and movement have always been inextricably linked. With rhythms that correspond to, and profoundly influence, something as basic as our heartbeats, music has always had an uncanny ability to get people off their backsides! One of the fundamental refinements of this has been the lilt of music in 3/4 time. UM-cha-cha, UM-cha-cha, UM-cha-cha. There, you see! Your toes are already tapping.
Now, you might think that the waltz is confined to a bygone world, but it’s alive and kicking in surprising places. Take Billy Joel’s “Piano Man”, The Beatles’ “Norwegian Wood,” or Jimi Hendrix’s “Manic Depression”! Just as great, but less well concealed, is Leonard Cohen’s “Thanks for the Dance.” Still, there are surprises in store within its original setting, because each one of these examples somehow articulates an emotional mood entirely different from the others. It seems the waltz is as good a vehicle for expressing the breadth of human experiences as any other (a bit like its namesake, Christoph, for that matter).
Tales from the Vienna Wood (Op. 325, IJS 149)
—Johann Strauss Jr (1825-1899, Austrian)
Robert Stolz (conductor), Vienna Philharmonic
Just as it would be wrong to start anywhere other than Vienna, so we must open with Johann Strauss Jr, son of Johann Strauss. The father was good, but the son was a genius. He was the waltz king. You probably know the Blue Danube (a total misnomer by the way, if you’ve ever visited Vienna) from Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, so it would be a waste to include it here. Instead, we’ll lightly traipse through the city’s surrounding forest. Here is joy, excitement and joie-de-vivre all at once. It’s sure to put a spring in your step (much needed in these strange days). Take your partners, please…
Entr’acte and Waltz with Chorus from Eugene Onegin (Op. 24: Act II, Sc 1)
—Pyotr Illyich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893, Russian)
Neil Shicoff (‘Lenski’, tenor), Dmitri Hvorostovsky (‘Onegin’, bass), Semyon Bychkov (conductor), St. Petersburg Chamber Choir, Orchestre De Paris
Instead of sweeping the room up, we now encounter a waltz vicariously on stage. But in Tchaikovsky’s operatic adaptation of Alexander Pushkin’s verse novel, this dance is a crucial plot element. We are in that archetypal romantic drama: you know, two eligible bachelors, two gorgeous but different sisters, etc. You can guess the rest. Almost. A moral of the story is, be careful who you dance with… But this opening to Act 2 barely hints of the drama to come. Instead, its melody is just wonderful and exuberant. You’ll be humming it for days. (By the way, the protagonist’s surname is pronounced, Oh-NYAY-gin with a hard ‘g’; most definitely not a drinks order in a pub).
Waltz in F major
—Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910, Russian)
Lera Auerbach (piano)
Since we’re in Russia, it would be a shame to miss this little gem. Who knew that one of the greatest novelists in history had a nice little sideline in waltzes? I, for one, had no idea. This is just a delight. Here is whimsy and wistfulness, with perhaps a touch of melancholy, but it is all so deft and light. At only a minute and a half, it is like a miniature crystal ornament on the mantelpiece: easily overlooked but pregnant with personal meaning for those who love it.
Slavonic Dance No. 10 ‘Allegretto grazioso’ (in E Minor, Op. 72, No. 2)
—Antonin Dvorak (1841-1904, Czech)
Jiří Bělohlávek (conductor), Czech Philharmonic Orchestra
Tolstoy’s melancholy has now become full-blown in Dvorak’s treatment. The ¾ tempo is restrained and full of pathos, with memories of youthful joys perhaps now lost. Those joys suddenly have full voice about halfway through, perhaps as we are transported but to the glory days. Yet the heartbreak is just too strong to resist for long. We’re back in the sweeping strings of the first melody and the tears perhaps start to well up.
Waltz No. 6 in D-Flat, Op. 64 No. 1 “The Minute”
—Frédéric Chopin (1810-1849, Polish)
Vladimir Ashkenazy (piano)
And now for something completely different. Not a scintilla of nostalgia here; this is a distillation of keyboard fireworks exclusively bottled for the drawing room salon. Ashkenazy is one of my favourite musicians and he makes it all so effortless here (which was undoubtedly Chopin’s intention). ‘Minute’ Waltz was not Chopin’s title—he originally called it the ‘Puppy Waltz’, believe it or not?!—so nobody seriously tries to play it in under 60 seconds since that would guarantee an unpleasant mess on the floor. More commonly, it takes up to around two minutes. But it is a piece of pianistic showmanship. Listeners of the long-running BBC Radio 4 panel show Just A Minute will recognise it for sure.
La Valse/The Waltz (1919/20)
—Maurice Ravel (1875-1937, French)
Yannick Nézet-Séguin (conductor), Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra
So, as we conclude, what finer encapsulation of European civilisation can you get than the waltz in all its glamour and romance? But notice the date of composition. We’re only a year or so after the end of the Frist World War, an event so catastrophic and destructive that ‘European civilisation’ had become a contradiction in terms. Ravel himself had been an ambulance driver during the conflict (like a number of other artistic people including Ralph Vaughan Williams, e. e. cummings, Ernest Hemingway, Jerome K. Jerome, Gertrude Stein, and Jean Cocteau). But he commandeers this throwback to the nonchalance of an aristocratic age and subverts it cha by cha. The UM-cha-cha is relentless but the mood and tone become increasingly deranged, even though it keeps being jerkily interrupted. This is no romantic flight of fancy. Ravel has transformed the waltz into a tragic emblem of cultural disintegration.
Ravel originally conceived of it as a ballet, but it is more normally performed as a concert piece (perhaps because it is only around thirteen minutes). It begins rather murkily, as if a ball is taking place in a room or house next door. But we are never able to ignore it, since it whirls and cascades, drawing more and more people into its almost demonic rhythm. (Listening, I am always reminded of that Mark Gertler painting from this era referenced in my engagement with the film 1917). La Valse’s final minute or so is manic and destructive. The trenches have killed off that old glamourous world once and for all. Still, some listeners disagree; they would see this as the ultimate waltz, almost an apotheosis of the form, with all the wild, bacchanalian fervour that an all-or-nothing dance demands. Either way, once Ravel had done with it, the waltz could never be the same again.
P.S. Before anyone gets wrong ideas, I want to state categorically that I am in no sense a dancer. Two left feet and all that. Past experience has clearly taught that the consequence usually features red faces and broken bones. But I appreciate great art when I see it. Just don’t ask me to take a partner onto the dance floor (into the ring?). It’s just not worth it.
This playlist will be updated each Friday with new music recommendations from Mark Meynell.