Thursday, July 28, 2011

Does Anyone Still Compose a Waltz?

The Danube is not blue, as Karl Isador Beck calls it in the lines which suggested to Strauss the fetching, mendacious title to his waltz.
Claudio Magris 

On television not long ago, a fellow leered out at me, a violin propped under his chin.  The cameras pulled back on grand buildings and lawns, all bathed in lurid blue light.  The print onscreen announced we were about to hear the Blue Danube Waltz by Johann Strauss II.  The creator of this catastrophe was André Rieu, who’s made it his business to conduct an orchestra that plays nothing but The Waltz.

There was a time when, for reasons unknown to me now, I bought up CDs of Strauss waltzes and played them end-to-end.  One set had been arranged by Arnold Schoenberg.  I had to hand it to the twelve-tone guy, he knew what he was doing with the waltz.  I remember, too, one New Year’s day, getting caught up watching the Vienna Philharmonic’s frothy extravaganza, complete with elegantly costumed dancers gliding into elegantly appointed rooms.

After several rounds of listening to those Strauss CDs, I’ll confess I’d had enough.  I set the CDs back on the shelf, and there they’ve stayed, unplayed ever since.  I didn’t think about the waltz again until a friend took me to the opera Der Rosenkavalier, by Richard Strauss.  I found myself entranced anew by the waltzes within the opera.  I was dismayed to realize they were associated with the odious lecher Baron Ochs and, not only that, were considered anachronisms even at the time the opera premiered, in 1911.

The waltz, on its appearance in England in the early 1800s, was considered scandalous.  Even Lord Byron, not exactly a bystander when it came to outré behavior, complained on seeing
Mrs. Hornem with her arms half round the loins of a huge hussar-looking gentleman I never set eyes on before; and his, to say truth, rather more than half round her waist, turning round, and round, to a d----d see-saw up-and-down sort of tune, that reminded me of the "Black Joke"  . . . . By and by they stopped a bit, and I thought they would sit or fall down:--but no; with Mrs. H.'s hand on his shoulder, "'Quam familiariter'"(as Terence said, when I was at school,) they walked about a minute, and then at it again, like two cock-chafers spitted on the same bodkin.
No matter what Lord Byron may have thought, many composers have tried their hand at the waltz:  Chopin, Brahms, Ravel, Prokofiev—even Shostakovich.

I’ve been thinking about Ravel of late.  Nothing to do with waltzes, but rather his suite, Le Tombeau de Couperin.  Composers John Metcalf and Judd Greenstein have each written a Tombeau, both of which are lovely.  I thought it only proper to go back and listen to Ravel's.

I hadn’t got to it, when, in the way one thing leads to another, I stumbled upon David Nice.  Among his many talents, Nice writes for the BBC Music Magazine.  I’d long ago subscribed to it and enjoyed my monthly CDs, but, as happens with me and magazines, I got so far behind in my reading I gave it up.  After being reminded of it through Nice, I decided to subscribe again.

The first issue I received included a stellar review of Ravel’s complete solo piano works, recorded by Steven Osborne.  The serendipity of this simply required me to send off for the CD.  I’ve played Le Tombeau de Couperin a few times, with considerable enjoyment.  I haven’t been able to focus on it the way I'd like to, though, for I've been stopped in my tracks by Ravel’s La Valse.

Ravel started writing what became La Valse in 1906, as a tribute to the waltzes of Johann Strauss, Jr.  He didn’t complete it until after the conclusion of World War I.  Ravel’s description of the final work was this:
Drifting clouds part and allow hazy glimpses of waltzing couples.  They gradually dissipate, and we can distinguish [A] an immense ballroom filled with a whirling crowd.
The scene continues to clear.  The glow of the chandeliers shines to a full splendor [B].
An Imperial Court ball, circa 1855.
La Valse begins on an ominous rumbling of notes that offers little clue of what’s to come.  The rumbling slowly gives way to a delicate melodic line.  As the lower register takes on a waltzing pulse, the upper register takes flight, only to come crashing down in a set of full-throated chords.  Ravel continually subverts our expectations:  just when we’re sweetly sailing along on a lilting line, he pulls back, then again rains down huge chords.  Each time, though we recognize its tune, the waltz undergoes a metamorphosis, gains speed, loses it again, stops short, picks up again, spins out, demonic, Faustian, then thunders down with a final chord and five last notes.

While I hear in the music what Ravel describes, composer George Benjamin may have got it right:
Whether or not it was intended as a metaphor for the predicament of European civilization in the aftermath of the Great War, its one-movement design plots the birth, decay and destruction of a musical genre:  the waltz.
Now, here we are, almost a hundred years further on.  To me, Ravel’s La Valse is as enthralling today as it must have been back then, yet I can’t help but hope more waltzes are yet to come.  I’d hate to think we’re left with nothing but the corpse of the Blue Danube Waltz embalmed in Rieu’s lurid blue light.  After all, anachronistic though some think it may be, there’s something in that simple one-two-three, one-two-three that makes the heart take flight.

Ravel originally wrote La Valse for orchestra, but also transcribed it for solo piano and two pianos.  I didn't find a solo piano version I liked well enough to include here, but below you'll find the two piano version in a knock-out performance by Martha Argerich and Nelson Friere. There is something particularly magical, to my mind, about the solo piano transcription.  For that try Steven Osborne or Louis Lortie.  (More versed musical friends may have other recommendations, and I hope they will share them here.)

To hear Ravel's La Valse, arranged for two pianos, click here.

To hear Ravel's La Valse for solo piano, arranged by the pianist, Sean Chen, click here.  (Thanks to George Wallace, circa Nico Muhly, for identifying this to me.)

Credits:  The score excerpt at the head of the post is from Ravel's solo piano transcription of La Valse, the whole of which can be found at the IMSLP/Petrucci Music Library.  The image of the dancers is a still from a video of the Vienna Philharmonic's 2011 New Year's concert.  The image of Lord Byron in Albanian dress can be found here.  The illustration of the ball at Versailles can be found here.  I could find no attribution for the Ravel reproduction at the end of the post. 

The quotation at the head of the post is from Claudio Magris' book, Danube.  If the title of the post has a familiar ring, that's because it's based on lyrics from the song Ladies Who Lunch by Stephen Sondheim.  (Not a waltz, though there is, of course, the utterly addictive Do I Hear a Waltz?, for which Sondheim wrote the lyrics.)  The Byron quotation is from Byron's Poetical Works, Volume 1.  The Benjamin quotation is from Classical TV's program notes for La Valse.  The Ravel quotation is from the score of Ravel's two piano transcription of La Valse, also at the IMSLP/Petrucci Music Library.

To learn about John Metcalf's Le Tombeau de Boulez, click here.  To hear Judd Greenstein's Le Tombeau de Ravel, click here.


derekpiotr said...

so funny, i was just looking at the label site of one of my favourite postcards. one of them was a waltz:

so yes, they are still being composed!
re muhly, try his fast twitchy organs piece (called twitchy organs i think on "i drink the air before me"). gorgeous stuff

sorry i've been so bad at commenting, this summer has been spastic!!


derekpiotr said...

*one of my favourite labels, not postcards !

David said...

Oh dear - tangled myself up by deleting that for want of the right Rosenkav act and failed to save the text. Start again, less self-indulgently: I love it that the Rosenkav waltzes sit between the 18th century setting of the opera and the time of composition. Ochs's is the fruitiest - a popular song he loves - but everyone gets one, and even the sublime trio is foreshadowed as a waltz tune in Act 3.

Who still writes 'em outside the musical (A Little Night Music is nearly all in 3/4)? Well, I found them rife for bitter/bittersweet nostalgia in Turnage's Anna Nicole, which you'll have to get on DVD (along with that Tcherniakov Macbeth).

Friko said...

Poor Rieu, he's very big on the continent, you know. There's a whole fan base for him.They still listen to that sort of music with great pleasure and the more schmaltzy and smarmy he gets, locks flowing, violin bobbing, teeth flashing in an inane grin, the happier his audience is.

Viennese waltzes belong to the Sylvester-Opernball, you can't have one without the other.

I have no idea if anyone still writes waltzes, perhaps I'll ask Beloved.

Every time I've seen Rosenkav, (opera house shorthand) I've enjoyed it tremendously.

Jane and Lance Hattatt said...

We rather suspect, but have no idea, that today's composers do not concern themselves with writing waltzes. And, indeed, we wonder if many 'would be' composers of modern music would identify with a waltz at all?!

We have much enjoyed this very informative and interesting post, together with the video clip, which takes us back to the programme 'Record Review' [or some such name] which used to be a regular feature of Radio 3 on a Saturday morning. It may even date back to the days when Radio 3 was the Third Programme! Oh dear!

David said...

Jane and Lance, it's still alive and well under the aegis of CD Review - I should know! And I can reassure that after a blip when Radio 3 tried to match Classic FM's listenership and realised that not only was it appealing to different folk, it was losing the listeners it had, all is much as it was. Including the 45-minute spot for Building a Library. Some things are just too good to change

Suze said...

I'm reading a book about Byron's daughter, Ada, at the moment.

Well, not really. I'm addled and exhausted from kid care at the moment but I brought the book about Ada with me. (Rueful smile.)

Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

Hi Susan .. I could and should learn so much here .. I loved the post though and the photos ..

Thank you - cheers for now .. Hilary

Lou Freshwater said...

Oh, Lord Byron, a seemingly endless source of so many things...

As always, I love to come here to learn and to be challenged, and this morning in particular listening to this music is just what the doctor ordered. Thank you.

Mark Kerstetter said...

Thanks for the introduction to the excellent Ravel piece - waltzes really are impossible to resist. Byron's reaction is pretty funny, and kind of surprising. I didn't know the form went back that far. I always think of Vienna and the late nineteenth century.

Susan Scheid said...

Derek: Thank you for being the first to weigh in with a 21st C waltz! It was a sweet little waltz—a bit old-style, I thought, which came as a surprise, particularly from you.

David: You are never self-indulgent, by my lights. I would say informed and informative. I am pleased indeed to learn that everyone has a waltz in Der Rosenkavalier—and, indeed, I thought I’d heard a waltz running up to that stupendous final trio, but as I couldn’t find confirmation of it, I doubted what I heard. Lesson for me in there somewhere to trust my own ears.

Friko: Oh, my, what a laugh I had over your description of Rieu. I loved the phrase “Sylvester-Opernball.” I didn’t know “sylvester,” which I gather means New Year’s Eve in German. The sound is so much more evocative than the English. I immediately conjure up those waltzes. Der Rosenkavalier (I haven’t earned the opera stripes to shorten it as yet!) is a wonderful opera. I’ve seen it only once, but immediately bought the CDs, which, though it’s been a while, I listened to again and again. The Marschallin’s “Ja, ja,” in response to Faninal, gets me every time.

Jane & Lance Hattat: On the subject of contemporary composers and the waltz, watch this space. I believe I spotted one and will be writing about it anon. As for BBC—I love that David has chimed back in with his response on this. Thanks to internet radio, I was able to listen to David’s own most recent Building a Library segment. He compared several versions of Bizet’s L'Arlésienne. It was great fun to listen to them side-by-side and try to hear the differences he pointed out.

Suze: I hear she is quite an interesting character in her own right. I do hope you have respite and chance to read and report back!

Hilary: I am very curious about what music you might listen to—although you profess to be unmusical, I suspect there is music you enjoy listening to. Perhaps one day you’ll reveal that in one of your wonderful posts!

Lou: It pleases me no end that listening to La Valse pleased you, too. Something about it just makes a person want to, well, dance! (Although I have two left feet, but at least dance in my head . . .)

Mark: Yes, what is it about waltzes that makes them so irresistible? I, too, by the way, was quite surprised about Byron’s reaction, though I read somewhere that he was interested in Mrs. Hornem, which could certainly account for his vehemence. Also, just as a side-note: I kept thinking of this post of yours as I wrote the last line: Break This Rule!. I kept feeling I should come up with something more original than “heart take flight,” but it just fit so well.

Friko said...

I meant to come back and tell you that Beloved has actually written a waltz or two himself, as a callow youth at the Guildhall School for Music and Drama.

It languishes somewhere amongst his writings, poems, music and diaries. He did, however, say, that he quite liked it at the time.

Your teacher friend has been in touch about the poetry site. i have answered her comment via no-reply-blogger, but I am not at all sure if these mails actually disappear into the ether. Would you know?

Susan Scheid said...

Oh, I was hoping you'd ask him! One day perhaps it will surface, eh? (As you may have seen, I've replied to you directly re getting in touch with Josie. I'm very pleased she looked up your great poetry site!)

j. littlejohn said...

some music will always be made. some of the music that is being made now? not so much.

Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

Hi Susan .. thanks I've been a-dwelling on this .. but I really am a dodo re music ... very sad & doing a post would be beyond me and probably embarrassing all round.

However as time goes on who knows! I really appreciate your thought though re my posts .. but I actually sit here in silence when I work.

So for now I rest my case! Wish I did understand and appreciate it as others do .. like literature .. still I'm here learning and that's what counts .. cheers Hilary

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