The WaltzA Sense of Grandeur and Romance
The nobility, on weekend retreats to the countryside, began slipping away to the rowdier parties of their servants, and gradually, the waltz infiltrated townhouse ballrooms across the continent. Its stamping rotations were refined into graceful, sliding turns to suit parquet floors and silken slippers.
Writing The Sorrows of Young Werther in 1774, Goethe gave one of the earliest literary descriptions of a dance that was intoxicating Europe. ‘Never did I dance more lightly,’ the eponymous hero writes giddily after a country ball. ‘I felt myself more than mortal, holding this loveliest of creatures in my arms, flying with her as rapidly as the wind, till I lost sight of every other object …’ In ballrooms across southern Germany, Austria, and Bohemia, couples were whirling, and gliding in a closed, close embrace, accompanied by melodies with a distinctive loping lilt arising from three beats to a bar. The dancers stomped and turned with the first beat, then stepped more lightly on the second two, the speed of their feet at the mercy of the musicians. It was a beer fuelled, spirited folk dance known as the Ländler, conducted in muddy hobnail boots in rural inns and provincial town halls. It had few rules, and was given many alternative, loosely descriptive names: Deutscher, Spinner and – related to the Latin word volvere, meaning turning or rotating – Walzen.
The waltz, as it became known, cut a thrilling contrast to the stately minuets common at aristocratic balls at the time, where couples arranged themselves in lines, and performed genteel turns and jigs at a safe distance from one another. The nobility, on weekend retreats to the countryside, began slipping away to the rowdier parties of their servants, and gradually, the waltz infiltrated townhouse ballrooms across the continent. Its stamping rotations were refined into graceful, sliding turns to suit parquet floors and silken slippers. ‘Waltzes, and nothing but waltzes, are now so much in fashion that at dances, nothing else is looked at,’ a German fashion journal reported in 1792. ‘One need only be able to waltz, and all is well.’
The waltz was not assimilated into polite society without fuss, however. Its dizzying speeds prompted medicinal concerns, and there was much fretting over its morality. Pamphlets were published in Germany with titles such as Proof that Waltzing is a Main Source of the Weakness of the Body and Mind of Our Generation, while some states prohibited the dance altogether. In England, Lord Byron wrote a long poem that satirised the licentiousness of the waltz – ‘… hands which may freely range in public sight where ne’er before …’ – while The Times, reporting on the debut appearance of this ‘obscene display’ at the Prince Regent’s Grand Ball in 1816, felt it their ‘duty to warn every parent against exposing his daughter to so fatal a contagion.’
In Vienna, however, things were different. Mozart, Hayden, and Beethoven, all of whom lived and worked in the city, had contributed to the Austrian capital’s reputation as a musical epicentre. A succession of culturally literate royals meant that music had become synonymous with aristocratic prestige, and it had flourished in a society with an affluent, ambitious, and expanding bourgeoisie. Encouraged by the opening of huge dance halls, such as the Apollosaal in 1808, which had capacity for 6,000 dancers, the waltz became an increasingly entrenched part of Viennese social life. It was given the seal of approval by high society during the Congress of Vienna, when European powers gathered to discuss the future of the continent after the defeat of Napoleon in 1815. While the negotiations dragged on, the parties that accompanied the Congress became legendary. “Le Congrès ne marche pas – il danse!” quipped one contemporary.
Over the next few decades, Austrian imperial rule became increasingly repressive, which only strengthened the Viennese attachment to music as a mode of expression. The waltz graduated into the concert hall. Melodies were now also performed simply for listening pleasure, and not only as accompaniments to dancing. Schubert began experimenting with its form in piano solos, while Joseph Lanner and Johan Strauss I became its champions in the ballroom, flowing sequences of waltzes together, topping and tailing them with an introduction and a coda that teased the central musical themes. A young Chopin, however, despaired: ‘Lanner, Strauss and their waltzes obscure everything,’ he wrote in the 1830s. Wagner, meanwhile, described Strauss as a ‘demon of the Viennese popular spirit.’
Civil unrest and a nervous new Emperor led to public gatherings being prohibited midway through the 19th century. No sooner had the mood softened, however, Viennese verve won through, and Strauss’s son Johann took up where his father had left off. He composed new waltzes relentlessly, spreading their appeal abroad, and pioneered the slight anticipation of the second beat of the bar – the Atempause, or breathing space, that has become synonymous with the Viennese style of playing. It was an innovation that enabled the waltz to become the centrepiece of operettas. A composition from this time, the younger Strauss’s An der schönen blauen Donau (By the Beautiful Blue Danube), composed in 1866, remains perhaps the most famous waltz ever written.
By the time Strauss II died on the eve of the new century, the waltz had become an integral part of the repertoire of many major composers of the time. It was so accepted that some, like Mahler and Stravinksy, began parodying it, quoting famous themes from the past. By 1918, Ravel was using the waltz nostalgically. In the score notes for his La Valse, he wrote: ‘Set in an imperial court, about 1855, through whirling clouds, waltzing couples may be faintly distinguished …’ The outbreak of the First World War and the subsequent dissolution of the Austro-Hungarian Empire had ushered in a fin de siècle spirit that foreshadowed a sea change. This cultural shift was evident not just in musical daring, with Mahler, Richard Strauss, and Schoenberg racing into new territories, but also in science, architecture, literature, and the visual arts. In this brave new world, the waltz would forever be associated with the grandeur and romanticism of 19th century Vienna. Today, while the continuing popularity of the waltz means that any rumours of its demise must surely be an exaggeration, a fitting epitaph might still be sought. In 1898, the Vienna Secession, an association of radical young artists headed by Klimt, built an Art Nouveau exhibition hall. The words they carved above its entrance, perhaps say it best of all: Der Zeit ihre Kunst. Der Kunst ihre Freiheit – To every age its art. To every art its freedom.