Classical Music: Last waltz?

The rhythm made famous by Strauss is due for a comeback, says Bayan Northcott

Whatever happened to the waltz? The question is current not just because Johann Strauss the younger is Radio 3 Composer of the Week from next Monday but also because we are supposed to be living in an increasingly post-modern paradise, in which composers, listeners - and dancers for that matter - now feel free to mix classical and pop, ethnic and electronic, austerity and kitsch, as the spirit takes them. And, in recent centuries, no genre of Western music has crossed barriers of class, taste, wealth or custom so completely as the waltz itself.

Though initially disguised under a variety of names, such as German Dance or Landler, as it emerged in central Europe in the mid-18th century, the waltz has always exploited triple time - three beats in a bar - whether as a slowish glide or a fastish dash, and has always involved clasped partners whirling one another around.

The latter development soon moved moralists to denounce the lascivious waltz as the downfall of civilisation, but to no avail - not least, because composers of the calibre of Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert realised that they could turn a penny on the side by scribbling sets of waltzes for court occasions or for the bourgeoise music trade. In the 1790s, the waltz was already a popular craze - by 1819, it was aspiring to the highest flights of art.

That year, the Viennese publisher Anton Diabelli sent a modest little waltz of his own making to some 50 composers, including Schubert and the very young Liszt, requesting a variation from each to put out in a collected volume. Yet what he got back from Beethoven some three years later was a set of no less than 33 variations comprising one of the profoundest masterpieces in the history of piano music. Meanwhile, Weber published a rondo for piano comprising a chain of waltzes enclosed between a more poetic introduction and epilogue. Subsequently orchestrated by Berlioz under the title of L'Invitation a la Valse, this was to become the model for the waltz sequences developed by such dance band leaders as Joseph Lanmar and Johann Strauss the elder in the 1830s and '40s, and brought to perfection in such masterpieces of Strauss's most famous son as On the Beautiful Blue Danube (1867). By now, the introductions were symphonic elaborations, magical summonses to the couples at an Imperial ball to drift dreamily on to the floor before moving as one into the great circle of the opening waltz itself.

In fact, Berlioz had long since introduced the waltz into the symphony proper in his Sonfonia Fantastique (1830), while Chopin and Liszt had developed the piano waltz into a vehicle for the subtlest nuances or the most diabolical display.

By the mid-19th century, the waltz seemed ubiquitous, infusing the symphonies of Tchaikovsky as audibly as his ballets, and insinuating its way into the most private piano pieces of Brahms. Even when the young Richard Strauss (no relation) sought to evoke the "dance song" of the Nietzschian Superman in his tone-poem Also Sprach Zarathustra (1826), he moved without the slightest inhibition into a Viennese waltz.

And this pervasiveness was not confined to ballroom or concert hall. The chorus of Hebrew slaves in Verdi's early opera Nabucco was already a kind of slow waltz; Gounod contrived to slip the flightiest French valse into Faust, and even Wagner ultimately succumbed, evoking the Flower Maidens in Parsifal in what he called an "American waltz" - by which he can only have meant the slow genre known as the Boston.

Then in the 1900s, as if the pre-eminence of the waltz had raised it to a kind of early-warning system of the zeitgeist, something happened. Suddenly the waltz passages in Mahler's Fifth Symphony (1902) turned self- conscious and satirical; suddenly, in the run-up to the First World War, there appeared a whole clutch of scores - Ravel's Valses Nobles et Sentimentales, Debussy's Jeux, Berg's Reigem from his Three Orchestral Pieces - in which waltz structures seem to dissolve, leaving mere drifts of feeling. Meanwhile, Stravinsky was syphoning off the feeling, leaving the mere mechanics in such dry little numbers as the waltz in A Soldier's Tale (1918), though it fell, once more, to Ravel to deliver what some have heard as the symphonic deathblow with his vision of Imperial Vienna whirling itself to oblivion in La Valse (1920). True, the cult of the waltz lingered longer among composers of genteel light music and in the domains of the musical and the film score, but it was increasingly fodder for modes of nostalgic pastiche. As for waltzing itself, this now seems mainly confined to the ever more stylised world of ballroom dancing.

Well, doubtless the most popular forms have had their day, and, if we no longer write or dance waltzes, neither do we minnets or jigs. But there is something else here. Any survey of dance music since it began to be written down in quantity during the Renaissance period will quickly reveal how the dominant dances at particular periods have tended to divide rather evenly between those in duple time - two or four beats in a bar - and those in triple. This complementary relationship even held in the 19th century when the waltz, at its zenith, was almost rivalled in popularity by the duple-time polka.

It is at this point that one comes across a historical anomaly in 20th century dance music - indeed, in popular music as a whole - so pervasive it is rarely even remarked upon. If one surveys the commercialisation of the popular, from the emergence of ragtime, jazz and such dances as the tango, before the mid-20th century and the evolution of rock, pop, disco and so on since, one finds it has been overwhelmingly cast in duple time. Of course, exceptions spring to mind, from the odd ragtime waltz by Scott Joplin to the occasional emergence in the charts over more recent decades of slow triple-time ballads. But the bias remains striking. Nor is it any longer confined to popular genres.

Admittedly, the history of rhythm in 20th century classical music has been complicated by a sustained effort of several generations of "advanced" composers to get away from any sense of regular pulse whatever - to achieve a perpetual irregularity of rhythm in keeping with the perpetual turnover of pitches freed from traditional tonality. Yet in the widespread retreat from such avant-garde aims over the last couple of decades, attempts to restore tonality, particularly in more trundling modes of minimalism, have brought corresponding obsessions with duple time. It is almost as rare to find Philip Glass coming out with a triple-time number as it is Oasis.

In this supposedly pluralistic era, we are therefore confronted by the singular and possibly sinister paradox that the casting of the vast bulk of the most marketable music in one of the two basic metres in Western tradition threatens the marginalisation of the other. No doubt it would take the aesthetic, economic, psychological and philosophical insights of a latter-day Adorno to tease out the implications. For instance, if we accept the old association of duple time - the rhythm of marching, hammering and so on - with masculinity and of triple time with femininity, what does the dominance of the duple really tell us about the status of women? And, as the disco beats boom through the shopping malls, do we begin to sense the oppression of social control behind the glittering consumer choices?

In duple time, after all, the metre is all downbeats, whereas triple time offers the vastly expanded possibilities of complementary upbeats. Which is just one of the reasons why composers seeking to achieve something genuinely fresh could do worse than to sample once more the resources of rhythm and phrasing latent in the evolution of that old, old Straussian waltz.

Composer of the Week, BBC Radio 3 from noon, Monday 4 May.

Suggested Topics
News
people
Sport
Newcastle players celebrate, Mario Balotelli scores, Alan Pardew and Brendan Rodgers
footballNewcastle vs Liverpool , Arsenal vs Burnley, Chelsea vs QPR and Everton vs Swansea
News
i100Amazing Amazon review bomb
Arts and Entertainment
The Spice Girls' feminism consisted of shouting 'girl power' and doing peace signs in latex catsuits
musicWhat is it? You know what you want it to be...
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebooksA superb mix of recipes serving up the freshest of local produce in a delicious range of styles
Life and Style
ebooksFrom the lifespan of a slug to the distance to the Sun: answers to 500 questions from readers
News
people
Life and Style
food + drinkFrom Mediterranean Tomato Tart to Raw Caramel Peanut Pie
News
Moss and Grimshaw arrive at the party
peopleKate Moss, Claudia Schiffer and Nick Grimshaw at Jonathan Ross's Halloween party
Arts and Entertainment
Armstrong, left, and Bain's writing credits include Peep Show, Fresh Meat, and The Old Guys
TVThe pair have presented their view of 21st-century foibles in shows such as Peep Show and Fresh Meat
News
i100
Extras
Boys to men: there’s nothing wrong with traditional ‘manly’ things, until masculinity is used to exclude people
indybest13 best grooming essentials
Travel
travelPurrrfect jet comes to Europe
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch attends the London premiere of his new film The Imitation Game
people He's not as smart as his characters
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Mobile Developer (.NET / C# / Jason / Jquery / SOA)

    £40000 - £65000 per annum + bonus + benefits + OT: Ampersand Consulting LLP: M...

    Humanities Teacher - Greater Manchester

    £22800 - £33600 per annum: Randstad Education Manchester Secondary: The JobAt ...

    Design Technology Teacher

    £22800 - £33600 per annum: Randstad Education Manchester Secondary: Calling al...

    Foundation Teacher

    £100 - £125 per day: Randstad Education Chelmsford: EYFS Teachers - East Essex...

    Day In a Page

    Bryan Adams' heartstopping images of wounded British soldiers to go on show at Somerset House

    Bryan Adams' images of wounded soldiers

    Taken over the course of four years, Adams' portraits are an astonishing document of the aftermath of war
    The drugs revolution starts now as MPs agree its high time for change

    The drugs revolution starts now as MPs agree its high time for change

    Commons debate highlights growing cross-party consensus on softening UK drugs legislation, unchanged for 43 years
    The camera is turned on tabloid editors in Richard Peppiatt's 'One Rogue Reporter'

    Gotcha! The camera is turned on tabloid editors

    Hugh Grant says Richard Peppiatt's 'One Rogue Reporter' documentary will highlight issues raised by Leveson
    Fall of the Berlin Wall: It was thanks to Mikhail Gorbachev that this symbol of division fell

    Fall of the Berlin Wall

    It was thanks to Gorbachev that this symbol of division fell
    Halloween 2014: What makes Ouija boards, demon dolls, and evil clowns so frightening?

    What makes ouija boards and demon dolls scary?

    Ouija boards, demon dolls, evil children and clowns are all classic tropes of horror, and this year’s Halloween releases feature them all. What makes them so frightening, decade after decade?
    A safari in modern Britain: Rose Rouse reveals how her four-year tour of Harlesden taught her as much about the UK as it did about NW10

    Rose Rouse's safari in modern Britain

    Rouse decided to walk and talk with as many different people as possible in her neighbourhood of Harlesden and her experiences have been published in a new book
    Welcome to my world of no smell and odd tastes: How a bike accident left one woman living with unwanted food mash-ups

    'My world of no smell and odd tastes'

    A head injury from a bicycle accident had the surprising effect of robbing Nell Frizzell of two of her senses

    Matt Parker is proud of his square roots

    The "stand-up mathematician" is using comedy nights to preach maths to big audiences
    Paul Scholes column: Beating Manchester City is vital part of life at Manchester United. This is first major test for Luke Shaw, Angel Di Maria and Radamel Falcao – it’s not a game to lose

    Paul Scholes column

    Beating City is vital part of life at United. This is first major test for Shaw, Di Maria and Falcao – it’s not a game to lose
    Frank Warren: Call me an old git, but I just can't see that there's a place for women’s boxing

    Frank Warren column

    Call me an old git, but I just can't see that there's a place for women’s boxing
    Adrian Heath interview: Former Everton striker prepares his Orlando City side for the MLS - and having Kaka in the dressing room

    Adrian Heath's American dream...

    Former Everton striker prepares his Orlando City side for the MLS - and having Kaka in the dressing room
    Simon Hart: Manchester City will rise again but they need to change their attitude

    Manchester City will rise again but they need to change their attitude

    Manuel Pellegrini’s side are too good to fail and derby allows them to start again, says Simon Hart
    Isis in Syria: A general reveals the lack of communication with the US - and his country's awkward relationship with their allies-by-default

    A Syrian general speaks

    A senior officer of Bashar al-Assad’s regime talks to Robert Fisk about his army’s brutal struggle with Isis, in a dirty war whose challenges include widespread atrocities