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
Life and Style
love + sex A new study has revealed the average size - but does that leave men outside the 'normal' range being thought of as 'abnormal'?
Voices
The Palace of Westminster is falling down, according to John Bercow
voices..says Matthew Norman
Sport
Steve Bruce and Gus Poyet clash
football
Arts and Entertainment
Jake and Dinos Chapman were motivated by revenge to make 'Bring me the Head of Franco Toselli! '
arts + ents Shapero Modern Gallery to show explicit Chapman Brothers film
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebooks
ebookPart of The Independent’s new eBook series The Great Composers
Arts and Entertainment
Kurt Cobain performing for 'MTV Unplugged' in New York, shortly before his death
music Brett Morgen's 'Cobain: Montage of Heck' debunks many of the myths surrounding the enigmatic singer
Sport
Brendan Rodgers
football The Liverpool manager will be the first option after Pep Guardiola
Life and Style
life
Sport
Christian Benteke of Aston Villa celebrates scoring the winner for Aston Villa
football
Arts and Entertainment
Myanna Buring, Julian Rhind-Tutt and Russell Tovey in 'Banished'
TV Jimmy McGovern tackles 18th-century crime and punishment
Arts and Entertainment
Paul Whitehouse as Herbert
arts + ents
News
Bill O'Reilly attends The Hollywood Reporter 35 Most Powerful People In Media Celebration at The Four Seasons Restaurant on April 16, 2014 in New York City
media It is the second time he and the channel have clarified statements
News
people
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

    Recruitment Genius: Lettings and Sales Negotiator - OTE £46,000

    £16000 - £46000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join ...

    Recruitment Genius: Home Care Worker - Reading and Surrounding Areas

    £9 - £13 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This is a great opportunity to join a s...

    Recruitment Genius: Key Sales Account Manager - OTE £35,000

    £25000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Have you got a proven track rec...

    Recruitment Genius: Sales Executive - OTE £40,000

    £15000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a great opportunity for...

    Day In a Page

    Syrian conflict is the world's first 'climate change war', say scientists, but it won't be the last one

    Climate change key in Syrian conflict

    And it will trigger more war in future
    How I outwitted the Gestapo

    How I outwitted the Gestapo

    My life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
    The nation's favourite animal revealed

    The nation's favourite animal revealed

    Women like cuddly creatures whilst men like creepy-crawlies
    Is this the way to get young people to vote?

    Getting young people to vote

    From #VOTESELFISH to Bite the Ballot
    Poldark star Heida Reed: 'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'

    Poldark star Heida Reed

    'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'
    The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

    The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

    Netanyahu knows he can get away with anything in America, says Robert Fisk
    Families clubbing together to build their own affordable accommodation

    Do It Yourself approach to securing a new house

    Community land trusts marking a new trend for taking the initiative away from developers
    Head of WWF UK: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

    David Nussbaum: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

    The head of WWF UK remains sanguine despite the Government’s failure to live up to its pledges on the environment
    Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

    Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

    Set in a mythologised 5th-century Britain, ‘The Buried Giant’ is a strange beast
    With money, corruption and drugs, this monk fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’

    Money, corruption and drugs

    The monk who fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’
    America's first slavery museum established at Django Unchained plantation - 150 years after slavery outlawed

    150 years after it was outlawed...

    ... America's first slavery museum is established in Louisiana
    Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

    Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

    The first 'American Idol' winner on how she manages to remain her own woman – Jane Austen fascination and all
    Tony Oursler on exploring our uneasy relationship with technology with his new show

    You won't believe your eyes

    Tony Oursler's new show explores our uneasy relationship with technology. He's one of a growing number of artists with that preoccupation
    Ian Herbert: Peter Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

    Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

    The England coach leaves players to find solutions - which makes you wonder where he adds value, says Ian Herbert
    War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn