Do I Hear A Waltz?

Do I Hear A Waltz? is the title of the show by Richard Rodgers and Stephen Sondheim written in 1965 after the death of Oscar Hammerstein. It tells the story of spinster Leona Damish who knows she will recognise true love when she finally hears a waltz that she has long imagined. But why a waltz?

The waltz takes its first hesitant steps in classical music in a Haydn Sonatina of 1766 in which the usual minuet (also in three time) is replaced by a “waltz movement”. It was probably already present in dance-halls. Michael Kelly – the Irish tenor who sang in the first performance of Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro – noted enthusiasm for the waltz as early as 1773.

But dance masters, who were paid by the nobility and upwardly mobile in Viennese society, objected to the waltz as a threat to their profession. Its basic steps and moves could be picked up in a short time, whereas the minuet and other courtly dances required considerable practice to learn their complex figures. The waltz was also criticised on moral grounds by those who saw lasciviousness in its close bodily contact and rapid turns. Religious leaders regarded it as sinful.

In 1816 the waltz was among the dances in a ball given in London by the Prince Regent – not known for high moral behaviour. A few days later an editorial in The Times lamented:

“We remarked with pain that the indecent foreign dance called the waltz was introduced at the English court on Friday last… It is quite sufficient to cast one’s eyes on the voluptuous intertwining of the limbs and close compressure on the bodies in the dance to see that it is indeed far removed from the modest reserve which has hitherto been considered distinctive of English females. So long as this obscene display was confined to prostitutes and adulteresses, we did not think it deserving of notice; but now that it is attempted to be forced on the respectable classes of society, we feel it a duty to warn every parent against exposing his daughter to so fatal a contagion.”

The great waltz composers of the early part of the 19th century were Joseph Lanner (right) and Johann Strauss father (left). They created what today is known as the Viennese waltz and their best has never been surpassed. Characteristic of the waltz is its one-chord-in-a-bar approach, with the bass heard on the first beat and the two other beats lighter. In the Viennese waltz a characteristic rhythmic anticipation gives it greater vitality.

Johann Strauss Sr. wrote more gallops and polkas than waltzes. His most famous work today is the “Radetky March”, heard at the end of every New Year’s Day concert. His three sons – Josef, Eduard, and Johann – were all musician-composers. Josef Strauss wrote 283 works: waltzes that include Music of the Spheres, Deliriums, Transactions, and Village Swallows from Austria, polkas, quadrilles and other dance music. His pieces tend to be of a more serious character than those of his brothers.

The “Waltz King” is Johann Strauss Jr. (right), who has more than 500 works to his name, including several operettas but not counting many works that have been lost or destroyed. In 1872 Strauss went on tour to the United States. Such was his popularity that in Boston at the Peace Jubilee Festival Hall, there was an audience of 100,000 people, with 20,000 singers on stage, a huge orchestra in front, and 100 hundred assistant conductors to control the masses!

The sound of a waltz inspires joy, sadness, and a deep sense of something lost. Why is the lilt and elegance of a dance most of us cannot do so captivating? Why is the New Year’s Day concert unthinkable without the waltz? I have no answer but to quote a ditty by Ira Gershwin, the lyric-writing brother of the more famous George:

“Away with the music of Broadway!
Be off with your Irving Berlin!
Oh, I’d give no quarter
To Kern or Cole Porter
And Gershwin keeps pounding on tin.
How can I be civil
When hearing this drivel?
It’s only for night-clubbing souses.
Oh, give me the free ’n’ easy
Waltz that is Viennesey
And go tell the band
If they want a hand
The waltz must be Strauss’s!”

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