Some thirty years later than I meant to do, I have recently been reading Carl E. Schorske's Fin-De-Siecle Vienna: Politics and Culture, which surveys its titular era in a series of interlocking essays considering the figures centered in Vienna who in a range of disciplines—drama, politics, architecture, painting, music, psychology—essentially created what we thought of as "the Modern" through most of the twentieth century. As an entry in to his subject, in the opening paragraphs of the very first essay, Schorske considers not a person but a musical form: the waltz.
At the close of World War I, Maurice Ravel recorded in La Valse the violent death of the nineteenth-century world. The waltz, long the symbol of gay Vienna, became in the composer's hands a frantic danse macabre. 'I feel this work a kind of apotheosis of the Viennese waltz, linked in my mind with the impression of a fantastic whirl of destiny.' His grotesque memorial serves as a symbolic introduction to a problem of history: the relationship of politics and the psyche in fin-de-siecle Vienna.
Although Ravel celebrates the destruction of the world of the waltz, he does not initially present that world as unified. The work opens rather with an adumbration of the individual parts, which will compose the whole: fragments of waltz themes, scattered over a brooding stillness. Gradually the parts find each other—the martial fanfare, the vigorous trot, the sweet obligato, the sweeping major melody. Each element is drawn, its own momentum magnetized, into the wider whole. Each unfolds its individuality as it joins its partners in the dance. The pace accelerates; almost imperceptibly the sweeping rhythm passes over into the compulsive, then into the frenzied. The concentric elements become eccentric, disengaged from the whole, thus transforming harmony into cacophony. The driving pace continues to build when suddenly caesuras appear in the rhythm, and the auditor virtually stops to stare in horror at the void created when a major element weakens the movement, and yet the whole is moving, relentlessly driving as only compulsive three-quarter time can. Through to the very end, when the waltz crashes in a cataclysm of sound, each theme continues to breathe its individuality, eccentric and distorted now, in the chaos of totality.
Ravel's musical parable of a modern cultural crisis, whether or not he knew it, posed the problem in much the same way as it was felt and seen by the Austrian intelligentsia of the fin de siecle. How had their world fallen into chaos? ...
And we're off, never really returning to the question of the waltz—although in that first essay and again later Schorske spends time and attention on Hugo von Hoffmanstahl, whose libretto for Der Rosenkavalier (1911) provided Richard Strauss numerous opportunities to compose some of the last serious but non-ironic waltzes.
Schorske's opening gambit notwithstanding, I was not particularly thinking about waltzes until I read this post from Susan Scheid on her Prufrock's Dilemma blog: "Does Anyone Still Compose a Waltz?" That post is less about "the waltz" than it is specifically about La Valse and more generally about Ravel. It is worth your time, so I'll wait whilst youse reads it.
All right, then. Does anyone still compose a waltz? Well, the form did not die, certainly, even as Ravel was busily vivisecting it. To the north, in Denmark, Carl Nielsen was busily constructing the first movement of his Symphony No. 3 (aka the Sinfonia Espansiva) around a grand, driving waltz theme that recurs at intervals, over the objection of the sections around it. (Some enterprising choreographer could construct a fine dance from that movement, if not the entire symphony.)
Nielsen composed his symphony in 1910 and 1911, conducting the premiere in 1912. His waltz, therefore, falls in the middle of Ravel's composition process: begun after Ravel started his Valse in 1906 but completed prior to the outbreak of the war that so influenced Ravel's final version. While rumors of war can be detected in the brass and percussion—they become explicit in Nielsen's 4th and 5th symphonies of 1916 and 1920-22—the Espansiva is a fundamentally optimistic piece, particularly in its final two movements.
Susan complains of the fabulously gauche Andre Rieu and his sugary embalming of the quintessential waltz, Johann Strauss' Blue Danube. The best antidote I know to that is to revisit that waltz in the version that has kept it pretty swimmingly alive these past four-plus decades: Herbert von Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic and the performance Stanley Kubrick selected for the long space station docking sequence in 2001:A Space Odyssey. Kubrick was never one for icky-sticky, and the von Karajan version is clean, astringent and smart smart smart, a performance that highlights what a sophisticated thing the Danube is, once you probe beneath its familiarity. We're not talking Beethoven, here, but the skill and intelligence it took to construct this particular confection should still impress us.
Here is a random selection of post-World War(s) waltzabilia:
The poet Theodore Roethke took the waltz as theme for one of the best of his autobiographical poems, harking to his brusque and practical German father, a Michigan nurseryman. In My Papa's Waltz, the waltz is a foundation of sorts to the aging, inebriated father, and an anchor as well for his child, who will someday become a poet. Here is Roethke reading his poem:
The band Team B, made up largely of brass players who have participated in projects with the likes of Arcade Fire and Zach Condon's Beirut, released an EP, The Lost Son, in early 2010, consisting of settings of Roethke poems. It featured this stern and rustically gallumphing version of My Papa's Waltz:
Having mentioned Beirut, it should be acknowledged that the waltz is not unknown to Zach Condon and his co-conspirators. The "lead single," or equivalent, from 2007's Flying Club Cup (my personal #5 pick of that year) was waltz-y as can be:
I can't really answer the question that Susan Scheid poses in her post title. At least insofar as "serious" composers are concerned, the waltz seems not to be a viable, lively form. It lives on as a basis for pop songs of various kinds, as this catalog on Wikipedia suggests. In terms of orchestral music, the waltz has seemingly become principally the province of film composers. Here, for instance, is an excerpt from one of John Williams' Harry Potter scores, trotted out for Dancing with the Stars' "Classical Week":
Of course, it could be worse: the waltz could be left in even less respectable hands....
Illustration: Eadward Muybridge, Phenakistoscope of a couple dancing the waltz, Library of Congress via Wikimedia Commons.