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About the waltz

Thomas Van Deursen
Reading time
10 min.

What do you think of when you think of a waltz? Can you see yourself in a large room with a glossy parquet floor where multicoloured crinoline dresses swirl? Do you hear – with a certain nostalgia – the songs of Jacques Brel or of François Feldman? Can you imagine dancing with the person you love? For our production of Der Rosenkavalier, and in preparation for the ball that we will host at La Monnaie on this occasion, we invite you to learn a little more about the waltz, from its origins to its variations in the cinema.

The Rosenkavalier Waltzes

While there are no real isolated waltz numbers in Richard Strauss’ score, Der Rosenkavalier is deeply marked by this musical genre. It figures prominently in various scenes in the second and third act, particularly related to the character of Baron Ochs. The composer was also criticised for this anachronistic use of waltz tunes, in an opera where the action takes place in the 18th century, at a time when it did not yet exist in the form we know. These melodies, which at times reveal the Baron's quest for bourgeois splendour, but in other moments relay the depth of the feelings of other characters, combine jubilation and humour with melancholy and introspection.

There is, for example, the monologue of Ochs who plans his revenge on Octavian before receiving a letter signed by a certain ‘Mariandel’ (who is in fact none other than Octavian disguised as a maid in the first act) offering him a tryst. In a burst of joy, the Baron waltzes across the stage. Later, other passages of the same kind accompany not only the farce of which Ochs is the victim, but also other more intimate and poignant moments of the libretto (to find out more about the plot, do not hesitate to consult our musical synopsis).

There are only about twenty minutes of waltzing in Der Rosenkavalier, but the popularity of these tunes led Strauss to write arrangements of them a few years later. In these sequences, intended to be played in concert, one piece leads to another in an order that differs from the original work. Musicality takes priority over the chronology of the narrative. Condensed in this way, the excerpts from the opera further underline the colourful orchestration of this score.

The origins of waltz

In Europe, the first references to a gliding dance, which would later evolve into waltz, date back to the 16th century, notably in the prints of the German illustrator, stained glass designer and engraver Hans Sebald Beham. Moreover, the French philosopher Michel de Montaigne recalls a dance he witnessed in 1580 in Augsburg, where couples held each other so closely that their faces touched. In the 1750s, in the regions of Bavaria, Tyrol and Styria, we saw the appearance, among the working classes, of a couple dance called Walzer. Around the same time, the Ländler, a country dance in 3/4 time, famous in Bohemia and Austria, spread to cities where the minuets of Mozart, Haydn and Handel still resounded among aristocrats. According to several accounts of this period, nobles who were bored at the parties given by the social elite often slipped away from the splendour of the palaces to go and have fun at the balls of their servants. Goethe's novel, The Sorrows of Young Werther (1774), which presents a waltz scene, ensured, among other works, the definitive promotion of this dance of peasant origins in European courts.

Peasant dance, print by Hans Sebald Beham (1545)
Peasant dance, print by Hans Sebald Beham (1545)
An immodest spectacle

The waltz, as described in a 1799 magazine, was performed by dancers who lifted their long dresses to prevent them from dragging or being trampled on. This action required the dancers' bodies to be very close together, and this closeness drew much criticism. According to several historians, the advent of the waltz in aristocratic and bourgeois society upset the codes of Western dance. Until then, European social dances were sequential, organising the position of the dancers on the floor according to an established pattern. Separately or as a couple, everyone faced sometimes outward, sometimes inward. With the waltz, the couples were suddenly in closer contact and became independent of each other.

It was in Vienna that the influence of this genre was preponderant, leading to the birth of the Viennese waltz. It is distinguished from its French and English counterparts by its long fluid and whirling movements in space, and a faster tempo. The dancers face each other almost parallel, each with their bodies slightly inclined to the left (thus, the partners touch each other on the right side). In this dance, initially reserved for male and female couples, the guide has his right hand on the left shoulder blade of his rider, and his left hand holds that of his partner at the height of her head. Contact on the right side of the body is constantly maintained from the bottom of the abdomen to the top of the thighs. The guide leads his partner mainly by movements of the trunk, never with the arms, which makes the body contact described above essential. Indeed, male and female dancers must move as one and the same entity throughout the graceful execution of very characteristic figures.

Detail from the frontispiece of Thomas Wilson's Correct Method of German and French Waltzing (1816)

The waltz was hugely successful in the 19th century, first in Vienna and then across the continent before crossing the Channel and taking off in English ballrooms, where it had already been introduced in 1812 under the name of ‘German waltz’. It partly owes its popularity to the Congress of Vienna – where the victorious countries of Napoleon as well as the other European states had met to draft and sign the conditions of peace – but above all, later, to the famous compositions of Josef Lanner, Johann Strauss I and his son, Johann Strauss II. The waltz had also become an example for the creation of many other ballroom dances. Subsequently, new types of waltzes developed, including several folk dances, thus continuing its tradition.

More than a dance...

It is extremely rare for people to dance without musical accompaniment. Traditionally, classical composers (more or less famous), provided dance music to order. Franz Schubert notably wrote several salon waltzes without the slightest musical pretension. However, this genre also saw the creation of more serious works, which were no longer intended for private or public balls but for concert halls. One thinks of the waltzes for piano of Frédéric Chopin or of Johannes Brahms. Even ballet numbers, whose musical treatment was revolutionised by Tchaikovsky at the end of the 19th century. These universally celebrated works contain inescapable melodies, such as the ‘Flower Waltz’ from The Nutcracker.

The cheerful, almost frivolous nature of the waltz at the height of its popularity disappeared along with the Austro-Hungarian monarchy as did much of Viennese culture with the onset of the First World War. After the conflict, European light music moved from Vienna to Berlin. Throughout this period, the great names in classical music have treated this dance as a thing of the past, in a grotesque or nostalgic way. A plethora of waltzes and Ländler enliven, for example, the impressive scherzo from the Fifth Symphony by Gustav Mahler, where the genre seems tirelessly varied thanks to instrumental solos and great virtuosity in the use of counterpoint. The whole mixes irony, horror, savagery and tenderness to sound like a heterogeneous goodbye.

The most striking example that illustrates this impossible return to the innocence of ballrooms is Maurice Ravel's choreographic poem for orchestra entitled La Valse. In agreement with the impresario and art critic Serge Diaghilev, the composer had already considered, in 1906, to produce an Apotheosis of the Waltz in homage to Johann Strauss. But the experience of war, experienced as the annihilation of civilization, changed the romantic and sumptuous image of the European courts into that of a world threatened by human savagery. Ravel thus composed, according to his own expression, a ‘kind of apotheosis of the Viennese waltz with which is mingled in my mind the impression of a fantastic and fatal whirlwind.’ At the head of his score, the musician wrote: ‘Swirling clouds give a glimpse, in clearings, of couples of waltzers. They dissipate little by little: we can distinguish a huge room populated by a swirling crowd. The scene gradually lights up. The light from the chandeliers bursts at ff (ed. double forte). An Imperial Court, circa 1855.’ When he presented a piano transcription of his project to Diaghilev, the latter allegedly refused to have La Valse presented by the Ballets Russes of which he was the impresario, exclaiming: ‘Ravel, it is a masterpiece, but it's not a ballet. It is the painting of a ballet.’ The final piece evokes very clearly the beauty then the decline and brutal destruction of Western civilization.

The waltz at the cinema

Cinema often treats the arts that preceded it with a certain fascination. Simultaneously heir to and surpassing painting, theatre, photography and even, in certain respects, music – through the possibilities of editing – the projected image can assimilate, by its dual concrete and virtual nature, all these pre-existing forms and then dreaming them up on a screen. In addition to the occasional ball scenes present in a vast panoply of costume films, like an obligatory passage of the narration, the waltz is used in many cinematographic works to make the characters dance differently, often carrying the technical and aesthetic dimensions of cinema in its wake.

This is the case, for example, in Madame De… by Max Ophüls. At the centre of the plot, the heroine, played by Danielle Darrieux, is a married woman who meets an Italian baron with whom she falls in love during a succession of balls. The director reveals the different degrees of their intimacy by twirling with the couple through time thanks to skilful chain fades. In five minutes, he tells us about the seduction, the affection, the intensity, the hopes, the sweetness and then the sadness of having to leave each other. The music accompanies this progression, going from the vigour of an orchestra to the melancholy of a solo piano.

The technical possibilities of cinema, more particularly the evolution of special effects, have made it possible to go ever further. The advent of digital has taught filmmakers in particular how to waltz their camera inside entirely virtual environments, as demonstrated for example by the famous prom scene in Beauty and the Beast, the animated film produced by Disney in 1991. In the cinema, making characters dance has become a creative playground where anything goes. In Damien Chazelle's smash hit musical comedy La La Land (2016), Mia (Emma Stone), a young actress seeking a career in Los Angeles, falls in love with Seb (Ryan Gosling), an ambitious jazz pianist. The couple formed during a visit to the Griffith Observatory. After having – literally – turned around, Mia and Seb waltz among the stars. This scene, with its almost outdated fantasy and charm, is typical of American musical comedies. Romance and reality marry dance and imagination within a nesting doll structure where everything is multiplied. A first kiss is not just a first kiss, but a whole choreography, a whole universe.

The cinema has also taken up the waltz in other, even more original ways. While the cult sequence of the Beautiful Blue Danube in Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey serves as a yardstick for musical quotations, two relatively more recent films pay homage to a less technical aspect of the waltz. It's not about spinning in a spectacular way, or even dancing, but quite simply about offering a bubble of intimacy to the characters. In In the Mood for Love (2000), Wong Kar-Wai paints a moving portrait of a man (Tony Leung) and a woman (Maggie Cheung) whose respective spouses are having an affair, and who will slowly develop feelings for one another. Everything happens in the sensuality of things left unsaid, prohibitions, slow motions with, in the background, a waltz composed by Shigeru Umebayashi. Leitmotif of the unfinished desire of the protagonists, this haunting music participates in the transformation of innocuous scenes of daily life into moments of pure poetry where the contemplation of beauty would almost stop time:

Finally, how can we talk about romance in the cinema without mentioning Richard Linklater's Before trilogy. Produced in 1995, 2004 and 2013, Before Sunrise, Before Sunset and Before Midnight relate the romantic relationship between Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Céline (Julie Delpy) in three periods of their lives. In the first opus, the two characters meet on a train that takes them to Vienna, where they fall in love with each other for a night, before going their separate ways. The plot of Before Sunset presents them to us nine years later. Jesse, now married and a father, and Céline never saw each other again. They meet again during a chance meeting in Paris. At the end of the film, Céline sings a waltz she composed in tribute to their Viennese meeting:

After what looks like a long discussion without anything being said, evoking with looks or smiles the ‘perhaps’ of a lost relationship, Richard Linklater offers us a frontal, refined declaration of love, guided only by the gentle rhythm of the music. The protagonists are motionless. The camera is motionless. Only the words dance on this little melody played on the guitar. This ethereal moment captures the essence of the waltz: the evocation of the past, simplicity, our need for closeness, escape, to let the world go by, to not care...