I’ll just come right out and say it - I have two left feet. However, dance is perhaps one of the most important allies of music. Throughout history, records show that music has been written for dancing in courts, social functions, and even for the common folk. As the arts became more entertaining, dances became interludes in operas and concerts. Ballet eventually evolved to an entity of its own in the 20th century. But there are plenty of pieces written which allude to dances, but are not intended to be danced. What, then, of them?
Acknowledging the importance of dances, pre-classical composers such as J.S. Bach wrote suites for instrumental solos. The movements within such suites were titled as dances, be they sarabandes, gavottes, courantes, minuets, or gigues, just to name a few. Rarely, though, were waltzes in existence at that time. In suites, composers would utilize the rhythms and characteristics of the dances, and set upon the performer a task to imitate such movements while being absolutely attached to an immoveable instrument. Dance movements, such as minuets and contredanses, continued to prevail in instrumental and non-programmatic music throughout the 18th and 19th century, but rarely as a standalone work. Any waltzes written were far and few in between.
Carl Maria von Weber’s Invitation to the Dance (1819) finally took that title as the first instrumental waltz to be written. The waltz, though not meant to be danced to, contained a little story, making it a mini tone poem, a genre much favored by later Romantic composers. Much of the story happens in the slow introduction, where a young gentleman meets a lady and invites her to the dance. The waltz follows, and before too long it is the end of the night and the couple bid farewell to one another.
Frédéric Chopin’s book of waltzes, among other collections, stands out as an important repertoire choice among pianists. They are all written in the standard ¾ time, and were deeply influenced by Weber’s work, also containing right-hand centric melodies and standard Viennese waltz rhythms, even though they are not for dancing. Between 1824 and 1847 Chopin wrote nearly 30 waltzes, but only eight were published in his lifetime. Some additional waltzes were published posthumously. The Op. 64 set of three waltzes were the last to be published in his lifetime.
The first of the set is familiar to many. The Minute Waltz (translated from French) nickname was intended to mean that the waltz was a miniature one; although pianists have generally taken the unintended 60-second timing to be the real reason. (A typical performance lasts twice as long.) The flashy right hand melody dazzles the listener in a quick flourish, before the second waltz, in the parallel minor, changes the mood completely. The more contemplative second waltz breaks the standard ternary form of most of Chopin’s waltzes. It contains an additional recapitulation of the second section, which transforms it into a lopsided rondo. The final waltz is less well known, and completes the set in an attempt to seek a balance between the prior two waltzes.
Chopin’s influence as a pianist and composer was widespread. In Spain, young pianist Isaac Albeniz was emerging as a composer who fused Spanish idioms into his music, much like Chopin had done in Poland. The Autumn Waltz, published in 1890 as Op. 170, is one such example. This was written at a time when Albeniz was still assimilating the styles of the composers who came before him, and thus the traditional waltz accompaniment carries throughout the work; however the harmonies are definitely that of a Spanish identity. Little, however, is known about the peculiar title, or the work in general, which is overshadowed by many of his later, mature, and celebrated works. The waltz itself contains a slow introduction, three waltzes of varying forms, and a lengthy coda that recapitulates all the waltzes once more. Singing melodies are passed from one voice to another, and a melancholic feel carries throughout.
Maurice Ravel, a French/Basque composer, drew his influences from elsewhere. Looking further back to Franz Schubert, Ravel titled his waltzes exactly like Schubert - Valses nobles et sentimentales (1911). While Schubert wrote a volume of each kind of waltz, Ravel published his set of eight as one continuous volume, with an interesting quotation: “... the delicious and forever-new pleasure of a useless occupation.” Aside from the title and the time signature, the waltzes pay no further homage to the earlier composer. Ravel’s waltzes are both impressionist and modernist, which did not sit well with his audiences of that time. (During the anonymous premiere of the work, few guessed that the work was that of Ravel’s, and many thought the work to be a parody, or that of a lesser composer.)
It was the expanded soundscape that proved to be unpopular. Ravel eventually orchestrated the waltzes, demonstrating the colors he attempted to achieve in the piano. (Ravel would later, more successfully, realize his imaginations in Gaspard de la nuit.) Ravel was working on his orchestral tone poem, La valse, at the same time, and the similarities between these pieces are apparent. Even though Ravel started work on La valse in 1906, the bulk of the writing was done in 1920. Its premiere right after World War I led most audiences think that Ravel was commenting on the destruction of the European society and the Viennese ideals; however Ravel outright rejected that notion. Ravel had intended the work to be choreographed, and set it in a Viennese court in 1855, a time when the waltz was highly regarded in the European society. Ravel wrote a series of waltz melodies in separate episodes, which he recapitulated in the middle of the piece, before descending into a frenzy with frequent modulations, harsh harmonies, and an increase in intensity. The orchestral version of La valse became the last concert and non-choreographed waltz to be written, a century after Weber’s Invitation to the Dance.