Robert Greenberg

Historian, Composer, Pianist, Speaker, Author

Dr Bob Prescribes: Maurice Ravel, ‘Valses nobles et sentimentales’

The “Waltz”

Experienced ballroom dancers aside, I would suggest that most of us consider the “waltz” to be a stodgy thing, a choreographic burden to be born at weddings and such during which we shuffle out an approximation of a three-step, attempting to lead a partner who would rather not be lead (at least not by me), to the scintillating strains of such triple meter standards as the Anniversary Waltz and Sunrise, Sunset.

It is easy, today, to forget that at the time of its creation, the waltz was considered a lewd and lascivious dance, one that led to moral degradation in this world and damnation in the next!

The waltz originated in eighteenth century Austria as a peasant’s dance. What distinguished it from the beginning was its wide, gliding steps and the fact that the dancers held each other as closely as possible (at a time when courtly dancing forbade almost any touching at all).

Ballroom Dancers
That’s a lot of touching!

The relative simplicity and physicality of this new, gliding and whirling dance made it extremely popular among the lower classes, who were no more likely to dance the more sophisticated Minuet than Ozzie Osborn a Virginia Reel. By the late-eighteenth century, the gliding and whirling associated with the dance had given it is name: “waltzer” or “waltz”, which comes from the German “walzen” which means “to turn”.

The ever-more-popular waltz became the prototypical dance of the Enlightenment: a dance in which courtly ritual gave way to sensuality and individual pleasure. By the late eighteenth century it was being danced by the middle and upper classes, to the great consternation of those self-righteous moralistas who make it their business to quash the pleasure of others.

For example, a paragon of morality named Ernst Arndt was scandalized by what he perceived as “the erotic nature of the waltz” when he saw it danced in 1798:

“The [men] grasped their partners as closely as possible against them, and in this way the whirling continued in the most indecent positions; the supporting hand lay firmly on the breasts, at each movement making little lustful pressures; the girls went wild. When waltzing on the darker side of the room there were bolder embraces and kisses. ‘It is not as bad as it looks’ they exclaim, but now I understand why in parts of Swabia and Switzerland the waltz has been prohibited!”

There is the story of the old English dowager watching a young couple waltzing: wide-eyed, outraged and – we would hope – fanning herself spastically, she asked incredulously “are they married?”

Johann Strauss Jr. photograph
Johann Strauss Jr. (1825-1899)

Well honey, loosen your corset and untie yer skivvies, ‘cause like-it-or-not, by the mid-nineteenth century, the waltz had become the single most popular dance in the Western world. In nineteenth century Vienna, the waltz became an industry: Joseph Lanner and Johann Strauss Sr. (“the first”) composed hundreds of waltzes that were heard not just in Vienna but across Europe. Johann Strauss’ son Johann Strauss Jr. (the “second”) picked up where his father left off, and raised the waltz to a form of high art. Appropriately known as “the waltz king”, Johann Strauss “the younger” – who lived from 1825-1899 – created some of the best known and best loved music of the nineteenth century, including The Blue Danube Waltz, Tales from the Vienna Woods, and the operetta Die Fledermaus.

Thanks primarily to the Strausses, father and son, the waltz came to be uniquely linked with the spiritual essence – the “zeitgeist” – of late nineteenth and early twentieth century Vienna. On one hand, that “Viennese spirit” was one of joy and abandon, of living for the moment, of escapism. On the other hand, there was distinct feeling in late-nineteenth century Vienna of impending disaster. The Austrian Empire – with Vienna as its capital – was beginning to unravel. The Austro-Prussian War of 1866 – which Austria lost, badly – seriously weakened Austrian influence in Europe. The unification of Germany in 1871 further diminished Austria’s political clout and economy; almost overnight, Austria was reduced from “great power” status to a second-class state. Vienna was increasingly perceived as a dying capital, one that was about to become what Karl Kraus called “the Proving-Ground for World Destruction”.

Demagogues began to crawl out from under their rocks to lay “blame” for Austria’s woes. Appealing to the fears and prejudices of the working classes, they blamed everyone but themselves for Austria’s problems: they blamed the Slavs; they blamed the Gypsies; they blamed “immigrants” and seasonal workers; they blamed the “intellectuals”. But mostly, they blamed the Jews. On April 8, 1897, a virulently anti-Semitic lawyer named Karl Lueger was elected mayor of Vienna. He remained in office until 1910. Adolf Hitler – who lived in Vienna from 1907 until 1913, paid Lueger tribute in Mein Kampf, calling Lueger’s anti-Semitism an “inspiration”.

Through it all, the Viennese waltzed.

Johannes Brahms with his friend Johann Strauss Jr. in 1894
Johannes Brahms (left; 1833-1897) with his friend Johann Strauss Jr. in 1894

The ability of the Viennese to dance in the face of disaster is legendary. Call it survival, call it denial, whatever; the old Viennese joke says: “The situation is desperate but not serious.” The composer Johannes Brahms – who had moved to Vienna as a young man – chose not to “waltz” in denial. Like many others – including, as we will discuss, Maurice Ravel – he saw what was coming. In 1881 Brahms wrote his friend and publisher Franz Simrock:

“In a city and a land where everything is [going] downhill, you can’t expect music to fare better. Really, it’s a pity and a crying shame, not only for music but for the whole beautiful land and the beautiful, marvelous people. I think real catastrophe is coming.”

That it was; World War One (1914-1918) would destroy what remained of the Austrian Empire.

Maurice Ravel in 1912
Maurice Ravel (1875-1937) in 1912

Maurice Ravel composed Valses Nobles et Sentimentales in 1911, three years before the beginning of World War One. Nevertheless, I do believe Ravel came to have the same complex feelings towards the “Viennese Waltz” – as a metaphor for greatness lost, escapism, and coming catastrophe – just described.…

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