The Waltz

I have never met anyone who does not know what a waltz is. This dance is renowned for its elegance, charm and romanticism. Even as a young lad I can remember my dad or an aunt telling me to stand on their feet and they would move around the kitchen in time to some awful tune on the radio, step by cumbersome step, shouting “ One, two, three -One, two, three.. ad Infinitum”. I loved it! It’s easy to please a four-year-old.

But where did this dance form come from? And why has it had such enduring popularity? Television programmes such as “Strictly Come Dancing” or New Year concerts from Vienna testify to the Waltz’s grand legacy of delight.

The Waltz almost certainly derived from the old German “Ländler“. It grew in prominence at the end of the 18th century, being the vogue in Vienna. It arrived in Britain around 1791. Popular composers such as Mozart regularly wrote waltz pieces for balls and public events in Vienna.

It is hard to imagine now, but the waltz was once regarded as quite improper and was almost universally disapproved of. An English chap called Burney in 1805 wrote, “ the verb ‘waltzen’… implies to roll, wallow, welter, tumble down, or roll in the dirt or more. What analogy there may be between these acceptations and the dance, we pretend not to say; but having seen it performed by a select party of foreigners, we could not help reflecting how uneasy an English mother would be to see her daughter so familiarly treated, and still more to witness the obliging manner in which the freedom is returned by the females”. I don’t know who this guy was but he must have been a wee bit of a kill-joy.

Johann Strauss Statue, Vienna

The great waltz composers of the early part of the 19th century were Joseph Lanner and the Strauss family. There are many celebrated waltz melodies that emerged in Vienna at this time but probably the best known today is “The Blue Danube Waltz” by Johann Strauss. It is smooth, elegant, and beautiful.

Even Andre Rieu, in a typically lavish performance of the waltz, leaves aside a proportion of his cheesy smile in order to give us a flavour of the grandness of the waltz as it may have been experienced in early 19th century Vienna.

A particular feature of the Viennese Waltz is worthy of note. Compared to the classic waltz, in the Viennese Waltz the second beat of the accompaniment is played a trifle before its legal moment. This is what adds to the vitality and energy of this particular form of waltz. It is the reason why some, but clearly not all, of the celebrities in “Strictly…” come a cropper in the Viennese Waltz section.

Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Weber, Chopin, Schumann, Brahms and many other classical composers wrote wonderful waltz tunes. The piano waltzes of Chopin and Brahms are of particular importance in the history of music.

Chopin’s Waltz in B minor, Opus 69, No.2 (Op. posth.)

A personal favourite of mine is Chopin’s Waltz in A Minor, Opus 34, No.2. A friend gave me a book of Chopin Waltzes when I was at Glasgow University in the early 70’s and I was delighted that this particular waltz was in it. I recorded it a few years ago. I hope you enjoy listening to this. I have also recently recorded Chopin’s much loved Waltz in B minor, Opus 69, No.2 (Op. posth.)

Chopin’s Waltz in A Minor, Opus 34, No.2.
Chopin’s Waltz in B minor, Opus 69, No.2 (Op. posth.)

The waltz as an instrumental form continued to be popular throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. However, it has been less favoured in more recent times. A lot of contemporary rock music tends to have 2 or 4 beats to the bar, but this is not a universal phenomenon. Much jazz, classical and contemporary music genres use mixed beat set-ups so that the rhythm of the piece changes, creating variety and novelty.

As far as the contemporary piano is concerned, there are some beautifully evocative waltz compositions. One of my favourite compositions is by Alexis Ffrench. Born in 1970, Ffrench has been improvising on the piano since the age of four. He received scholarships to study at The Purcell School for Young Musicians, the Royal Academy of Music and the Guildhall School of Music and Drama. He is known for his unique style of combining his classical training with a love of roots music and Rhythm and Blues.

Bluebird (Solo Piano Version) by Alexis Ffrench is a smooth, melodic composition for solo piano. It is an elegant waltz and is quite beautiful. In my opinion, this contemporary piece demonstrates why rock artists are missing a trick or two by ignoring the waltz form.

A couple of my own little pieces are in waltz time. When I visited Italy some years ago, I made some new friends, including three amazing ladies in their eighties. Carol and I, being younger and more able-bodied (when not tipsy), would often walk holding arms with them in order to negotiate steep and busy pathways in places like Verona and Venice. Sometimes it must have looked to other tourists as if we were doing some crazy, unsychronised dance. When I got home I wrote a little waltz to celebrate those lovely moments. I called it “The Dance of Youth”!

Another little waltz I wrote is quite different. I was walking along the canal at Willington to get some exercise. I was in a sombre mood when I noticed some Willow trees hanging over the water. The weather was wintry, grey and bleak and the trees also seemed a bit sad. Of course, I know a tree cannot be sad but I sensed the pathos of the moment. Then a little bit of magic happened. The branches hanging over the water began to dance about in the wind – here, there and everywhere. They made my heart leap a little and I smiled for the first time that day. It is funny how the littlest things in life can give so much pleasure!

Later that day, I returned to my music diary and decided that my experience could best be encapsulated in a small piano solo. I decided it would have a sad opening. Then a little waltz melody would be introduced to describe the fluttering of the branches and leaves over the water. Then the piece would finish with the sad feeling again. I called this piece “The Willow Trees”.

Extracts from The Dance of Youth & The Willow Trees by John McGuinness

I hope you like my little waltzes and that they illustrate how the waltz rhythm can be varied in order to change the feeling of a piece of music. Vive la valse!

You can find full versions of my waltzes on Riversongs and Among the Willows by clicking on the images above.