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What is Waltz?

A dance in triple time which became the most popular ballroom dance of the 19th century. Not only has it proved the most celebrated and enduring of dance forms, but its influence on musical history has probably been greater than that of any other (with the possible exception of the minuet). It attracted the attention of major composers of the 19th and early 20th centuries, and was accepted into all forms of musical composition. As a dance form its musical quality was developed to an unusual extent.

The actual origins of the waltz are somewhat obscure, but it is clear that its evolution as a separate dance form was gradual. The name can be seen to be derived from the German verb walzen, which in turn is connected with the Latin verb volvere denoting a turning or rotating. French writers, starting with Castil-Blaze, have found an ancestor of the waltz in the 16th-century volte, but there seems to be no firm evidence with which to bridge the centuries before the first appearance of the word ‘walzen’ to describe a form of dancing, around the middle of the 18th century.

By destroying the Austro-Hungarian monarchy, World War I also destroyed the community in which the waltz had held sway. Those of the popular pre-war practitioners who were still active in the 1920s were forced to adjust to new dance styles coming from the USA and to the switch of the centre of European light music from Vienna to Berlin. In more serious music, Ravel’s waltz compositions had reflected the waltz as a thing of the past, and the dance had been treated in a grotesque manner not only by Mahler but also by Stravinsky in Petrushka (1911, where Lanner’s Die Schönbrunner is quoted) and by Walton in Façade (1923).

Nevertheless, the waltz retained sufficient hold on popular sentiment for it to continue to attract the attention of composers of light music, whether in orchestral examples such as by Eric Coates, in unashamedly sentimental songs by Robert Stolz (1880–1975), in the musicals of Ivor Novello (1893–1951), or for dramatic reasons in musical scores such as Richard Rodgers’s Carousel (1945) and Cole Porter’s Kiss Me, Kate (1948) or Oscar Straus’s for the film La ronde (1950). Stephen Sondheim’s A Little Night Music (1973) is composed entirely in 3/4 time or derivatives thereof. Among more serious composers the waltz was noticeably embraced by Soviet musicians, as for example Khachaturian in his music for Masquerade (1939), Prokofiev in his Suite of Waltzes op.110 (1947) and Shostakovich in his light music, though other examples are to be found elsewhere, as in Britten’s Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge (1937).

In current ballroom dancing the waltz is known chiefly through the slow waltz, which became internationally popular from about 1910, having derived from the ‘Valse Boston’, which came from the USA during the 1870s. Most examples have been adapted for dancing from popular song hits, from Ramona (1927) and Parlami d’amore, Mariù (1933) to The Last Waltz (1970)

Though the development of the waltz can thus be traced from the German dance of the 1750s to the popular music of the recent past, it is chiefly for its influence during the 19th century that the waltz is remembered. In particular, the Viennese waltz compositions of the second half of the 19th century, especially when played with the slight anticipation of the second beat and the subtle use of rubato which are characteristics of the traditional Viennese performance, remain a popular feature of concerts, and more than any other form of purely light music are a regular part of the repertory not only of salon orchestras but also of all major symphony orchestras.

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