January 1986 marked a turning point in the career of Louise Bessette. Since winning the First Prize at the Concours International de Musique Contemporaine in Saint-Germain-en-Laye (France), she has gone [...]
They spoke about it
One cannot think of Strauss without bringing to mind the city of Vienna and elegant couples dancing the waltz. Popular imagery — picturesque, although not fully accurate — has handed down to us a vision of the Viennese as being by nature serene and simple people, gifted with an unshakeable love of life and all its pleasures. Music, of course, is at the very centre of their existence — much more than a simple distraction, it is an integral part of their daily lives.
Yet, ironically, the waltz did not originate in Vienna. It seems, rather, that the distinctive dance in three quarter time has its origins in the popular folk dances of the Black Forest and the Upper Rhine: namely the Ländler and Schnadahüpfl. Michael Pamer was among the first to take notice of the peasant dances on the river boats that plied up and down the Rhine. The tempo adopted a more moderate pace, and the rustic hopping was replaced by more elegant gliding. Two young musicians — former members of Pamer’s orchestra — were the first to bring the waltz into prominence: Joseph Lanner and especially Johann Strauss senior (1804-1849), the latter coming to be known as the “King of the Waltz.”
At his death, his son Johann (1825-1899) inherited the crown, enriching the form by extending the introduction and the coda, while polishing the overall structure. He took the waltz to new heights by giving it a symphonic dimension and, in his hands, it became what it is today, the delicate reserve of high society.
“Waltz fever” soon spread from Vienna throughout Europe and subsequently to America. Johann junior composed many dances for professional associations and private clubs, like the Electro-Magnetische-Polka (The Electro-magnetic Polka) and the Vibrationen-Walzer (The Sound Waves Waltz) dedicated to engineers; or again the Kontroversen-Walzer (The Controversial Waltz), written for lawyers; and try to conjure up the image of doctors tripping the light fantastic to the Erholte-Pulse-Walzer (The Feverish Pulse Waltz) or the Paroxysmens-Waltzer (Waltz of Paroxysms). It’s with good reason that H. Fantel said, “Strauss father and son were more than just composers of waltzes. They were musical translators of the Viennese spirit!”
The Austro-Hungarian empire collapsed at the end of the first World War and remained little more than an idealized memory. Nevertheless, musical life continued undaunted, with a new generation of Viennese composers turning the 20th century on its ear: notable among them was Arnold Schoenberg (1874-1951), along with his students Anton von Webern (1883-1945) and Alban Berg (1885-1935). Faced by the perplexity and outright hostility of the public, Schoenberg founded the Verein für musikalische Privatrauffuhrungen (The Private Performance Society) to help audiences gain a better understanding of modern music. To reach this goal, a rigid code was adhered to: it included frequent rehearsals, in-depth and detailed work along with a clear and precise interpretation of the pieces; a composition that was not honed to absolute perfection was simply not played; only members were admitted to the concerts; and to banish any attempt at rivalry, all applause or displays of disapproval were strictly forbidden. The group, however, was open to all styles of music: Mahler, Richard Strauss, Scriabin, Debussy, Stravinsky, Bartók and Ravel, are just a few of the composers who, along with the three Viennese, were frequently featured by the group.
The Society soon ran into financial difficulties (Austria was in the grips of a severe recession) and, in an effort to raise funds, a concert was organised featuring nothing but waltzes by Strauss junior. Was this event — presenting nothing but “facile” music in some opinions — nothing but a bold gimmick to make money? We must remember that the three Viennese composers did not consider themselves revolutionaries breaking with the past, but rather the successors and inheritors of a rich tradition. In 1947, Schoenberg wrote, “Whether it is Bach or Mozart, Beethoven or Brahms, Wagner or Mahler, Richard Strauss and modern music, and even Offenbach and Johann Strauss; all this is music, and all this deserves love.”
The Strauss concert took place in the festival hall of the Schwarzwald school on May 27, 1921. The works on the program were arranged for string quartet, piano and harmonium, which was the usual formation of the group. Schoenberg transcribed Rosen aus dem Süden (Roses from the South) and the Lagunenwalzer (The Lagoon Waltz), while Berg arranged Wein, Weib und Gesang (Wine, Women and Song) and Webern the Schatzwalzer (The Treasure Waltz from the operetta, Der Zigeunerbaron — The Gypsy Baron). For the occasion, Berg performed the harmonium part and Webern the cello; Schoenberg played the violin while he directed the ensemble.
The original manuscripts were auctioned off after the performance. Wein, Weib und Gesang was purchased by someone kind enough to return it to Berg, while a hapless Webern found no buyer for his score. Despite the critical success of this concert, it fell short of solving the Society’s financial problems and the group ceased its operations a year later.
In April 1925, Schoenberg attended Barcelona’s Festival de la Musica Viennesa organised by Roberto Gerhard, one of his students residing in this city. The concert was held April 26 and 28, and included chamber music by Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert. To mark the occasion, Schoenberg arranged Strauss’ famous Kaiserwalzer (Emperor’s Waltz) for flute, clarinet, string quartet and piano, an instrumental formation similar to that of Pierrot lunaire, performed on April 29. The concert of Viennese music was subsequently performed throughout Catalonia.
Anton Dvorák (1841-1904) composed the five Bagatelles, opus 47, for his friend, critic Joseph Sbr-Debrnov. The latter was an avid fan of chamber music and owned a harmonium, which explains the peculiar instrumentation (two violins, cello and harmonium). Written in just a few days, from May 1 to 12, 1878, the Bagatelles are sister pieces to the Slavonic Dances, opus 48, composed in the same period. For the 1st and 3rd Bagatelles, Dvorák took his inspiration from a popular Czech folk song, Hrály dudy (The Bagpipes Played in Poduba). Both pieces are marked Allegretto scherzando. The second Bagatelle (Tempo di minuetto — Grazioso), with a flowing melodic line and pointed rhythms, is reminiscent of the soused-ska folk dance. The fourth, a lyrical Andante con moto, uses a taut canon form. The fifth Bagatelle, marked Poco allegro, is a playful polka.
© Mario Lord