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Views And Reviews: Emperor Waltz

…You could say Strauss made an art form out of the pot-pourri. He exercised immense skill in coordinating the tunes pulled from his capacious headgear, combining them with imaginative introductions and bridging phrases to transmute mere dance sequences into exquisite tone-poems. I believe that Strauss remains so universally well-loved because his music is not just stylish and attractive, but also edifyingly well bolted together…

Paul Serotsky, whose words about music are always edifyingly well bolted together, introduces Johann Straus the Younger’s Emperor Waltz.

Strauss, J. II (1825-1899) – Emperor Waltz

Nothing changes, does it? When Dr. Burney in 1805 described the waltz as a "riotous modern invention", whose very name implied "to wallow, welter, tumble down or roll in the dirt or mire", he could just as easily have been denouncing rock 'n' roll in 1956. When he wondered "how uneasy an English mother would be to see her daughter so familiarly treated", he could have been commenting on the lambada or "Dirty Dancing". This salacious popular entertainment hit the big time when Johann Strauss Vater formed his rock – sorry, dance – band in 1825, whereafter it gradually gained acceptance as a social activity. In 1844, Johann Strauss Sohn, who was born the same year as his dad's band, formed one of his own, the key step in his transformation from bank clerk to Waltz King, and embarked on a career which was to elevate the waltz from the coffee house (c.f. disco) to the regal ballrooms of Europe.

While nothing assures respectability more than recognition by the Establishment, Strauss also won admiration from some surprising quarters, namely the avant-garde of the next generation. Mahler was a great fan, even paying tribute in his Fifth Symphony, though he wryly observed that Strauss' very facility prevented his becoming a "great composer" (presumably in the sense of Beethoven or Brahms) – he had no need of symphonic development, because when one tune had run its course, he simply pulled another, equally memorable, out of his hat! Crying shame, that. Schoenberg was so incensed at the stodginess of the "palm-court" arrangements of the 1920s that he organised a concert, to show that it was not compulsory for piano, harmonium and string quartet to mangle Strauss' elegant tunes. The arrangements by Schoenberg, Berg, and Webern are well worth searching out, believe me!

You could say Strauss made an art form out of the pot-pourri. He exercised immense skill in coordinating the tunes pulled from his capacious headgear, combining them with imaginative introductions and bridging phrases to transmute mere dance sequences into exquisite tone-poems. I believe that Strauss remains so universally well-loved because his music is not just stylish and attractive, but also edifyingly well bolted together.

The names given to these pieces were often just fanciful handles, but sometimes reflected the character of the music. Thus the introduction to the Emperor Waltz (or Kaiser-Walzer, if you want to be picky), written in honour of Franz Josef in 1888, is in a march-like 2/4 giving it a regal, even pompous feel. It also has a certain fussiness which, if I were Franz Josef, I might wonder about. How effortlessly it leads, via a cadential 'cello solo, into the first waltz tune – cunningly pre-echoed in the introduction – and on into a colourful and varied full dress ball. The stately processional of the introduction is brilliantly reflected in a central, majestic, tune, resplendent in weighty brass, which you just know will come back to form the sonorous climax (but surprisingly not the conclusion). If you feel the urge to dance in the aisles, go ahead!

© Paul Serotsky

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