The History of the Waltz

“Here ceased the concert part of the evening, for Miss Woodhouse and Miss Fairfax were the only young lady performers; but soon (within five minutes) the proposal of dancing — originating nobody exactly knew where — was so effectually promoted by Mr and Mrs Cole, that every thing was rapidly clearing away, to give proper space.

Mrs Weston, capital in her country-dances, was seated, and beginning an irresistible waltz; and Frank Churchill, coming up with most becoming gallantry to Emma, had secured her hand, and led her up to the top.”
Emma

Few sights are as romantic as that of a couple, absorbed in each other, sweeping across the floor in a dreamy waltz. It is certainly the highlight of many a fairy tale and even Jane Austen allows her couples ample time on the dance floor. While the English Country Dance is most associated with Jane Austen’s novels, many will be surprised to discover that by the early 1800′s the waltz had also made it’s way across the channel and was being danced by the more progressive of the Beau Monde. The fact that it was a couples dance (as opposed to the traditional group dances), and that the gentleman actually clasped his arm around the lady’s waist, gave it a dubious moral status in the eyes of some.

By 1814, the waltz, originally considered decadent, was finally sanctioned as appropriate behaviour when it was approved at the ultra fashionable Almacks, though the patronesses there still kept a firm hand on who was allowed permission to dance; no debutante could waltz unless one of the patronesses had given her permission, something that was only granted to girls “whose deportment was considered impeccable.”* By 1815, when Emma was printed, it was acceptable dancing, even in the humble home of the Coles, in the small village of Highbury. This detail from frontispiece to Thomas Wilson’s Correct Method of German and French Waltzing (1816), shows nine positions of the Waltz, clockwise from the left (the musicians are at far left).

The history of the waltz actually dates back to the 1500′s. There are several references to a sliding or gliding dance, i.e. a waltz, from the 16th century including the representations of the printer H.S. Beheim. The French philosopher Montaigne wrote of a dance he saw in 1580 in Augsburg, where the dancers held each other so closely that their faces touched. Kunz Haas, of approximately the same period wrote that, “Now they are dancing the godless, Weller or Spinner, whatever they call it.” “The vigorous peasant dancer, following an instinctive knowledge of the weight of fall, utilizes his surplus energy to press all his strength into the proper beat of the measure, thus intensifying his personal enjoyment in dancing”. The wide, wild steps of the country people became shorter and more elegant when introduced to higher society. Hans Sachs wrote of the dance in his 1568 Eygentliche Beschreibung aller Stände(1568).

At the Austrian Court in Vienna in the late 17th century (1698) ladies were conducted around the room to the tune of a 2 beat measure, which then became the 3/4 of the Nach Tanz (After Dance), upon which couples got into the position for the Weller and waltzed around the room with gliding steps as in an engraving of the Wirtschaft (Inn Festival) given for Peter the Great.

The peasants of Bavaria, Tyrol, and Styria began dancing a dance called Walzer, a dance for couples, around 1750. The Ländler, also known as the Schleifer, a country dance in 3/4 time, was popular in Bohemia, Austria, and Bavaria, and spread from the countryside to the suburbs of the city. While the eighteenth century upper classes continued to dance the minuet, bored noblemen slipped away to the balls of their servants.

Describing life in Vienna (dated at either 1776 or 1786), Don Curzio wrote, “The people were dancing mad [...] The ladies of Vienna are particularly celebrated for their grace and movements of waltzing of which they never tire.” There is a waltz in the second act finale of the opera “Una Cosa Rara” written by Martin y Solar in 1786. Solar’s waltz was marked Andante con moto, or “at a walking pace with motion”, but the flow of the dance was sped-up in Vienna leading to the Geschwindwalzer, and the Galloppwalzer.

In the transition from country to town, the hopping of the Ländler, a dance known as Langaus, became a sliding step, and gliding rotation replaced stamping rotation.

In the 19th century the word primarily indicated that the dance was a turning one; one would “waltz” in the polka to indicate rotating rather than going straight forward without turning.

The Viennese custom is to slightly anticipate the second beat, which conveys a faster, lighter rhythm, and also breaks of the phrase. The younger Strauss would sometimes break up the one-two-three of the melody with a one-two pattern in the accompaniment along with other rhythms, maintaining the 3/4 time while causing the dancers to dance a two-step waltz. The metronome speed for a full bar varies between 60 and 70, with the waltzes of the first Strauss often played faster than those of his sons.

Shocking many when it was first introduced, the waltz became fashionable in Vienna around the 1780s, spreading to many other countries in the years to follow. It became fashionable in Britain during the Regency period, though the entry in the Oxford English Dictionary shows that it was considered “riotous and indecent” as late as 1825. The waltz, and especially its closed position, became the example for the creation of many other ballroom dances. Subsequently, new types of waltz have developed, including many folk and several ballroom dances.

Hummel was an early piano virtuoso to compose waltzes, and Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations were on a simple waltz tune; but Schubert was the first major composer to produce music specifically described as waltzes. Weber’s piano rondo, Aufforderung zum Tanze (1819), foreshadowed the form later adopted by major dance composers: a sequence of waltzes with a formal introduction and a coda referring to themes heard earlier. This form was established in the 1830s by Joseph Lanner and the elder Johann Strauss, and from then the waltz was particularly associated with Vienna, although it was popular throughout Europe.

With Strauss’s sons, Johann and Josef, during the 1860s the waltz reached its peak as dance form, musical composition and symbol of a gay, elegant age. With Josef’s death in 1870 and Johann’s turn to operetta, the two major exponents of the waltz were lost to it. Their place was taken by minor composers, but some of the best waltzes of the late 19th century are found in the operettas of Lehár, Offenbach, Suppé and Messager. The waltz featured prominently in ballet and in such operas as Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin, Puccini’s La bohème and, especially, Richard Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier. Stylized waltzes are to be found in instrumental and orchestral works. Some of the most original are those for piano by Chopin, Brahms’s Liebeslieder Walzer for voices and piano duet, the third movement of Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony and the Valse triste of Sibelius. The waltz era is effectively summed up in the Valses nobles et sentimentales (1911) and the choreographic poem La valse (1918) of Ravel.

Historical information courtesy of Wikipedia. Additional information(*) from An Elegant Madness: High Society in Regency England by Venetia Murray.

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One Comment

  1. JAD says:

    The waltz mentioned in Emma, is almost certainly to have still been an English Country Dance set to Waltz music. These were danced in the usual longways set formation but to waltz music (from around 1790 onwards), and that is why it says “led her up to the top” of the set. Regency Couple Waltzing was done in a circle – couples usually turning clockwise together and moving anticlockwise with the other dancers, thus avoiding colliding (hopefully), so be would not ‘lead to the top’.
    From around 1816 Dancing Masters such as Wilson started to mix a bit of Couple Waltzing into longways English Country Dances, in an effort to make it more acceptable, but Jane Austen was unlikely to have known this when she wrote Emma.
    In her letters, Jane Austen mentions the acceptable Quadrille dancing (music), which came in around the same time as Couple Waltzing, but does not mention Quadrilles in her books. As she does not mention Couple Waltzing in her letters, it is unlikely she had heard of it, as infiltration from London to the Provinces was slow anyway, and likely to have been hampered further by the scandalous nature of Waltzing —until 1814/15 (when the foreign leaders danced openly with members of the English ton, in London, as part of the premature and actual Napoleonic War Peace celebrations) it was only really danced at private parties.

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