The mysterious case of the Lyrical Waltz

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I’ve just had an email from a fellow ballet pianist, asking me what I understand by the term “Lyrical Waltz.” Short answer, I don’t understand anything by it, but the long answer is that I’m rather fascinated by how a term like this can gain such currency over a long time, without apparently having much meaning. 

Lyrical waltz: a potted personal history

The first time I heard the term “lyrical waltz” was when I started work at the RAD back in 1986. I think it was something that teachers had been told was a meaningful musical term to use to pianists. I used to improvise waltzes that started with  a dotted quarter note + three eighth-note pattern (as in the Sleeping Beauty lilac fairy attendants example below). I soon ran out of ideas. I think the reason I associated this pattern with “lyrical” was because somewhere in a syllabus book there was an exercise that had “lyrical waltz” as a tempo indication, and that’s roughly how the music went. 

Screengrab of the piano score of Tchaikovsky's Sleeping Beauty, Lilac Fairy Attendants

Lilac fairy attendants from Sleeping Beauty (Tchaikovsky). When I hear “lyrical waltz” I think of this rhythmic pattern of dotted quarter note + three eighth notes. But I’m not convinced that’s good enough.

What—if anything—is a lyrical waltz? 

Over the years, I have tried to work out what, if anything, a “lyrical waltz” is in musical terms, but have only come up with more questions. 

  • Does it mean something that has the quality of a song? That doesn’t really work, because there are plenty of songs that have a bombastic quality.
  • Does it have a melody that is song-like, rather than being motif-based like the Act 1 waltz in Swan Lake, or the opening of waltz of the flowers in Nutcracker, where you can hear the composer at work, rather than the singer. However, as soon as you start singing these tunes, they have a song-like quality, they’re singable. Back to square one.
  • Does it mean something that has more eighth-note motion than 1-in-a-bar feel? Not an infallible criterion, because there are 1-in-a-bar waltzes which could be described as lyrical, and eighth-note ones which aren’t.
  • Does it just mean slow? I don’t think so, because teachers who have ever asked for this didn’t (I think) want something ponderous
  • Does it mean something where the melody takes precedence over the accompaniment, i.e. something like La plus que lente by Debussy? Up to a point, but if teachers use  the word “waltz” at all, I presume they’re expecting more rhythmic predictability than this.

Lyrical waltz—a pedagogical category only?

By “pedagogical category” I mean a term that has arisen from a teaching context, but has little relation to the world outside, but has somehow stuck. Whoever started using it may have had a particular waltz in mind, like the “Lyrical Waltz” of Shostakovich, from which they extrapolated a category, without giving it much thought. I think this happens a lot—where people like a single tune, not realising that what they like about it is particular, not generic. Take La cumparsita which people have sometimes used as a generic template for “tango” — when it’s about the only tango that goes like that, and in fact, was never a tango in the first place, but a march. As an illustration of this in practice, a colleague told me of a class where the teacher had sung a tune while she marked the exercise, and then said “But don’t play that. Play something similar.” You guessed it: after a few try-outs, she said “You know what, just play what I sang.” 

Incidentally, this is the opposite of that odd, ballet-only scenario where a teacher will ask for “The same thing” by which they don’t mean literally the same thing, but something that is in metre, tempo, style and feel the same, without being, you know, the same. This is where the everyday German distinction between das Gleiche and dasselbe is useful. 

Lyrical waltz—or little waltz?

One teacher I play for often asks for “A little waltz” and for some reason, I know exactly what she means, though it could also be the tone of voice and gesture that conveys the idea. “Little” to me here suggests something in moderate tempo, moderate volume, not bombastic, not grand, with a smooth melody line, perhaps like the Tchaikovsky E flat major waltz Op. 39 , or the Little Waltz by Teresa Carreño.  A piano piece, rather than an orchestral number reduced for piano. A miniature. Little is a more productive and meaningful term for me than lyrical, though I’m still not convinced it helps. I’m also referring mentally to particular pieces that have an overall quality elicited in performance more than composition. 

Lyrical—just a name, rather than a category?

I searched around for “lyrical waltz” on Google, and then for Valse Lyrique. Once you exclude Shostakovich or Sibelius, it’s not a huge list, so the idea that there was once a whole category of waltzes called “lyrical” is suspect (though you’ll find quite a few of them on ballet pianists’ albums, which supports my theory that it’s a pedagogical term, not a real-life one). 

In the US Library of Congress Catalog of Copyright Entries 1945 (Music) New Series Vol 40 Pt 3 No 10 there are more compositions in the index with the word “Valse” in the title than “waltz,” and only a handful with the term “lyric.” When you look at the list of adjectives associated with “valse,” (see below) apart from lyrique including erotic, beige, parfumée, you begin to wonder whether any of them have much meaning, except as a way of flogging a generic composition as if it might be particular. Perhaps lyrical is doing the work of organic, natural, new, advanced, healthy, free-from! in food-labelling. If we’re fooled by food labels, I’m sure we can be taken in by sheet music covers.

Picture of the index from the US Catalog of Copyright Entries for Music 1945, showing a list of compositions including the term "valse"

Extract from the Catalog of Copyright Entries (Music) 1945, compositions with the title “Valse”

Postscript: Is “a lyrical waltz” something to do with the body, not music? 

Once I’d written this, I began to wonder whether the term “lyrical” has some purchase with dance teachers because of the genre of lyrical dance, in which case maybe it means “the kind of music I can do emotionally charged slow bendy dance to.” That opens the field up more, without the need to get too metrical-technical about the music. 

 

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2 thoughts on “The mysterious case of the Lyrical Waltz

  1. Jo Jewkes

    Hi Jonathan, Yes, I think your last point about ‘lyrical ‘ referring to the body rather than the music is what occurs to me, too. For me, the word lyrical evokes smooth, soft and flowing movements with a gentle quality: lots of plié and expressive flexibility in the upper body.
    Whatever music the accompanist can play which supports those qualities is going to be appropriate. Perhaps not too much bounce and swing in the rhythm but rather something more even and connected. Perhaps in a wistful minor key? But that is just my personal take on it – I can’t say I’ve ever used the term myself as I tend to hum and wave my arms around to show what I want!

    Reply
    1. Jonathan Still Post author

      Humming and waving your arms around is the best way! When I see a dance teacher demonstrating this kind of movement with conviction and commitment, it’s very clear what kind of music would work. I was playing for Monique Loudières in the summer, and her whole body, including her voice and facial expression, was like seeing a piece of music. Betty Anderton can convey the feel of what’s needed with a twitch of the shoulder (but also very good adjectives!). One teacher I know says that she likes her pianist because when she says “Can I have something I can do this to?” (illustrating the movement) he knows what she means. When the “lyrical” is on the teacher/dancer side, as a body movement, then as you say, whatever music supports that quality is going to be right. Another teacher said that “lyrical” was to her a quality word for “a drawn out, grounded, yet soft kind of movement” which seems to echo your “lots of plié and expressive flexibility.” I think the problem with “lyrical waltz” for me is that it suggests that “lyrical” is a meaningful term to describe the musical fabric, whereas the more relevant task is “play me music that I can move lyrically to.” As you say, not too much bounce or swing, not staccato or rhythmically jerky (i.e. even and connected) but too many parameters and constraints, and it begins to become like the man in Little Britain asking for a picture of a disappointed horse and saying “I can see the disappointment; I can see the frustration but I can also sense a flicker of hope..that things might get better for this horse and that really isn’t what I’m looking for.”

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