Tag Archives: waltz

A year of ballet playing cards #22: A schmaltzy waltz by Kéler (9h)




Click to download the score

Elastic or expressive timing is a feature of music in ballet classes that I’m rather nostalgic for. When I meet teachers who still do it, I feel as if I’m back home again.  Recently, I’ve found that I need a particular category of waltz for company classes with multiple pirouettes, where the tempo needs to be forgiving, accommodating, like stretch fabric jeans that can be a couple of sizes larger than the label suggests. Schmaltzy is what we would have called it a few decades ago, but it’s a long time since I heard that word.

How I learned to love the schmaltzy waltz again

When I first started working in ballet, I’d be slightly appalled if a teacher wanted part of an exercise slower than the beginning, to make space for a different kind of step or more pirouettes. Now I enjoy the interaction with the teacher, enjoy the challenge to get the tempo change right and still make it sound musical.

You can’t do this with any old waltz, and particularly not with the kind that has an overwhelming metrical level, rather than switching between several through the course of the tune. I’ve put Deutsches Gemüthsleben in the “hearts” section because it has places where it’s in six (see various posts on triple meter), but the opening is very definitely in three. Sections E and F do what the Swan Lake Act 1 waltz does, which is to drive the accent to the second bar and fourth bars. At the ends of sections, the three-in-a-bar is suddenly more marked. In other words, what appears to be simply “3/4” has several different kinds of metre both internally (within a single phrase) and from section to section.

I’d never heard of Kéler until I read that he was the source of the Hungarian dance that made Brahms famous when he plagiarized it in its entirety, believing it to be a folk tune (like folk tunes just precipitate in the ether like ectoplasm, huh?), but I’m glad I found him. See more in Nancy Handrigan’s wonderful thesis On the Hungarian in Brahmsespecially pages 55-56, and for the proof, listen to the original Kéler below (scroll to 2:56″ if it doesn’t start there automatically).

I haven’t found a performance of this Deutsches Gemüthsleben Walzer that I like, or that does justice to its potential for elastic timing (some of which Kéler writes into the score), but it’s remarkably similar to the waltz in Der Rosenkavalier, which is the feel I’m looking for (see below – scroll to 5:40 if the technology doesn’t make it start there automatically).

It might also not escape your notice that both Kéler’s melody and Richard Strauss’s have a lot in common with The Lonely Goatherd from The Sound of Music, and also — i noticed much longer aftewards — with the “Waltz of the Flowers” from The Nutcracker.   Perhaps these falling thirds against an unchanging major floor is music’s answer to Gemüt, and perhaps Gemütlichkeit is the best way to describe character of the schmaltzy waltz that you need for a certain kind of pirouette: music that’s warm, roomy, comfortable, supple, supportive, like an armchair by the fire in an old pub.

More on “truly triple meter” – are Chopin’s waltzes really mazurkas?


After a previous post about triple metre and waltzes, some pianist colleagues and I had an ongoing discussion about particular pieces. According to our (my) definition, for a waltz-like piece to be classed as ‘truly triple’, cadences have to fall on the second main beat of a 6/8 bar, or, in 3/4, on the 8th bar of the phrase (otherwise it’s 3/4 “masquerading”, so to speak, as 6/8).

One musician cited Chopin’s Grande valse Op. 18 No. 1 (the finale of Les Sylphides) – is this truly triple, she asked? Well, yes it is. And so are most of the other waltzes. As I mentioned in our Facebook discussion, my composition teacher Malcolm Williamson once praised Chopin’s treatment of the harmony in his waltzes, that is, he’s careful to make sure that it changes in every bar. At the time, I don’t think either Malcolm or I knew enough about waltzing to discuss this from a metrical point of view, the point he was making was about maintaining harmonic interest.  One of Malcolm’s own great waltz tunes (he would probably not thank me for that, since he didn’t want it extracted from the opera as a single number), Thank You, Saint Seraphina, from Our Man in Havana was itself truly triple, which probably reflected his concern for both metric and harmonic interest.

From the little I know from having worked with him, the last thing he wanted was to have to wait in music – harmonic or metric inertia. And that’s the thing about 6/8s, once you know that you’ve arrived on 7, all you’re doing is just waiting for that extra beat. That can be OK sometimes, but in allegro, it’s not great.

Which brings me back to Chopin and the waltz. The  epigraph to chapter 6  of Eric McKee’s Decorum of the Minuet, Delirium of the Waltz is an interesting quote from Chopin

“I have picked up nothing that is essentially Viennese. For example, I can’t dance a waltz properly – that speaks for itself! My piano has heard nothing but mazurkas.”

I’m not saying that Chopin couldn’t write a waltz, or that his embodied sense of what waltzing was was too fragile to be able to incorporate it in music. But I wonder if the inherent tripleness of his waltzes is not a question of autonomous compositional technique in the ways that I’ve described it above, but a difficulty in shaking off an ingrained Mazurka habit.



More on the rareness of the truly triple waltz


In my last post, I said “Truly triple waltzes are an impossibility. They shouldn’t exist, and they don’t”. Less than 48 hours later, while I was playing Ich weiß nicht zu wem ich gehöre for a warm-up tendu, I realised I was wrong. There are examples of waltzes in truly triple metre, and I’d just played one. These useful, slow, “English” waltzes are very common in German 1930s songs for some reason – Vom Kopf bis Fuß (Falling in love again), Ich weiß es wird einmal ein Wunder geschehen,  Leben ohne Liebe kannst du nicht. Truly triple songs in English include The boy next door (from Meet me in St Louis), Would you? (from Singing in the Rain), What’ll I do. 

But how many of those examples can we say are truly truly triple metre? If you take the position of cadences as the giveaway (i.e. for it to be truly triple, they must come on 8, not 7), then only Falling in Love Again qualifies (though Would you? meets the criterion in the first three lines). Their feel is more triple than other waltzes, but it’s only a feel, not a structural fact.  Look more closely at Vom Kopf bis Fuß, the only truly truly triple ‘waltz’ of the ones I listed, and you’ll see that the cadences fall on the second beat of the bar, mazurka-style (or more appropriately, given the tempo, kujawiak-style). So the truly-triple-waltz turns out, in fact, to be more like a kujawiak, which we knew was triple already.

Adieu - Romance sem palavras by Ernesto Nazareth. Bars 6-8 of the tune.

Adieu – Romance sem palavras by Ernesto Nazareth. Bars 6-8 of the tune.

So apart from the waltz-which-is-really-a-kujawiak, are there any truly triple waltzes, contrary to what I said in my earlier post? One very strong contender is Nazareth’s Adieu – Romance sem palavraswhich we used for pliés in the RAD’s new Grade 5. It works wonderfully for Adages in a very slow 3, because it’s calm and measured, and wears its three-ness on the surface, so you get a clear sense of timing. And it really is in three – the cadences are on 8, not 7. Adieu is a strange example, though. The first four bars of the melody strongly suggest a 6/8 hypermeter, but the next four emphasise each bar individually, and reverse the accentuation of the hypermeter established in the preceding phrase, so that the weakest bars now receive the strongest accent. What’s more, whereas the harmonic change happened over two-bar spans in bars 1-4, in bars 6 and 8, that change is compressed into a single bar in a weak position. That’s a lot of metrical interest for an 8 bar phrase, and is perhaps why it works so well for complex ballet exercises where a lot is happening in a short space of time.

Update (26/9/14) Re-reading what I’ve written about Adieu, I think it’s hard to make a case for it being “truly triple” except for the fact that the final cadence is on 8 rather than 7. Otherwise, though, it’s hypermetrically duple. The feeling that it is triple comes, I think, from the fact that the harmony frequently changes every bar, or at times, within the bar at quarter-note level.

The chorus of Feed the Birds from Mary Poppins is truly triple, apart from the middle eight, but I can’t think of many more – can you?

Dancing masters, music and memory


deliriumI’m thoroughly enjoying Eric McKee’s book Decorum of the minuet, delirium of the waltz: a study of dance-music relations in 3/4 time. There are books that you grow up with that made the world what it is for you, and other books that don’t yet exist, but they’re so begging to be written, they hang around you like literary ectoplasm. This is one of those, and it’s a joy to read. There are plenty of books and articles on works, performances, composers, collaborations, but not about how music and dance relate in teaching steps and dances. This does the job magnificently, with loads of musical examples.

This is one of my favourite quotes so far, in a section about how dancing masters composed their own music to help teach dance steps: 

“While visiting Paris in 1762, Leopold Mozart observed that “in the whole town there are about two or three favourite minuets, which must always be played, because they people cannot dance to any save those particular ones during the playing of which they learned to dance.” (McKee 2012, 21) 

It sounds like when children or teachers can’t remember an exercise in an exam syllabus until they hear the music that goes with it. But it also points out what is so different about ballet training.  Children can do the same exercise to different music. You can play a famous piece from a ballet for a company class, and dancers don’t fall over because they go into autopilot and start doing whatever ballet it was from instead of the exercise.

Playing for ballet class tips #9: for ‘waltz’ read ‘mazurka’ for pirouettes


Image of sheet music of a mazurka for piano Even though teachers often ask  for a ‘waltz’ for pirouettes on a 3, sometimes (in fact, most times) what works much better is a mazurka.   Not the character-type mazurka that you get in Swan Lake or Coppélia, but the ballroom type that is slower than your average waltz, and has a more marked three-in-a-bar as opposed to the swaying feel of the late Viennese waltz. In particular, a mazurka for pirouettes works much better if there are any balancés involved.

Don’t look to Chopin for this type, or to many of the early 20th century composers who wrote ‘exotic’ mazurkas on the model of the folksy ones, because these are fast, and have a hold on 2, they’re not very triple. You have to look to the popular sheet music of the 19th century, where ‘mazurka’ meant the ballroom kind by default. ‘Polka mazurka’, while a different dance, has the same kind of feel.  It’s closer to the three-step ländler type of waltz that you find in Giselle. 

It’s a curious thing, this, the way that a long-forgotten dance form gets embedded in the conventions of a contemporary dance class. I discovered this trick by accident, by playing one of these that I’d found online for class one day. Try some of the 1062 mazurkas listed at the American Memory Sheet music collection for your next pirouette exercise and I think you’ll see what I mean.  Go to the search page, and type in ‘mazurka‘. You’ll get a bunch of pieces back, some will be the folksy type with the held second beat – ignore those. Go for the ones called ‘polka mazurka’ or the ones which are rhythmically close to the polka mazurka, like the Falling Dew Mazurka for example.

Zorn’s ‘Grammar’ online, for all your polka mazurka needs


I got my copy of this via Abe Books a few years ago, but it occurred to me that it must surely be out of copyright, and digitised by now? And sure enough, here it is, Grammar of the Art of Dancing from the Internet Archive in several formats including Kindle.  The online book version is worth trying too, for the very sophisticated searching opportunities it provides.

Friedrich Zorn’s Grammar of the Art of Dancing is one the most concise but exhaustive accounts of dozens of 19th century dances and their music. In 938 short, numbered paragraphs with musical examples and Zorn’s own dance notation, he can tell you all about different types of waltzes, what a Varsovienne, a Redowa and a Polka Mazurka are, and how musicians should  improvise changes in their playing to fit the two-step or three-step waltz.  The book is full of all kinds of fascinating details, like a comparison between the difference in tempo that people waltzed in different cities in Europe (Russians were the fastest, if  I remember correctly), or that the first polka was danced at around 88 b.p.m which was soon considered too dull for social dancing, so it sped up.

As a ballet pianist teacher, you’re left – even in the beginning of the 21st century –  with a legacy of these dances, whose rhythms still haunt music everywhere. To try to stratify them for yourself from the repertoire you know, which is what I did for years, is a slow and ineffective process.  Why is it that we seem to be so much better acquainted with dances from the distant Baroque than from those only just over our shoulder? From the moment you start reading Zorn, you have a pair of metrical spectacles with which to view the vast repertoire of dance music of the 19th century, and begin to recognise the shapes and patterns of those dances in music all around you.