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Viva Navarra score
Click on the score to download the free pdf of this medley of “Spanish” “Waltzes”

Why the Spanish waltz? Is there such a thing? 

I never intended to include this category of music in the 52 cards series. The only reason it’s here is because Matt Gregory from the Ballet Piano Podcast said I should do a blog post on it, since “a Spanish Waltz” one of those things where you play what you think you’re being asked for, while internally furrowing your brow, and thinking “What is a Spanish waltz? Is there such a thing?” 

If ever I have to use the term, I feel the need for a full conceptual Hazmat suit, together with a pair of tongs, a box of latex scare quotes and some hand-sanitizer. It’s nothing against the Spanish or the waltz, but “a Spanish waltz” as a concept is a hot mess of problems.  That’s not to say that the pieces I’ve put together in this playing card aren’t useful for all kinds of things—particularly, I think, for sissonne exercises. They’re also great for giving a kind of “flavour” to an exercise. But they’re not in a category called “Spanish Waltz,” except on teacher training courses. So is there such a thing? The answer, briefly, is jein, as they say in Germany—yes and no.

Yes, because if you say you want a Spanish waltz, like Indian chefs who will provide you with a chicken tikka masala, even though it is unknown in India, we can knock you one up in the kitchen with a few ingredients that we guess you want included—a bit of a hemiola, some triplets, a few flamenco harmonies, some imaginary castanets, maybe bits of borrowed melody from Spanish things, or an imitation of the Spanish from Nutcracker. There’s also something very triple about them—although the melodic phrases seem to be in two-bar units (i.e. two bars of 3), the rhythmic structure seems to be much more like a truly triple metre, which is why they’re in the “clubs” suit. 

No, because although we can have a guess at what you mean based on the exercise, there is no musical entity called a “Spanish Waltz.” It’s not a thing out there in the world that, like blackbirds or hermit crabs, can be identified by certain characteristics. 

If you came here for a definition, then I apologize in advance—I recognize myself as one of those academics in Zadie Smith’s short story For the King, who is “never able to say a word without qualifying it from fifteen different angles. To listen to them. . .is to be confronted with a mass of verbal footnotes” . You see? A footnote right there. I’m no expert on this subject—what it needs is a few dance historians, some musicologists, specialists in escuela bolera and its relation to ballet and so on. But here are just a few pointers to why the term is so problematic. 

Music of Spain, v. Music about Spain

In a classic text on the subject, James Parakilas explains that it is French and Russian composers who have “long been paired as the greatest, or first masters of Spanish music (by listeners who did not distinguish Spanish music from music about Spain.” For the French, he says, representing Spain in music “has been an exercise in rendering their neighbors exotic,” whereas Russian musicians found “a mirror of their own cultural situation in the corner of Europe most distant from themselves” . Spanish musicians don’t need to make Spain exotic for other Spaniards, but many of them have practised what Parakilas calls auto-exoticism—the condition of “being able to produce a marketable art only by exoticizing oneself and one’s culture”

If you’re a ballet pianist, you know that there are Spanish dances in Glazunov’s Raymonda. Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker, Minkus’s Don Quixote and bits of Paquita, the Spanish dance in Coppélia. Then there’s Fanny Elssler’s famous Cachuchadanced in Le Diable Boiteux (1836),  and her Bolero from Delire d’un Peintre. Other famous Spanishy dances are Rimsky-Korsakov’s Capriccio Espagnole, Glinka’s Souvenir d’une nuit d’été à Madrid, as well as his orchestration of a Jota Aragonesa that was also arranged by Gottschalk. The point is, though, that none of these are waltzes, and most of them are “no more Spanish than the Champs-Elysées” as Noël Coward said of Bizet’s Carmen .

One of the interesting side-issues in Parakilas’s chapter is that the bolero as a form is so similar to the polonaise, that it is very hard to tell the difference. Moreover, a lot of the characteristics we associate with polonaises quite possibly originated in the bolero, to the extent that Parakilas wonders whether Chopin might have “learned more about writing polonaises from his experience with the bolero than the other way around” (pp. 150–151), noting that after his Bolero Op. 19, the polonaises seem to come with bolero accessories.

Certainly, if you search IMSLP for zarzuelas you will find many examples of boleros that would make much better polonaises for class than most of the polonaises you probably already have in your repertoire. While we’re at it, there are also plenty of useful mazurkas, polkas and waltzes in there too. And I mean waltzes, not “Spanish waltzes,” although they are waltzes written by Spaniards.

Spanish wilis?

In his article on the music of Giselle, Rodney Edgecombe takes issue with an assertion by Marian Smith in Ballet and Opera in the Age of Giselle that the example below represents a “somewhat startling burst of Spanish music” . Edgecombe argues that this isn’t startling, or a burst, since “the waltzes Adam wrote for the wilis are consistently ‘Spanish’ throughout” .

So-called Spanish section of the Wilis in Giselle Act II
What Smith (2000) calls a “startling burst” of Spanish music in the wilis, Giselle Act 2

I’m not thoroughly convinced by the argument, but I can see what he means. Once you start looking for possible Spanishness, you can see it everywhere. What’s more, he continues, Spanish music (“in inauthentic pan-European paraphrases”) in the early 19th century was used as a general marker of passion, rather than Spanishness, citing the bolero “Di quella pira” from Verdi’s Il Trovatore as an example.  The sense of what he means here is useful, but some of the details, I think, are questionable:

The balletic bolero, which likewise functioned as a vector of vividness and energy, was often favoured for male variations. Albert himself dances one in the Grand pas de deux, not to honour the no-longer-extant cosmopolitan ball of the wilis, but because it’s a manly thing to do.

I can only think that when he says “balletic Bolero” he must mean the same rhythm as the wilis shown above, which is what Albrecht’s solo is, but this surely isn’t a bolero, is it? If you go with Edgecombe’s flow and call it a *bolero for a moment,  the first balletic variation that comes to mind is the equally misnamed “Bolero” in Act 2 of Coppélia, which is for Swanilda. If it’s the kind of bolero that is more like a polonaise (a bolernaise?) the only example I can think of right now is for a woman, Lucille Grahn’s solo in Pas de Quatre (1845).  Fanny Elssler’s Bolero was nothing like either of those, and the thing called a bolero in Don Quixote is nothing like any of those:

Musical score of Bolero by Pugni
The “Bolero” interpolated into Don Quixote, music from Pugni’s La Fille de Marbre.

Beginning to see the problem yet? Thanks for the useful indication “Tempo di Bolero,” by the way. Given that after 30 years of playing for ballet, I’m not sure what a bolero is, or whether this is one at all, and what speed the choreographer wants the dance, it’s not exactly an objective tempo referent.  The Ravel Boléro, which the composer originally called Fandango has a tempo marking of “Tempo di Bolero, moderato assai, ♩=72,” which is almost three times slower than most of the videos I’ve seen of the Don Quixote “bolero.” 

Sometimes, a grupetto is just a grupetto

Petipa danced in Spain and was ballet master at the Teatro del Circo in Madrid until his Spanish career came to an abrupt end when he eloped with the daughter of a local noblewoman, having first shot a marquis in the jaw in a duel in a case of mistaken identity . Which is another way of saying that Petipa probably knew his stuff when it came to Spanish dance and drama. The fact that Minkus’s music for Don Quixote doesn’t always sound very “Spanish” probably has more to do with the fact that we expect our “Spanish” music to come with extra hot musical spice with a side-order of castanets, because that kind of sound comes later, with Rimsky-Korsakov, Chabrier and de Falla, in different ways and for different reasons.

This is why Edgecombe disagrees with one of Marian Smith’s theories about the wilis’ music in Giselle. Smith thinks that contemporary audiences would have heard echoes of an oriental or exotic style that was supposed to underscore dances by wilis in national costume in the original libretto, later dropped. But in 1841, argues Edgecombe, “the idea of musical regionalism, by now a potent force in opera (Ruslan and Ludmila would premiere a year later) had scarcely begun to penetrate the world of ballet” .

Ironically though, musicologist Marina Frolova-Walker argues against reading too much into the apparent exoticism of the harmony of Ruslan, in what is a long and detailed dismantling of an analysis by Richard Taruskin that is too complex to go into here.  Briefly, her argument is this; If you see exoticism in Glinka’s use of the so-called Kuchka pattern (for the musos: 5-#5-6-♭6-5 over a static bassline), it’s because it later becomes adopted as a marker of the exotic. One of the most obvious examples would be the third part of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade where you can hear it in the cellos and basses: 

Part of Rimsky-Korsakov's Scheherezade (musical score)
In the left hand, the so-called “Kuchka pattern.”

In Ruslan, though, Frolova Walker argues, it’s still just part of Glinka’s generic musical language.  A bit like when my short-sighted Aunty Bess saw scaffolding on the remains of 11th century Corfe Castle from a distance, and said, in utter seriousness, “Oh, so they had television then?”

Anyway, back to Frolova-Walker: at the time Glinka wrote A life for the Tsar (1836), she says, critics

did not see anything wrong in giving a Western dance, the waltz, to an Oriental character, nor did they object that the dance had not been transformed to sound Oriental; the conventionalized presentation of the Orient in music was rudimentary and piecemeal at this stage, and audiences were quite accustomed to hearing Oriental characters sing minuets, sicilianas, and other European dances . . .

For the same reason, I wonder whether it’s reading too much into Giselle to say that all or indeed any of the wili dances are necessarily Spanish in character. Isn’t it possible that sometimes a grupetto is just a grupetto, not a symbol of Spain? Or at least, used without the composer meaning to symbolize it?

Albrecht, Germans, and horns

Now let’s go back to Albrecht. At the time of Giselle, a waltz would have marked out a character as German: Adam was proud of the local German colour he’d given to the score in the form of the waltz, and critics praised the Germanic spirit that he had evoked with his music . That being the case, is there any reason for paying more attention to the possibly Spanish overtones of Albrecht’s second Act solo, than to its Germanic, minuetty melodic features, which are what makes the Act I waltz sound German? In the example below, I’ve transposed Albrecht’s solo into D major and rewritten it 3/4. The point isn’t to try and hear the three together, but to note the similar features. 

Comparison of Mozart Minuet and two Giselle examples in music notation
The waltz from Act I, part of Albrecht’s solo, and a Mozart minuet

But perhaps even more relevant and prominent are those horns—symbols of hunting and forests—that play the opening bars of  Albrecht’s solo; and if you wanted to look for that “bolero” rhythm, you’ll find it—also on horns—in the Minuet from Handel’s Water Music HWV 348.  I’m not saying there’s a connection—only that you don’t have to go to Spain to find that rhythm. 

Handel Water Music HWV 348 Minuet music score for horns
Handel Water Music No. 1/VII HWV 348 Minuet. Here’s that “bolero” rhythm again

Just show me the Spanish waltz

All right all right. The take-home point is that there are all kinds of Spanish dances in three, but the one term and concept that takes you up a blind alley and leaves you without a number for a taxi, is Spanish Waltz. However, we ballet pianists have learned to adapt in the wild, and can usually summon up something suitable. It will be based, though, on all the things that we think ballet teachers might have in their heads, or might have danced—any of the examples above, none of which are called Spanish Waltz. For an example of a Spanish dance that contains all the necessary accoutrements, try Andy Higgs’s “Spanish Fandango” on his children’s dance class album, The Witches’ Cauldron

And finally

When I first tried to investigate this problem, I was sharing a flat with the Spanish ballet dancer (and now teacher) Victor Alvarez. I asked him if there was such a thing as a Spanish waltz, and I think my question was, where can I find more things like the Act 3 male variation from Don Quixote, but more authentic? He burst out laughing and said “Nowhere! This doesn’t exist anywhere in Spanish music, except maybe in zarzuela.”  If you’re looking for more stuff like the dances in this short compilation, zarzuela is a great place to start, and it’s where I found the ones here.

If you’re still reading by this time, I hope you get my point: there is an enormously rich and important field to be investigated here. Teaching music in ballet training shouldn’t be reduced to giving one-line inaccurate definitions of things that don’t exist, because that’s all we have time and patience for. If that’s what “music” means, don’t bother teaching it at all. What’s more, there’s a kind of lazy exoticism involved that is rather embarrassing in 2020. I mean, no teacher is going to ask you for something kind of Chinese, are they? I hope not.

I suppose there is a case for talking about a Spanish waltz, if by that you mean a waltz written by a Spanish person, but it’s rather an odd thing to do, and it’s not what ballet teachers mean by the term. Javier Barreiro describes Genaro Monreal’s Clavelitos (see clip below) as a song where the composer set lyrics to a  waltz rhythm , which seems absolutely right to me. This isn’t “a waltz” in the sense of music for dancing waltzes to, it’s just a useful way of describing the broad characteristics of the meter of the song.

And even more finally

[Update on 9th March 2023]. I wrote this in 2020, and since then, I have discovered a little nest of Spanish “waltzes” at a wonderful Russian site, Старинные русские ноты «Золотого века» фортепиано (Antique Russian «Golden Age» Piano Sheet Music Collection). The golden age for the site-owner is the period roughly from 1870–1914, the peak of both piano production and music publishing in Russia. The site is Russian but you can use Google Translate to navigate, As soon as I looked at the pieces in the Spanish collection, which are from roughly the turn of the 20th century, I realized that the Spanish dances in Nutcracker and Raymonda (for example) are completely in keeping with the trend at the time for these Spanish-flavoured dances, so it is easy to imagine how the idea of a Spanish Waltz as a category evolved from the specific instances of Spanish dances at a particular moment in late 19th century popular music culture, helped by what you might call the ballet industry. Worth noting, though, that Manuel de Falla’s El amor brujo was 1915, and Tricorne 1919, but seem to have had much less staying power than the zarzuela and salon piano “waltzes,” I suppose because de Falla’s music isn’t easy to break into ballet-class sized chunks.

The idea that there is an important distinction between a category and a specific instance when you’re talking about these things came from Iain McGilchrist’s book The Master and His Emissary. It is, he argues, characteristic of the way the left hemisphere of the brain sees the world to think in categories, and abstractions, and to build things up in fragments, whereas the right hemisphere tends to the “big picture” and specific instances. I’m paraphrasing a 500-page book, so forgive me if I’ve missed some details, but my point here is that talking about specific instances of Spanish dances, of some waltzes or waltz-like pieces that turned up in particular Zarzuela operettas, this is useful and important stuff to know about the heritage of ballet music and popular music more widely. Where it all goes wrong, in my opinion, is when you try to build a Spanish waltz from the ground up (a left-hemisphere-y thing to do) based on features that you think you can extract from the surface of those particular instances, and/or claim—in a pedagogical setting—that “the Spanish waltz” is a kind of Platonic musical form that can and should be learned.

At the same time, there is something about those late 19th century Spanish dances that is lacking in particularity, they do often sound the same because they were built up from abstracted fragments (again, a very left-brainy thing to do). That is why a lot of the discussions around music and AI right now seem to be barking a little up the wrong tree—to my mind, there are already plenty of instances of machine-learned music (like some examples of the Spanish Waltz), which is one of the reasons why AI can be so convincing. But that’s for another conversation.


3 thought on “A year of ballet playing cards #39 (KC): “Spanish waltz” medley”
    1. Thank you—I have to admit, this is one of my favourite posts, because it gave me the chance to weave together things that I’ve read and heard over many years, and I think the whole “Spanish question” in ballet is one of the most complex topics!

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Jonathan Still, ballet pianist