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Schubert Transformed Minuet to Waltz


Beethoven’s sets of pianos minuets from the 1790s, WoO 7 and WoO 10, could have been transcribed (by him or by a publisher’s hack) from a ballroom string orchestra versions. They are elegant enough and straightforwardly tuneful and danceable, but they have the flavor of dashed off for quick money — or, in those days, chump change and no royalties.

Schubert’s earliest minuets are precisely comparable; he inherited the classical minuet-and-trio form from Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven and ran with it. 30 Minuets for piano, D 41, date from 1813 (he was 16 years old); ten of these are lost, and one assumes that he wrote them for household use, or in school, because none was published until the Schubert Gesamtausgabe in 1889. The texture typically shows a left-hand part moving in quarters, sometimes with two changes of harmony in the bar; the Trio section often has a left hand in seesawing eighths. These textures suggest a relatively moderate tempo suitable for regular dance steps, roughly 100-120 to the quarter. No. 1 begins like “O my darling, Clementine”; nine others begin with a dotted upbeat.                                                                                                                       

Next to evolve historically, at least in published 3/4 pieces, came Ländler or Ländlerische Tänze or Deutsche Tänze or sometimes just Deutsche. In small-orchestra versions, they show the beginnings of waltz-type accompaniment: a downbeat quarter (oom) for cello and bass, middle-register harmony for second and third beats (pah-pah), viola and second violin, and upper melody in first violin, often in running eighths. These pieces could easily be arranged in piano versions for household use. Beethoven’s 12 Deutsche, WoO 8, begin like this. But the left-hand parts are sometimes arpeggiated harmonies in eighths, or as simple as a close-position triad repeated three times; similarly in WoO 13 and WoO 15. Not until the 1820s does Beethoven give us a piano piece with the title Walzer (WoO 84).

I started to write about how the first 13 numbers of Schubert’s Originaltänze op. 9 (D 365) are all in the same form: 8 bars repeated + 8 bars repeated, and all in the same key (A-flat major) — examples of bounded, closed forms, as opposed to narrative, developing forms. Then I got to looking at the publication history, which says something else about the form. These were Schubert’s first dance publication, as the low opus number suggests; the 36 dances appeared in 1821, published by Cappi & Diabelli, when Schubert was 24.  The title is probably the publisher’s. Schubert could have called them Walzer (this word is both singular and plural in German), or Ländler or Deutsche Tänze even if their origin is more Austrian than German; the terms, in those days, were more or less interchangeable. Schubert’s autograph manuscript is lost, but some dates are known; some of the pieces were written in 1818 and possibly earlier; nine of them (nos. 5-13) were composed in a single day, 12 November 1819. No. 2 bore the name “Trauerwalzer” (sadness waltz) and became so popular that in 1826 it was published by Schott under Beethoven’s name (!), and again two years later with a new title, “Sehnsuchtswalzer” (longing; see Kinsky Anh. 14).

It is apparent that Schubert gathered up a fistful of whatever he could find among the dances scattered on his shelves, arranged some of them in a more or less consistent succession of keys, and left it to Diabelli to pay him whatever he felt like — we know that it was never much. Much later the dances were republished as Erste Walzer, possibly to distinguish the set from the 20 Letzte Walzer (op. 127, D 146), published posthumously in 1830; but the Originaltänze op. 9 were certainly not Schubert’s first waltzes, nor were Opus 127 his last. In assigning chronological catalogue numbers to Schubert’s works, Otto Erich Deutsch completely gave up trying to date all the dances for piano; but a thorough and very interesting study of all of them (more than 300) was published in 2013 by Martin Chusid (Schubert’s Dances: For Family, Friends, and Posterity, Pendragon Press). And why am I picking Schubert for waltzes? He didn’t invent the genre, or the dance; nevertheless, Schubert is the first composer to write waltzes that we will all remember and love forever.

If you accept the notion that all these Originaltänze are to be played in order, then you recognize certain conventions. They are all identical closed forms, 8 bars repeated + 8 bars repeated. The first thirteen numbers, as I mentioned, are all in A flat major.  If you heard these 13 all in succession, you might not know it if one or two, or five or six, had been left out or played in a different order, and you’d get tired of the same key quite soon. Finally with no. 14 there’s a modulation to the subdominant, D flat major, not a bold change of key but surely a welcome one. After that, there is a succession of related keys: A major (16-18), G major (19-21), B major (22-24), E major (25-27), and so forth. Nos. 29-31 are all dated “July 1821″ and no. 31 begins with ten, not eight bars, repeated; this might even be an engraver’s error. But nos. 29 and 32 depart from the scheme by offering 8 + 16 bars, each strain repeated, and no. 33 even comes forth with a developing and modulating motive, 8 + 8 + 8 + 8 bars, without a repeat sign. No. 34 begins with a two-bar LH introduction.  But these pieces are made for dancing, and formal difference among the waltzes isn’t what one looks for. What one listens for and indeed finds in these pieces is individual elegance and practical amiability. To quote Arnold Schoenberg once more: “Intelligibility in music seems to be impossible without repetition. … Constant repetition of a rhythmic figure, as in popular music, lends a popular touch to many Schubertian melodies. But their real nobility manifests itself in their rich melodic contour.” (Fundamentals of Musical Composition, 1967). I agree with this “real nobility,” could I but define it.

The waltz dominated Viennese musical culture for a century after Beethoven’s death; it spread around the world and remains vigorous today. Most of the world’s composers, greater and lesser, are remembered for waltzes. Chopin’s waltzes are the first works by him that we learn as young pianists; their four-bar phrase structure is still palpable even at their most expansive; but Stravinsky was onto something when he wrote that “Chopin’s waltzes are not waltzes but portraits of waltzes” — they might be complicated if you had to dance to them.  (Chopin’s mazurkas are in a sense Polish Ländler: always in triple meter, and nearly always with the LH accompanimental pattern, but with distinctive mazurka rhythms in the melody.) Following his father’s example, Johann Strauss, Jr. (1825-1899) built a career on waltz sets (“Blue Danube,” “Vienna Woods,” “Artist’s Life,” “Roses from the South,” “Emperor” etc., in groups of five or six), and his greatest opera, Die Fledermaus (1874), erects a monument to Viennese joy (“Ha, welch’ ein | Fest, welche | Nacht voll | Freud’!”). The waltzes of an unrelated Strauss, in Der Rosenkavalier, epitomize “the illusion of carnival, champagne, and feather-brained levity,” as Joseph Kerman put it. Brahms wrote memorable waltzes for chorus (Liebeslieder Walzer) — an early recognition that waltzes can be songs. (He once wrote on a postcard that the “Blue Danube” Waltz was “unfortunately not by J. Brahms.”) Even Wagner, that ponderous genius, wrote a beautiful waltz in Act III of Meistersinger, a waltz notable for some seven-bar phrases. Tchaikovsky’s waltzes are among his most memorable melodies, both from his ballets and from his Serenade. Sibelius may be a composer of indigestible symphonies and nationalist bombast, but he could also pen the lovely Valse triste. Mahler’s waltzes are mostly Ländler, islands of relative calm in his massed storms. Schoenberg wrote a waltz that became the earliest known 12-tone composition, but one admits that it’s somewhat less Viennese than the “Ach, du lieber Augustin” waltz in his String Quartet no. 2.

Nor is the waltz an exclusively Austro-German art. The “Ball” movement of Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique is a splendid waltz from as early as 1830, only 11 years after Weber’s Invitation to the Dance. The Alsatian Émile Waldteufel (1837-1915) is remembered for nothing but waltzes, including Les patineurs (1882), but his Estudiantina became “My beer is Rheingold, the dry beer,” and was parodied by Debussy in his Petite suite (1890).  I’ve already discussed Chabrier’s superb Valses romantiques (1883), which Debussy admired even before composing his “con morbidezza” waltz called La plus que lente (1910).  Ravel, in several different works, became the greatest French composer of waltzes, culminating in the overtly symphonic La valse (1920). Ravel admitted that his intent, in his Valses nobles et sentimentales (1911), was “to write a set of Schubert waltzes,” and these reveal some of the most exquisitely original harmonic explorations of an entire century.

I emphasize the French waltz dimension because it’s hard to imagine an Italian waltz — not even the utterly ditzy Gazza ladra Overture of Rossini (1817), which could be considered a Deutscher Tanz but not a waltz. But it’s really not an ethnic issue. One of the most famous waltzes of all time is “Sobre la olas” (1891), over the waves, by the Mexican Juventino Rosas, who is identified in the literature as “a full-blooded Otomí Indian.” (You know this waltz with a set of irreverent added words, or possibly as “When you are in love” from The Great Caruso.)

And in America we recognize many different waltzes that are unforgettable songs even more than they are dances: And the Band Played On, School Days, The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze, A Bicycle Built for Two, Lover, Abdul the Bulbul Ameer, Falling in Love With Love, A Wonderful Guy, This Nearly Was Mine, Hello, Young Lovers, Wherever You Are. In most of these, steady quarter-note motion guides the vocal melody. As in the classical minuet, the barline regulates the dance, but the beat moves the music.

Mark DeVoto, musicologist and composer, is an expert on the music of Alban Berg, Debussy, and other early 20th-century composers. A graduate of Harvard College (1961) and Princeton (Ph.D., 1967), he has published on many music subjects, and edited the revised fourth (1978) and fifth (1987) editions of Harmony by his teacher Walter Piston.


4 Comments [leave a civil comment (others will be removed) and please disclose relevant affiliations]

  1. On the American side, it’s not just in Broadway and popular music. Virgil Thomson was a dab hand with a waltz. Some were affectionate, some mocking, some both (you could never get a straight line from Virgil).

    Comment by Vance Koven — January 13, 2021 at 1:31 pm

  2. The 20th century Russians wrote plenty of great waltzes. Shostakovich in particular wrote quite a few, scattered among his dance suites. Khachaturian’s waltz from Masquerade is very popular.

    Then there’s the “American Waltz,” a very slow dance in 3/4 time. “The Tennessee Waltz” is an example, but probably the best American Waltz ever written is “Le plus que lent” by Claude Debussy.

    Comment by Mark Lutton — January 13, 2021 at 7:50 pm

  3. There are way too many fine American waltzes for Claude to take the cakewalk, quite apart from “Tennessee.” Vance K himself mentioned in these pages a honeyed read of Joplin’s “Bethena” (a *concert* waltz, no less) from fall 2019, and that composer wrote others of excellence, of course. Most people recall HAL’s slow daisy-dally take on “Bicycle” even if it did not bring to “2001” moviegoer minds the entire wonderful song. In pop and rock are the notable Cat Stevens version of the hymn “Morning Has Broken”, the Rascals’ wonderful “How Can I Be Sure?”, sundry cuts by Billy Joel, the Band, and Buffalo Springfield, and best of all the Allman Brothers’ sweet “Dreams” (

    As for Virgil Thomson, I was his chauffeur for several days in WDC the fateful August of 1972, also journalism pupil, and he had puhlenty of straight lines, to put it politely, when he felt like it.

    Comment by David Moran — January 13, 2021 at 8:55 pm

  4. One waltz by Ravel that doesn’t always make the Top Forty is the “Danse des Libellules et des Sphinx” in l’Enfant et les Sortilèges, which is marked in parentheses: “Valse Américaine.” (score, page 148) Ravel wrote this before he visited America, however. But my favorite unknown waltz by Ravel is the one “A la manière de Borodine,” a minute-long gem modeled on the Serenade in Borodin’s Petite Suite.

    Comment by Mark DeVoto — January 14, 2021 at 1:11 pm

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