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Raoul Poliakin conducting the Stadium Symphony Orchestra of New York (pseudonym of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra)
With the exception of the march, no musical form exerts such universal power over the listener as does the waltz. The lure of its three-quarter-time sorcery will soon have an audience swaying in its seats or dancers gliding and twirling across the ballroom floor. What is more, the waltz has held this magic power for more than a century and a half; and though the world is not nearly as waltz-crazy as it was during the latter half of the nineteenth century, it will still respond with genuine warmth whenever a waltz is played.
Actually, none of the waltzes in the present collection were originally intended for ballroom use, though at one time or another, all have served that purpose. The two Tchaikovsky waltzes were written for the ballet; the waltzes by Richard Strauss were compiled from an operatic score, and those by Weber and Johann Strauss, Jr., were first introduced in the concert hall.
Carl Maria von Weber’s Invitation to the Dance is generally acknowledged to be the first important concert waltz ever written. It was composed originally for the piano, along with some other pieces for that instrument, during the summer of 1819. The work consists of an introduction, a chain of waltzes and a brief epilogue. The Invitation to the Dance was immensely popular from the very outset, and has remained a favorite to this day. In 1841, the director of the Paris Opera, wishing to interpolate a ballet number in Weber’s opera Der Freischütz, asked Hector Berlioz to orchestrate the waltz, and it is in this version that we hear it most frequently today. It has, however, been transcribed by others, most notably Felix Weingartner. And it has had its own spectacular career as music for another ballet, Michel Fokine’s Le Spectre de la Rose.
Wiener Blut – literally translated as Vienna Blood but perhaps more properly as Vienna Life – reflects probably more than any other of the nearly four hundred waltzes by Johann Strauss, Jr., the true Viennese Gemütlichkeit, or relaxed feeling of well-being. In his book on the Strauss dynasty, H. E. Jacob, in speaking of this waltz, refers to its “dreamy, heavy-lidded sensuality,” which is a most apt description of this lush, lyrical work. It was composed in 1873, and received its initial performance that year at a spring festival held in theVolksgarten in Vienna. It is dedicated to King Christian IV of Denmark. Though it mirrored so beautifully the spirit of Vienna during the reign of Franz Josef, Wiener Blut, strangely enough, was slow to catch on with the public. Some time later, someone set words to it, and it then became the great success with the Viennese.
The Nutcracker, Tchaikovsky’s third and last big ballet score, was first presented at the Maryinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg on December 17, 1892. The choreography was by Lev Ivanov, who devised his ballet after a story entitled The Nutcracker and the Mouse King by E. T. A. Hoffmann. One of the most impressive of the dances is the Waltz of the Flowers, danced by the crystalline candy flowers in the Kingdom of Sweets. It is the first of two beguiling waltzes that come near the close of the ballet, and is surely one of the most popular works ever penned by the Russian composer.
After shocking the musical world with the savage and sensuous music of Elektra and Salome, Richard Strauss did a sudden about-face and composed his completely captivating score for Der Rosenkavalier (The Rose Cavalier). Some of the risqué scenes in this opera about love, comedy and pathos in eighteenth century Vienna may have shocked the censors, but no less shocking – though eminently pleasing – was Strauss’ inclusion of a number of Viennese waltzes. Der Rosenkavalier had its world premiere on January 26, 1911, at the Hofoper in Dresden. Long before this, however, Strauss sang and played excerpts from the score on the piano at an informal musical evening, held at the home of a Munich newspaper publisher. The infectious waltzes from the opera caught on like wildfire and were being hummed, whistled and played in many parts of the world before the opera reached the stage. One listener at that Munich soiree wrote, “The event proved that Dr. Strauss has exhibited marked facility in catering to the prevalent craze for waltz melodies of the Lehar or Oskar Straus brand. Some of the music might have been written by either one of the latter.” As a matter of fact, Strauss did a bit of stealing – either accidentally or intentionally – from the Geheime Anziehungskräfte (Secret Magnetic Forces) Waltz by Josef Strauss. Two of the principal waltzes in Der Rosenkavalier are based on two sections from this work by the earlier Strauss. The waltzes in Der Rosenkavalier are scattered all through this delightful opera, and the principal ones have been gathered together into a waltz sequence for concert purposes.
Johann Strauss, Jr., worked on his Künstlerleben (Artist’s Life) Waltz simultaneously with his famous Blue Danube Waltz. Both were written as choral waltzes, to be sung by the members of the Vienna Men’s Choral Association. In this form, the Blue Danube was initially a fiasco; but five days later, on February 18, 1867, Strauss conducted the Künstlerleben in straight orchestral form, and immediately won for it a place in the hearts of its hearers. To many, it belongs as a lighter counterpart to Wiener Blut as a true musical picture of nineteenth century Vienna.
The Sleeping Beauty, Tchaikovsky’s second big ballet, was given for the first time nearly three years before The Nutcracker – on January 15, 1890 – and at the same theatre – the Maryinsky in St. Petersburg. The choreographer on this occasion was Marius Petipa. The so-called Sleeping Beauty Waltz, second only in popularity to the Waltz of the Flowers, occurs near the beginning of Act I, which is preceded by an act-long Prologue. At the sixteenth birthday celebration of Princess Aurora, a group of peasant girls executes the graceful Garland Dance with half-hoops twined with white thorn-roses. For that reason, the waltz is sometimes referred to as the Thorn-Rose Waltz.