The Waltz’s Scandalous Past

Byvu lita

Nov 26, 2023

When you think of the waltz, you might start humming Tchaikovsky’s Waltz of the Flowers or The Blue Danube by Johann Strauss II. Waltz music has certainly gone through much development since its origins in the 1700s. But did you know that the original Classical era dance was considered scandalous? And that it wasn’t until the Romantic era that the music was considered its own genre? Let’s discuss the history of the waltz from the rebellious teenagers in the 18th century to now.

History of the Waltz

Even though the waltz is a glamorous and romantic dance by contemporary standards, its origins were humble (and are, unfortunately, pretty much unknown). The name comes from the German word waltzen, which means “to turn”, and historians believe the waltz may have originated from a 16th-century Austrian folk dance. (Although some have tried connecting the waltz to an Italian 16th-century dance called the volta, there is no strong evidence to support this theory).

Characteristics of the Waltz

Musically, the waltz has a unique sound. The tempo is often quick and in triple meter (the time signature is typically 3/4), and the harmonies tend to follow the basic I, IV, V chord progression with one chord per measure. In the accompaniment, beat 1 is typically the root of the chord followed by the upper chord notes on beats 2 and three. This gives the waltz its characteristic “down-up-up” feel.

Pierre Vidal, The Waltz

By the middle of the 18th century, the waltz was enormously popular throughout Europe. Especially with the young in the wealthy middle class. Here’s why.

A Scandalous Dance

Man and woman dancing a waltz (1887). Animation based on Eadweard Muybridge’s photographic plate.

At the time, social dancing was done in a particular way: each dance had precise choreography (it took ages to learn the intricate steps), and the dancers were held at arm’s length.

The waltz, however, could be learned in a short amount of time. And it required the partners to stand so close that their faces were touching. Combine those with the characteristic rapid turning movements and fast tempos, and there you go! A dance form considered sinful and scandalous by the older generation.

For the next few decades, parents and leaders tried to stop their children from dancing the waltz (unsuccessfully). The Times of London even extended a warning to parents after the Prince Regent threw a ball that included a waltz in 1816:

“We remarked with pain that the indecent foreign dance called the Waltz was introduced (we believe for the first time) at the English court on Friday last … it is quite sufficient to cast one’s eyes on the voluptuous intertwining of the limbs and close compressure on the bodies in their dance, to see that it is indeed far removed from the modest reserve which has hitherto been considered distinctive of English females.
. . . [W]e feel it a duty to warn every parent against exposing his daughter to so fatal a contagion.”


From a Dance to a Musical Genre

As the Classical era drew to a close and music began exploring emotion and stories, the waltz became more than just a dance for the wealthy. In the early 1800s, Franz Schubert (1797-1828) wrote around 100 waltzes for solo piano so that people could dance in their living rooms. Here is his 34 Valses sentimentales, Op. 50 from 1823:

Listen for the characteristic waltz-like accompaniment that Schubert so carefully combines with soaring melodies, energetic rhythms, and emotive storytelling. They are all fairly short, but each one blends seamlessly into the next.

But it wasn’t until composer Frédéric Chopin (1810-1849) that the waltz became its own musical genre. His 18 waltzes for solo piano were clearly not intended for dancing but rather for listening.

Here’s his first waltz, composed in the early 1830s:

The cheerful themes and rapid rhythms create sparkling energy, capturing the essence of elegant society. The virtuosity of the piece, however, would make it tricky to dance to!

Chopin’s Waltz in C-sharp minor is one of his most famous in the genre:

Each of the three themes captures the waltz characteristics; the beautiful melodies and standard waltz accompaniment combine with evocative, chromatic harmonies to create a beautiful piece of music.

The Romantic-era Waltz

After Schubert and Chopin, composers during the 19th century continued developing the waltz as a musical genre due to its popularity in the ballroom. Vienna, in particular, was known for its waltzes during this time because many Austrian composers embraced the spirited nature of the dance.

Here are some of the more well-known 19th-century waltz composers (both from Austria and not):

Johannnes Brahms (1833-1897)

While Brahms was living in Vienna in 1865, he wrote 16 waltzes (Op. 39) as a tribute to the city. Three versions were published a year later: the original four-hand versions as well as difficult and simplified solo versions. Here’s a video of all 16 in the duet form:

And here is his Op. 39 No. 15 for solo piano:

Johann Strauss II (1825-1899)

Strauss was known as “The Waltz King” because he was largely responsible for the popularity of the waltz in Vienna. He wrote over 400 compositions during his lifetime, and many of those were waltzes. Here are some of his more famous ones:

The Blue Danube Waltz Op. 314 (1866)
Voices of Spring Op. 410 (1882)
Emperor Waltz Op. 437 (1889)

Maurice Ravel (1875-1937)

And it wasn’t just German and Austrian composers who wrote waltzes. Over in France, Ravel wrote several waltzes in the 20th century. In 1911 he composed a suite of waltzes made up of 8 movements. Called Valses nobles et sentimentales, the set is an homage to Schubert’s waltzes nearly 100 years earlier.

La Valse, composed in 1919, is one of his most famous pieces:

Even though Ravel composed La Valse 30 years after Strauss made the waltz popular in Vienna, it still has characteristics of the sparkling dance – just mixed in with other 20th century musical ideas.

The Waltz Genre in Contemporary Music

The history of the waltz spans over centuries, and composers are still writing waltzes today. In fact, the waltz inspired one of my most recent compositions!

February (Coffee Shop Time Lapse)

In February (Coffee Shop Time Lapse), a sparkling waltz interrupts the static daydreaming (1:27):

February uses harmonic ideas inspired by Erik Satie’s Gymnopédie No. 1 (1888) to create a sense of passing time. Here’s Satie’s piece, if you want to compare:

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *