When the waltz was introduced as a new dance to early C19 Regency England, it was regarded as something quite scandalous. Unlike the group country dances of the times when the participants touched regularly, but only fleetingly, in the waltz, the two partners danced together exclusively. Not only that, they were touching all the time.
Here’s what Lord Byron wrote at the time (anonymously) about the waltz:
Endearing Waltz! — to thy more melting tune
Bow Irish jig and ancient rigadoon.
Scotch reels, avaunt! and country-dance, forego
Your future claims to each fantastic toe!
Waltz — Waltz alone — both legs and arms demands,
Liberal of feet, and lavish of her hands;
Hands which may freely range in public sight
Where ne’er before — but — pray “put out the light.”
Methinks the glare of yonder chandelier
Shines much too far — or I am much too near;
And true, though strange — Waltz whispers this remark,
“My slippery steps are safest in the dark!”
The sexual connotations and utter impropriety of the new dance were picked up by The Times in its issue of 16.7.1816. The editorial is quoted in full in a fascinating article by Cheryl A. Wilson. Here’s a taste:
We remark 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. This is a circumstance which ought not to be passed over in silence. National morals depend on national habits: and it is quite sufficient to cast one’s eyes on the voluptuous intertwining of the limbs, and close compressure of the bodies, in this dance, to see that it is far indeed removed from the modest reserve which has hitherto been considered distinctive of English females.
Moral outrage notwithstanding, dancing the waltz rapidly became a craze, sweeping across the country from the Court through to every town. Wilson points out that unlike the line dances of Jane Austen’s time, the waltz democratised balls and other meetings. Line dances had a hierarchy of participants, the waltz had none. Such a high demand to learn the new dance meant dancing masters had to add another string to their bow.
And some composers were quick to jump on the bandwagon, writing many, many waltzes, and other music for dances. I’m going to look at couple of our early printed scores by Johann Strauss I, and Joseph Lanner, both of whom seized the musical and commercial opportunities offered.
Johann Strauss I Mittel gegen den Schlaf, op. 65 (publ. 1833)
If you get lost, like me, in the myriad Strausses who all wrote dance music, this Johann Strauss is the father of the clan. His music is now less well known than his sons’, apart from the Radetzky March. In fact, during his lifetime, there was intense competition between him and one of his sons, the ‘other’ Johann Strauss. As perhaps you might expect, the music was published in Vienna (Wien) by Tobias Haslinger, publisher of Beethoven and Schubert, as well as being a composer himself. Notice that it isn’t any old waltz that’s being published. Instead, it has a separate, distinctive title, the better for people to remember and ask for specifically when they came to buy sheet music. This is music as business.
Here’s the first page with its lively opening to get the dancers’ attention, followed by a quieter slow section as they get ready for the waltzes which follow over the page.
Joseph Lanner Victoria waltz, op. 138 (publ. 1839)
Strauss and Joseph Lanner were competitors – both in Vienna, and further afield. The two men conducted their own dance orchestras and composed a staggering amount of music to keep them, and their fans, occupied. Apparently the dancing public in Vienna were split, depending on which composer they favoured, rather like football supporters. Strauss undertook foreign tours, so he had a better profile abroad, though you wouldn’t have known that from the busy front cover pictured above with 43 titles by Lanner listed.
Lanner’s British publisher, Robert Cocks, saved himself money by producing a generic front cover which also then advertised all the other publications which could be had from the same source. At the foot of the cover, Cocks placed the following statement:
The fact of them being Lanner’s exclusive publisher, didn’t stop Cocks from also advertising those of Strauss’ works that he published, right at the bottom. The piece we have by Lanner is number one in the list.
This waltz may have been ‘expressly composed for, and very humbly dedicated to’ the young, recently crowned Queen Victoria, but apparently she didn’t dance the waltz at all. Wilson cites a source as saying:
Queen Victoria regretted as a young woman that she could not fully participate in this fashionable new dance as it was considered undignified for the Sovereign to dance in the arms of a subject …
Her subjects were not so constrained. I shall return to this subject in the future as we have plenty of nineteenth-century dance music.