The Waltz: Elegance combined with an erotic air
As La rondine opens, we look at the origins and appeal of the waltz and its cultural significance.
Puccini’s opera La rondine is full of waltzes. There are delicate toe-tapping ones with a solo voice, and full-blown whirling ones with dramatic pauses in the Viennese fashion and the entire company singing and dancing. What is it about a waltz that is so captivating?
The elegant, respectable and restrained gliding we associate with ‘Strictly Come Dancing’ is not how it was first viewed. The waltz grew popular in Vienna in the late 1700s and began to appear in continental dance halls. But it was a suggestive and dangerous dance in comparison to the propriety of the main shared dances in formal groups. Think of those Jane Austen period dramas with everyone in long lines – men on one side, women on the other, changing partners and everyone watching and listening to everyone else. But with the waltz the couple dancing were together, alone, and their bodies were even pressed against each other. There was suggestive physical contact and the couple could have private conversations.
Clearly, the waltz was not thought respectable and decent. On the occasion of her 18th birthday party, Princess Victoria – later Queen – wrote in her diary that ‘Count Waldstein looks remarkably well in his pretty uniform’. She wanted to dance with him, but ‘He could not dance the quadrille and, as in my station I unfortunately cannot waltz and gallop, I could not dance with him!’ This romantic and even erotic air has contributed to the mystique of the waltz. Through the 19th century it became the soundtrack for love.
The waltz also finds its way into musical comedy, where Rodgers with Hart and then with Hammerstein gave it a particular American, 20th-century twist (‘Falling in Love with Love’ and ‘Wonderful Guy’ are just two of many examples). The use of the waltz to signify romance allowed Sondheim to write the lyrics of the show title song ‘Do I Hear a Waltz?’. In other words, if you hear a waltz, then you know it must be love.
When Johann Strauss II – the ‘Waltz King’ – began writing operettas, he naturally put waltzes in them as the perfect means of combining lilting music with romance and drama. In fact, the waltz is now intrinsically associated with operetta. In Lehár’s Die lustige Witwe (The Merry Widow) the tensions and final resolution of the love affair between Hanna Glawari and Count Danilo are developed through a shared melody, the famous ‘Merry Widow Waltz’. Puccini wrote La rondine as an opera – he as very clear from the start that it was not an operetta. But something about that original commission he had from Vienna put the possibility of using the waltz into his mind. From the music Puccini wrote, it’s clear that this was an opportunity he wanted to indulge.
The appeal of the waltz has much to do with its three beats in a bar. We have two feet, so anything in threes immediately makes us move differently with more continuity, which thus leads to turning. The energy of this whirling propels dance into what feels like perpetual motion. And the music responds to this too. To listen to the main waltz section in Act II of La rondine is to experience this uplifting feeling, and be drawn into it, as are the dancers in the drama.
La rondine runs from 5 – 21 July. Tickets are on sale now.
The production is sponsored by Coutts. Generous philanthropic support was given by Mr and Mrs Christopher W.T. Johnston and The American Friends of Covent Garden.