It is the Correct Thing — to remember that the waltz-step changes every few years, and that a blunder in dancing is very like a crime.

–The Correct Thing in Good Society, 1888

That quotation is taken from Elizabeth Aldrich’s book From the Ballroom to Hell. And indeed, using the history of the waltz as one example, the attitude of genteel society in the United States—and initially in Europe—was one of disapproval, if not outright horror. But all that changed to the point that by 1885 the dance teacher Allen Dodworth could say:

We have now arrived at the culmination of modern society dancing, the dance which has for fifty years resisted every kind of attack, and is today the most popular known. From palace to hovel its fascination is supreme, and it is truly worthy of this universal love, for no other dance so fully gratifies the sense of rhythmical motion as the modern waltz with its poetic time and phrasing.

But where did the waltz come from? And how did it go—not from the ballroom to hell—but from  shepherds’ hills and Austrian wine and beer gardens to ballet and opera stages, to salons and concert halls, and in our own times, to probably every ballet class in the world, as well as to ballroom competitions?

It is pretty well accepted that the forerunners of the waltz were the Austrian ländler. These folk dances had music with regular phrasing of 16 bars in each of two sections that would be repeated. The meter was in triple time, with the first beat of every measure emphasized, just as in the familiar “oom-pah-pah” of waltzes. The ländler were traditionally mostly in diatonic major keys, but sometimes in minor too. The cadences and phrases would be very clear to help the dancers. Later on, in waltzes set for solo piano, the right hand would play the melody and the left hand would usually have a pretty regular bass note followed by two offbeat chords. But early ländler were most often heard played by a fiddle, or a small string group.

There was something more about ländler. As anyone who has heard alphorn melodies may notice, there was often a certain triadic feel to the melodies, arising from the limitation of natural harmonics, and sometimes even reminiscent of yodeling patterns. Indeed, some musicologists point to shepherds’ tunes played on alphorn or flutes as a possible inspiration for melodies that later on accompanied dancers down in the valleys.

As related by the British writer Mosco Carner in his charming little book titled simply The Waltz, a forerunner from as far back as the 14th century may have been the round dances that came to be called Deutsche (German). These were in triple time, and were danced by peasant couples in close embrace. Apparently they involved “wild hopping, stamping and throwing of the female partner.” Carner reports that the music might have been just sung, or played on a fiddle with perhaps some alpine wind instruments. They were work songs originally with strong rhythm to help manual workers, and these qualities remained when similar music was used just for dancing. Yet “other dances were of a frankly erotic nature, representing a kind of love-play in which the partners closely embraced and kissed each other.”

onward to ballrooms

The Church did not necessarily approve of such dance behavior at the time. But by the end of the 18th century—Mozart’s time—the dances as done in more urban ballroom settings became calmer. Mozart (as touched on already) composed a number of “German” dances which were in fact ländler, to be danced at social ballroom gatherings, with instrumental accompaniment.

But these dances did not stay in the Vienna vicinity for long, and the intertwinings of cultural influences can be fascinating to hear about—and to hear. For instance, there is an unusual CD titled The Waltz: Ecstasy and Mysticism with music performed by the concerto Koln and the Turkish group Sarband, contrasting 18th-century composers “Mozart the Turk” with “Dede the European,” and offering 19th-century waltzes by Joseph Lanner, who dedicated several of the waltzes to a pasha, son-in-law of a sultan. The musicians also contrast some of the 3/4 music impelling whirling dervishes with the good-humored German Dances of Beethoven, in fascinating juxtaposition.

Schubert and piano waltzes

It was not Mozart, but rather one of his pupils, Johann Nepomuk Hummel (1778-1837) who started composing such dances for piano solo. But the most beautiful short piano German Dances/Waltzes that followed were those by Franz Schubert (1797-1828). He just seemed to turn out one little gem after another, with many varied moods of expression and varying degrees of technical difficulty, but all within the traditional form of short sections with repeats. Schubert wrote his dances to be danced to as well as enjoyed informally by listeners.

Viennese-born Franz Schubert is seen as bridging Classical and Romantic eras in European music history. The twelfth of fourteen children, he was early on regarded as gifted with unusual musical talent. Young Franz sang soprano in a church choir, played the violin and piano, and started composing. By the time he was eleven, local music teachers felt there was nothing more they could teach him! For a time he himself taught in his father’s school, but as a young man followed a path very unlike that of composers who came before him: no church or court positions; no public concerts featuring himself as virtuoso performer. Instead, the main thing about Schubert was his desire—usually from early morning until mid-afternoon—to write and write and write. Apparently he was able to form works totally in his head and then write them down amazingly quickly. And somehow he subsisted in living what some consider a bohemian life (because of the lack of formal employment or sizable publishing contracts or even his own living quarters at times).

The composer’s music became known initially through informal social gatherings of friends. Soon there came to be “Schubertiades,” evenings featuring the music of Franz Schubert, held in various private homes (some of them large enough to accomodate as many as 100 guests). These salon evenings included poetry reading, performance of songs and instrumental music—followed by refreshments, perhaps charades, and yes: dancing! It seems that sometimes Schubert would be at the piano just improvising, but his formal compositions were also heard. The fact of the dancing was documented by a number of people who attended those congenial gatherings.

Schubert did not write any full-length ballet scores, but his incidental ballet music to the play Rosamunde continues to be heard nowadays. In addition to his more than 500 short dances set for piano, he composed  more than 600 songs with piano accompaniment, a number of symphonies and piano sonatas, some operas and operettas (none of them a success), sacred masses, and some extraordinary chamber music, including the C Major String Quintet written the last year of his short life. His death at the age of 31 was a devastating blow to those who had already come to love both his music and his company.

Today, Schubert’s brief waltzes and ländler are familiar to many ballet students by ear, and to students of classical piano. The most popular now may be his 34 “Valses Sentimentales” and the 12 “Valses Nobles.” But the variety of mood, tempo, and techniques found in all these short works is delightful. Some are powerful, set with rich full chords or double octaves using both hands and striking dotted rhythms. Others have single right-hand lyrical melodies accompanied by that expected regular oom-pah-pah left hand, suggesting more modest speeds. Others are exceedingly gentle. Some are grouped; others stand alone. These little waltzes are ever-fresh.

into salons, concert halls, theaters

What happened to the waltz after Schubert is that it went in three directions: as magnetic music for social dancers in both Europe and the New World; as both poetic and virtuoso piano pieces to be just listened to in private salons or public concert halls; and as ever-welcomed additions to diverse scenes in both ballets and operas. So to identify a musical piece as “waltz” is not enough. There are many kinds, performed at many tempos, with enormous differences in mood, style, harmonic richness, density of the accompaniment—and with differences in purpose.

In 1819 Carl Maria von Weber composed a concert piano piece titled Invitation to the Dance. The piece was published with a brief verbal suggestion of a visual scene or program (imagined by the composer but not intended for actual staging) of a gentleman approaching a lady and requesting a dance. It was orchestrated by Hector Berlioz, and as such was interpolated into Weber’s own opera Der Freischütz, pleasing audiences immensely and perhaps starting a trend for extended classical-style waltzes to be a part of opera performances, both to help establish some “local color,” or purely as a divertissement. (See the later essay on Diaghilev for mention of how Weber’s piece became attached to a very famous ballet and dancer.)

Then there were solo piano waltzes not intended to be danced but composed purely as salon or concert music to be listened to. One could start with Chopin, whose waltzes were subsequently used in the musical backdrop for Michel Fokine’s famous 1909 ballet Les Sylphides. Similar—in time and in their transformation into a ballet—are the Liebeslieder (Love Songs) Walzer by Johannes Brahms (1833-97), composed for piano duet and choral voices. These were set by George Balanchine for his elegantly dressed ballet dancers.

Vienna’s beer and wine gardens…and beyond

Perhaps the most interesting background about waltzes is how they came to be so popular in Vienna. First came the beer and wine garden phase, and the writer Mosco Carner told the story so well it will be quoted here at length:

The Viennese waltz comes of a low parentage. Its cradle stood in the inns, beer-gardens and “Heurigen” (taverns in which wine of current vintage is served) of early-nineteenth-century Vienna and its rural outskirts known as the Vienna Woods….These establishments, especially on Sundays and public holidays, were thronged with the lower classes of the Viennese population. Special popularity was enjoyed by the taverns situated along and near the Danube….

There was a busy traffic on the Danube, with ships and barges coming downstream…and usually carrying, with their cargo of goods, cattle and peasants, a small band of musicians who entertained crew and passengers with simple ländler, dreher, waltzes, folk-songs and popular ditties….These traveling bands also used to play in the Viennese river inns, and mostly consisted of three or four players: two violins, or a violin and a clarinet, a guitar, and as often as not a double-bass.

The traveling musicians played for people to dance as well as while people were eating and drinking, and most importantly for us, they spread the enjoyment of Viennese waltzes. Carner continues his report with some surprising statistics:

The abundance of dance places was due to the innate dance craze for the Viennese. Vienna’s population in the eighteen-thirties numbered less than half a million souls, yet during the Carnival of 1832 no less than 772 balls were given, attended by 200,000 guests, a number corresponding to nearly half the total Viennese population.

Into this cultural scene came two ambitious musicians: the violinist Josef Lanner (1801-43) and the violist Johann Strauss Sr. (1804-49). Both played in the same band, and when Lanner at the ripe age of 17 left to form his own group, Strauss went along, with the group eventually expanding to be a string orchestra and then even larger with winds and percussion—and then splitting into two groups to meet the local demand for their music. It may have been that Lanner introduced some new waltzes written by Strauss as his own. In any case, they split up and had rival musical groups after that.

Not content with local fame, Strauss took his orchestra on tour in 1837, to Germany, Belgium, Holland, France, and England. Extending not only his performances, Strauss (and also Lanner) extended the form of the waltz, adding introductions, making a grouping of waltzes, and then ending with a lengthy coda that would bring back melodies from the previous waltzes. Audiences loved it!

Now we come to the son: Johann Strauss Jr. (1825-99), who became even more famous as “the Waltz King” and composed well over 400 works during a career that spanned the most splendid era in Vienna’s history. The younger Strauss composed not only waltzes in groups; he also wrote many polkas, quadrilles, mazurkas, marches and 16 operettas, including Die Fledermaus (The Bat), which included waltzes. Among his most popular waltzes are The Blue Danube, the Emperor Waltz, Roses from the South, Tales from the Vienna Woods, Voices of Spring, and Wine, Women, and Song.  

Outstanding in the Waltz King’s works was the beauty and variety of his  orchestrations, which establish a mood immediately in the extended introductions. (For example, everybody knows The Blue Danube, which begins with such lovely string tremolos and horn sounds.) Mosco Carner observed:

Strauss’s orchestration of the waltzes, necessarily less subtle than in the introduction, is rich, colourful, and often sumptuous. To a much larger extent than either Lanner or his father he makes pointed use of the wind instruments and percussion. Short imitative passages and counterpoints in the middle parts are often given to the brass, and the woodwind are not only employed to reinforce the violin part but embellish the texture with figurations and embroideries of an almost Mozartian brilliance. Yet for all these improvements, Strauss preserves the essential feature of Viennese waltz orchestrations.

Less well-known but also pleasant are some of the pieces by the Waltz King’s brother Josef (1827-70). And the third brother Eduard (1835-1916) was known in his time as conductor of the Strauss orchestra.

for ballet and opera

Given the level of artistry intended for ballroom dances, is it any wonder that choreographers have used some of the Viennese waltzes, or that they increasingly asked their own collaborating musicians to compose new waltzes for their staged ballets? Or that opera composers would add a waltz or two into their dramatic works?

Among the ballets set to Viennese music is the beautiful Vienna Waltzes choreographed by George Balanchine in 1977 using beloved pieces by Johann Strauss Jr., Franz Lehár, and Richard Strauss. For some examples of waltzes in operas, written by their respective composers: in Puccini’s operas, there is Musetta’s waltz in La Bohème and several waltzes in La Rondine. Verdi opens La Traviata with a ballroom scene and waltz aria. Then of course there is the Waltz King’s own delight, Die Fledermaus.

Perhaps the most extensive use of the waltz in opera was for Der Rosenkavalier by Richard Strauss (1864-1949). Its first performance was in Vienna in 1911, and it has been popular ever since. The beautiful waltz themes are introduced early on and recur again and again throughout all the acts: sometimes as purely instrumental backdrop; sometimes as accompaniment for the singers; sometimes in variations meant to recall previous situations; and sometimes for people to actually waltz.

Turning to Romantic ballet, there are waltzes written by Adolphe Adam and Johann Friedrich Burgmüller for Giselle. Later on, the waltzes by Ludwig Minkus were among the attractions of his music for the ballets La Bayadère and Don Quixote (which had quicker Spanish style dances). Delibes wrote lyrical waltzes for Coppélia and Sylvia. Then as time went on, of course there was Tchaikovsky’s “Waltz of the Flowers” from The Nutcracker, and the waltz scenes in Swan Lake and Sleeping Beauty. Offenbach wrote his ballet Le Papillon choreographed by the famous dancer Marie Taglioni, and years later excerpts from his operettas were orchestrated by Manuel Rosenthal for the Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo’s famous full-length Gaité Parisienne choreographed by Léonide Massine. In a late Romantic vein, the waltzes in Glazunov’s ballet Raymonda offer superb accompaniment for both soloists and corps members.

So many diverse theatrical dances growing out of that familiar pattern of “Oom-pah-pah”! However, the harmonic frameworks could be changed—as with Ravel’s 1911 Valses Nobles et Sentimentales (titled in homage to Schubert’s collection of piano waltzes). The first ballet setting of Valses Nobles et Sentimentales was choreographed by Natasha Trouhanova to the composer’s orchestral version from 1912. It was called Adélaide, ou le langage des fleurs and was premiered at the Théatre du Chatelet with the composer himself conducting. Ravel had come up with the story line himself—having to do with how a courtesan is courted with flowers that had certain symbolic connotations (hope, sisterly affection, Platonic love, deep love, riches, forgetfulness, suicide, lasting love)—and how she rejects some and then accepts one.

Ravel’s harmonies weren’t the only thing to differ enormously from Schubert’s little waltzes. The emotional tone could change too, leaving light-heartedness behind, as in Ravel’s La Valse composed after World War I. The first setting of La Valse was by Bronislava Nijinska for Ida Rubinstein’s company. Both George Balanchine and Frederick Ashton made ballets to this music. As set by Balanchine, it can be frightening, with Death appearing as a partner, but more than that, giving the impression that civilized life relationships in general are unraveling along with the music.

Throughout the 20th century waltz music continued to be used by modern  choreographers. A sad but gracious waltz is the pas de deux setting made by Peter Martins in 1985 for New York City Ballet’s Patricia McBride and Ib Andersen, to the  orchestral Valse Triste  by the Finnish composer Jean Sibelius.

Prokofiev and Shostakovitch

In Russia, among the composers continuing to write waltzes for concert performance and ballets were Sergei Prokofiev (1891-1953) and Dmitri Shostakovitch (1906-75), whose styles were certainly different. There is a CD featuring Prokofiev’s Ballet Suite op. 110, which  immediately brings to mind such words as somber, dramatic,  tragic, fearful, poignant, and far from Schubert. Even more stressful than Ravel’s La Valse.

Both composers lived and worked under the Stalin regime—which, as Shostakovitch told his biographer at one point, resulted in bitterness that seemed to turn all life grey. Yet Shostakovitch was able to write some most cheerful music for ballets and films. (Partly forced into this as a way of earning a living because some of his more serious concert works were banned.) There is a CD of his waltzes with a few galops and polkas thrown in, conducted by the American Constantine Obelian leading the Moscow Chamber Orchestra. These performances exhibit Shotakovitch’s mastery of orchestration that in itself could establish quite varied moods over that traditional 3/4 waltz foundation. Some adjectives that come to mind are cheerful, whirling, poignant, delicate, nostalgic, lyric, kinetic, bright, and most importantly, impelling for theatrical dancers.

North and South American variants

Across the Atlantic, in the United States and Brazil, waltzes took on different auras. In the early 20th century, ragtime composers published their standard and syncopated versions of piano waltzes. Some of the very best ones are by Scott Joplin and James Scott. Most are in the straight-forward lyrical style of Viennese waltzes, but Joplin composed one that has syncopated rhythms throughout: Bethena. Later, in an imaginative jazz vein, there is the lovely Jitterbug Waltz by Fats Waller. Brazil’s outstanding pianist/composer Ernesto Nazareth (1863-1934) published a large number of beautiful waltzes, which he played for listeners in private salons and in the foyer of a fancy movie theater.

In a nostalgic look at early 20th century life, Samuel Barber’s Souvenirs, choreographed by Todd Bolender in 1955 for New York City Ballet, opens with a waltz. In Agnes de Mille’s 1942 ballet Rodeo there is a “Saturday Night Waltz” for cowboys, written by Aaron Copland. Among more informal country and western offstage examples, there is that 1946 tear-jerker “The Tennessee Waltz” with music by Pee Wee King and lyrics by Redd Stewart.

In the 21st century refined Viennese waltzes can be viewed around the globe via the telecasts of the annual Opera Balls featuring elegant young ballroom dancers as well as the Vienna State Ballet. In the U.S., traditional Viennese waltzes are often seen on television’s hit program “Dancing with the Stars,” with varying musical styles, both traditional and contemporary.

Waltz types

It seems that dancing to waltz time never stops! However, there are so many kinds of waltzes that it is difficult to put them into formal categories, except for a few. Otherwise, it seems more to the point simply to listen, to look at the scores, and try to describe them on your own terms. That said, there are a few discernible broad types, and it may be helpful to dance and musical collaborators for both studio classroom and theatrical stage to consider various qualities, typical rhythms, and other aspects.

Viennese waltz. Perhaps the best known type, popularized by the Strauss family, particularly Johann Strauss Jr., composer of The Blue Danube and  other favorites. Also many by his father, his brother Josef, and by Josef Lanner and Emil Waldteufel among others. Franz Lehár’s tunes are still loved, including the Merry Widow Waltz and his Gold and Silver. Hundreds and hundreds of orchestral pieces intended for real ballroom dancing. Johann Strauss Jr. included such music in his opera Die Fledermaus. In traditional performance, there is a slight advance into the second beat. Rather quick, and the underlying pattern of bass downbeat followed by two offbeat chords is usually rather constant. The overlaid melodies tend to be light and beautiful.

Fast light. Such as the opening scene Guiseppe Verdi’s opera La Traviata., which is labelled brindisi, actually a drinking song set in 3/8 meter. There is another such waltz featured in Gounod’s opera Romeo and Juliet. Typically, this example has a very simple melody progressing in quarter-notes. Among Broadway tunes there is “Chim Chim Cher-ee” from Mary Poppins by Richard and Robert Sherman. Ludwig Minkus wrote an attractive waltz used in both the ballets  La Bayadère and La Source.

Moderate, simple. Many Broadway show tunes fall into this category, such as “Matchmaker” from Fiddler on the Roof by Jerry Bock. Or the Carousel waltz from the show by the same name, by Richard Rodgers. These tend to be conservative in pitch range, and to progress at a calm speed mostly by quarter-notes. Going back in time, the 1891 century song by Charles K. J. Harris, “After the Ball” quickly became a hit, selling over five million copies. In the world of operettas, Jacques Offenbach wrote numerous waltzes. One was incorporated into the Ballets Russes favorite Gaité Parisienne. Among classical ballet’s waltzes are those from Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake and Sleeping Beauty.

Valse lente.  Literally, a slow waltz. Usually very lyrical and melodic, sometimes with a small range in pitch. More recent examples include Valse triste to music of the Finnish composer Jean Sibelius, in the repertoire of New York City Ballet. A number of Frederic Chopin’s waltzes are poignant and slow, such as the beginning of Opus 64 no. 2 in C sharp minor. (Though that particular one goes on to have a very rapid section.)

Hesitation waltz. Dancers pause on beats two and three.

Spanish waltz. Traditionally quite quick, and usually notated in 3/8 meter. One common rhythm is an eighth-note followed by four 16ths, all on repeated same pitch. Some notable ones occur in the 19th century ballet Don Quixote to music of Ludwig Minkus. Another suggestive character dance, notated in standard 3/4 is the “Chocolate” section from Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker.You don’t have to be Spanish to write such waltzes! Moritz Moszkowski wrote a set of Spanish Dances for solo piano that are quite attractive. And the earlier Viennese composer Emil Waldteufel wrote a whole set titled Espana.

Lyric waltz. Most often in a moderate tempo. A famous one is from Coppélia, composed by Léo Delibes. Also two waltzes in Sylvia, the second one with very flowing eighth-note melody.  Chopin’s A-flat waltz Op. 64 no. 3 for solo piano is a much-loved example. Or Tchaikovsky’s Waltz of the Flowers from The Nutcracker ballet.  Alexander Glazunov’s waltzes from Raymonda are particularly beautiful. Purely for pianists, the Brazilian composer Ernesto Nazareth wrote dozens of exquisite waltzes a century ago.

grand valse brilliante is what ballet teachers often call a ”big waltz” when they set their students to virtuoso leaps on the diagonal across the dance studio. The late studio accompanist Lynn Stanford used to get dancers going with popular show tunes such as “Lover” by Richard Rodgers. Frederick Loewe’s Waltz at Maxim’s  is another one of the type. They tend to be loud, often with dotted rhythms that lead into a strong downbeat on every second measure. Extended pitch ranges in both the melodies and the bass accompaniment. Usually “thick” accompaniment chords. A very vigorous example is Amram Khatchaturian’s waltz from his Masquerade Suite.  And then there is one that recurs throughout the Richard Strauss opera Der Rosenkavalier.

Valse brillante. Flowing virtuoso. Epitomized by the very “notey” piano pieces by 19th-century composer Frederic Chopin, as in the E-flat Grande Valse brillante  used for Les Sylphides. A piano solo in this category is the French composer Auguste Durand’s Valse in E flat. Chopin’s amazing opus 42 Waltz in A flat is extra interesting because it contrasts the steady “oom-pah-pah” with a flowing eighth-note pattern, and on top of that is a melody that is in duple time!

five-step waltz. This became a popular ballroom type in the late 19th century. Tchaikovsky has a waltz in 5/4 in his Symphony No. 6.

ragtime waltz. Most of the waltzes that the popular ragtimers wrote were intended precisely for dancing. Most are pretty straight-forward in the style of Viennese waltzes. But Scott Joplin wrote one which has a syncopated melody throughout: Bethena.

other rhythmic emphasis. André Messager created a waltz with a different feel in his ballet The Two Pigeons by tying the last beat of the first of two measures into the downbeat (making that melodically silent so the next two beats function as an upbeat feel).

pointy waltzes. Simply by departing from the smooth legato phrasing commonly heard in ballet waltzes, composers can create a totally different impression; for instance, in the staccato articulations of his Humoresque waltz, the Russian composer Shostakovitch laid out a lovely soundscape for any ballerina on pointe.

slow Western. Still popular: country and western styles. Tend to be very slow! Aaron Copland wrote his Saturday Night Waltzfor a cowboy scene in Agnes de Mille’s Rodeo.

Then there is one for musicians at their wits’ ends:  from a 19th century ballroom dance collection published in Boston, The Last Waltz of a Maniac.

notes and explorations:


Introductory quotation is from The Correct Thing in Good Society, by the Author of
Social Customs”
[Florence Marion Hall]. Boston: Estes and Lauriat, ca. 1888. As quoted in Elizabeth Aldrich, From the Ballroom to Hell (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1991) p. 155. Hers is a delightful compendium of directions for social dance in 19th century America, plus some opinions from those times regarding what was acceptable behavior—for instance in the way gentlemen should hold their partners while waltzing (and whether anyone other than their husbands should waltz with genteel women at all). The quotation here from Dodworth is on p. 21. Not only did he have his own dance school and publish a dance manual, Dodworth was also a composer.

Many books have examples of castigating references to the waltz. One quoted in the 1951 edition of Percy A. Scholes, The Oxford Companion to Music (London: Oxford, 8th revised edition) pp. 1012-13. This from Burney, about 1805:

The verb walzen, whence this word is derived, implies to roll, wallow, welter, tumble down, or roll in the dirt or mire.

What analogy there may between these acceptations and the dance, we pretend not to say; but having seen it performed by a select party of foreigners, we could not help reflecting how uneasy an English mother would be to see her daughter so familiarly treated, and still more to witness the obliging manner in which the freedom is returned by the females.

Mosco Carner, The Waltz (London: Max Parrish & Co., 1948). His account of round dances etc. is on p. 10. The extended quote is from pp. 32-34. This book was reproduced in 2018 by Forgotten Books publishers.

Another account of the rise of the waltz is in chapter 11 of Bruno Nettl, The Story of Dance Music (New York: Philosophical Library, 1947).

A unique study is Eric McKee, Decorum of the Minuet, Delirium of the Waltz: A Study of Dance-Music Relations in ¾ Time (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2012) focusing musical analysis on works by Bach, Mozart, Lanner, Strauss Sr., and Chopin.


Schubert’s dance music has been published in many editions, but a particularly nice set is the two-volume Sämtliche Tänze edited by Paul Mies, fingered by Hans-martin Theopold, and published by G. Henle Verlag in Munich, presented as the first time all of Schubert’s dances were published for piano two hands only. Included are dances titled Menuets, “Wiener Deutsche,” Ländler, Ecossaises, and Waltzes. Though the overall review by Clive Barnes is not too favorable, in The New York Times, it is interesting to read about the 1971 ballet Schubertiade choreographed for American Ballet Theatre by Michael Smuin (1938-2007), all to waltzes composed by Franz Schubert. Pianist Stefan Askenase playing Schubert dances, at typically sedate tempos. Ballet suite #2 from Rosamunde.

Martin Chusid, Schubert’s Dances for Family, Friends, and Posterity (Hillsdale, NY: Pendragon Press, 2013, Monographs in Musicology No. 16). A unique study addressing individual dances, with analysis of harmony, information about the original publications, and discussion of differences between German dances, ländler, and the pieces that the publisher titled “Walzer.” Separate sections on minuets, ecossaises, German dances, ländler, waltzes, and polonaises. Essay by Walburga Litschauer is about “Dance Culture in the Biedermeier Era.” This pertinent observation by Chusid is worth noting here:

Schubert, who was described by friends as somewhat clumsy, never danced. Furthermore, although he frequently played for friends and acquaintances in private homes, he never performed in the popular Viennese dance establishments of the time or at local taverns. [p. vii]

And Litschauer’s essay underscores these facts:

Schubert’s dance music, in contrast to that of his contemporaries, was not written for publicly accessible balls, but rather for dance entertainments held in the homes of his circle of friends. Leopold von Sonnleithner, a member of this circle, reported in his memoirs that Schubert “sometimes went to private balls at the homes of families he knew well; he never danced, but was always ready to sit down at the piano, where for hours he improvised the most beautiful waltzes; those he liked he repeated, in order to remember them and write them down afterwards.” [p. xxvi quoted in turn from Otto Erich Deutsch, Schubert: Memoirs by His Friends, trans. by Rosamond Ley and John Nowell –London, 1958, p. 121, translation amended.]

ländler in performances: A group of Austrian folk dancers with trio of musicians—and stamping, and clapping, and singing. A demonstration of the ländler, but slow and perhaps in style for more aristocratic ballrooms. To Beethoven’s music. This is a pas de deux from Rossini’s William Tell. Near the end there is a slow 3/4 that sounds like a German Dance.  Darci Kistler and Ib Andersen in the pas de deux from William Tell.  For contrast, this is Alessandra Ferri in the entire Act III ballet from William Tell.

There is a wonderful scene In The Sound of Music in which Julie Andrews and Christopher Plummer dance the landler! 20thCentury Fox released a 50th anniversary DVD in 2015.

The Waltz King, Strauss II: Vienna Ballet in New Year’s Day tribute to The Blue Danube by Johann Strauss II. For years the ballet company would always dance this waltz on the Vienna symphony’s televised New Year’s Day concerts. This is a collage of several years’ performances.  Welsh Opera. Here they are dancing waltz from Die Fledermaus,unfortunately only a few seconds. Arizona Opera waltzing. Even fewer seconds!

Léonide Massine also choreographed Le Beau Danube in 1924 to music by Johann Strauss, but as arranged and differently orchestrated by Roger Desormiere. This is just a list of the titles! Waltzes by Johann Strauss II. Vienna Orchestra’s New Year’s performance of Blue Danube conducted by Daniel Barenboim, 2009, showcasing those unique Viennese horns interspersed with young winged dancers.

Offenbach: Arthur Fiedler and the Boston Pops playing “Evening in Vienna” by Offenbach, from the ballet set later by Léonide Massine as Gaité Parisienne. Their performance of the first waltz. A b&w clip of Alexandra Danilova and Frederick Franklin waltzing in one of their famous performances of Gaité Parisienne. A later color performance of Gaité Parisienne. The waltz is near the beginning. Report on ABT production of Gaité Parisienne with costumes by Christian Lacroix, 1988 Review of the ABT production in Chicago.  This is audio recording only of Le Papillon by Offenbach. First act. Includes waltzing at several tempos. London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Richard Bonynge.


Ravel, Valses Nobles et Sentimentales, CD 10; La Valse, CD 9, both in the Decca boxed set of Ravel’s complete edition. The first work was performed by the London Symphony Orchestra under Claudio Abbado; the second, by the Orchestre symphonique de Montréal under Charles Dutoit. Other recordings of both pieces, on individual CDs.  The outstanding pianist Richard Dowling also wrote these notes about the 1912 ballet using Ravel’s waltzes, Adelaide, ou le langage des fleurs. This pianist has also been editing the piano music of Ravel. His CDs are highly recommended. In another style, Dowling performed the entire works of Scott Joplin at Carnegie Hall and recorded them for Rivermont Records. The ragtime waltzes by Scott Joplin are: Bethena, Binks’ Waltz, Augustan Club Waltzes, and Harmony Club Waltz.

For futher information about Ravel’s Adélaide see chapter 4 of Deborah Mawer, The Ballets of Maurice Ravel (London & New York: Routledge, paperback ed. 2017) pp. 125-48. For information about La Valse, see chapter 5, pp. 149-81  La Valse as performed by New York City Ballet in Berlin in 1973—Balanchine’s setting, with its lyrical beginning for three ballerinas, progressing to a pas de deux with music far removed from the early waltzes of Schubert. The music becomes increasingly threatening, and so does the dance, which adds more and more performers. Man in black entices with jewels—but beware! Film was mounted by John Clifford.

online waltzes from ballets: American Ballet Theatre’s Martine van Hamel and Patrick Bissel perform the pas de deux from Sylvia, which begins with a waltz. Conducted by Alan Barker. Trailer for New York City Ballet’s Waltz of the Flowers from The Nutcracker. Balanchine’s Liebeslieder Waltzes with  New York City Ballet in Berlin, 1977.  Duo pianists Gordon Boelzner and Dianne Children in costume so they become part of the ballet. Catch earlier dancers like Violette Verdy in her prime—beautiful! Peter Martins when young; others. Not a commercial film but lovely to see. Singers onstage too. The Rosenkavalier section (music by Richard Strauss) choreographed by Balanchine as part of his Vienna Waltzes. Suzanne Farrell and Adam Luders. New York City Ballet corps. Notice changes of tempo!  This is just the audio recording, by Herbert von Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic of Valse Triste by Sibelius. This mounting includes not ballet, but ocean scenes as well as the orchestra playing.

To get a new generation of musicians playing “Saturday Night Waltz” by Aaron Copland: the Los Angeles Youth Orchestra in 2017 conducted by Russell Steinberg.  (From Agnes de Mille’s ballet Rodeo. )

CDs featuring waltzes:  12 Waltzes and Coda, by Johann Neponuk Hummel. London Mozart Players conducted by Howard Shelley. Chandos recording mounted by NAXOS.

The CD with waltzes and German dances by Mozart, Beethoven, Lanner, Johann Strauss Sr., and the Turkish composer Dede Efendi (1778-1846) is on  Deutsche Grammophon Archiv, 2005 titled Waltz: Ecstasy & Mysticism, Concerto Köln & Sarband.

A straight-forward orchestral CD of Mozart’s late German Dances is on a Naxos CD recorded in 1989 by Capella Istropolitana under Johannes Wildner.

Moving on to Schubert, on the Telarc label there are 12 waltzes op. 18 performed by John O’Conor. (CD also includes impromptus.) Tastefully done, showing the different tempi; some strong, some gentle; most in major keys, but some minor key departures make for interest. This pianist nicely captures the different moods and dynamics. 1993.

Early in his short career, the pianist William Kapell became known for his especially sensitive interpretations of Schubert. Unfortunately he died at 31 in a plane crash, but on the BMG label there is a reissue of the waltz, ländler, and German dances that Kapell recorded. Recommended.

Brahms Liebeslieder Waltzes and Neue Liebeslieder Waltzes performed by the Robert Shaw Festival Singers with Norman Mackenzie and John Wustman, pianists, on Telarc, 1993. These are the pieces that Balanchine used for his elegant ballet.

Willi Boskovsky and Monte Carlo Philharmonic CD on EMI, but also available for online purchase by track: entire Gaité Parisienne.

Waltzes, Polkas, and Marches by the Strauss Family, on a 6-CD set issued on London/Decca label in 1997. Vienna Philharmonic conducted by its famous concertmaster Willi Boskovsky. You can also purchase single tracks online. A shorter one-disc collection of waltzes, all by Johann Strauss II, was released on Decca, from original recordings by Willi Boskovsky and the Vienna Philharmonic done in the 1960s and 1974.

Prokofiev, Waltz Suite, Pushkin Waltzes.  Tampere Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Leonid Grin. Archiv CD

Shostakovitch, Waltzes. Constantine Obelian, Moscow Chamber Orchestra. 1999 Delos.

Some notable waltzes in operas: Arizona Opera clip of Musetta’s Waltz, from La Bohème,  which is a good example of a “waltz aria,” sung rather than danced. Linda Ronstadt singing “Poor Wandering One” from the Gilbert & Sullivan operetta Pirates of Penzance. Another “waltz aria,” in a light vein.  Pavarotti sings the opening Brindisi drinking song from Puccini’s opera La Traviata, in a concert performance.

The complete opera Der  Rosenkavalier by Richard Strauss as performed by the Royal Opera, starring  Kiri Te Kanawa in the role of the Marschallin, and with Sir Georg Solti conducting, is available on Kultur DVD issued in 2004 with English subtitles.

Verdi waltzes and ballets:

The Four Seasons divertissement from I Vespri Siciliani by Verdi has a number of pleasant waltzes at different tempi, for both female and male soloists as well as for ensemble groupings. Perm Opera Ballet (from Moscow) filmed in 1996 used to be available on You Tube, but not at the present time.  Verdi wrote divertissements for six of his operas that were presented in Paris, because the management required them. Rarely seen, because usually Verdi’s operas are so long that producers do not want the added length or distraction from the musical plot to be interrupted. The costumes and performances by the Perm Ballet were quite special and gave an idea of what the Verdi interpolations were like, performed in classical ballet style.
This is an old film, 1989 of ballet from I Vespri Siciliani, starring Carla Fracci and Wayne Eagling at La Scala in Milan, conducted by Ricardo Muti. Blurry, but rare to see this at all.

An audio CD of all of Verdi’s ballet music was recorded with Jose Serebrier conducting Bournemouth Symphony on Naxos. Includes the Four Seasons ballet divertissement  with additional ballets from Otello, Macbeth, Jerusalem, Aida, and Il Trovatore.

An unusual book is Knud Arne Jurgensen, The Verdi Ballets (Parma: Instituto Nazionale Di Studi Verdianai, 1995), a specially-funded project resulting in this 368-page book. Chapters on dances in the operas Jerusalem, Nabuchodonosor, les Vepres siciliennes, Le Trouvere, Macbeth, Don Carlos, Aida, and Otello. Includes reviews of those times, plus a survey of the non-balletic dances and what the author terms “dance arias” in the operas of Verdi. Includes diagrams for the choreographies plus musical excerpts.

One might think that with a title like The Masked Ball, there would be a lot of dancing. Not. At least in the Kultur video of Opera Australia performance of Verdi’s Un Ballo in Maschera. The crucial scene is almost right away in Act III, when the plot to assassinate the king is about to be carried out. To be sure, there is a short waltz, but the cast is in such large costumes, and so many people crammed onto the stage, that they really cannot do much “dancing.” Singers are great, however! Blurry, but this is New York City Ballet in Balanchine’s Ballo della Regina from Verdi’s Don Carlo. Starring Merrill Ashley. Robert Weiss is the male soloist. After the pas de deux there is a little waltz.

types of waltzes: A demonstration of the Boston waltz. Demonstration of hesitation waltz. Demonstration of ragtime waltz. Dance of the Matadors in 3/4 time as performed by the Royal Ballet, from Don Quixote, music by Minkus.  Pretty good article on waltz, with just a list of variants, but the website is asking for additional information on most of them.


Shostakovitch’s 1930 ballet The Golden Age had as its subject soccer matches—between communists and fascists. In 1982 the Bolshoi Ballet did away with the original libretto of propaganda and was able to revive the score for The Golden Age with fresh choreography by Yuri Grigorovitch. (A DVD was released in 2017.) The dancing is quite something, and the dancers not only waltz at one point; they also do the “Tahiti Trot” to Shostakovitch’s arrangement of “Tea for Two” by Vincent Youmans.  Long, and raises questions about the challenges of overlaying a new libretto on quite specifically composed score. But still interesting to see the DVD or BluRay version on BelAir label.

The unusual memoir edited by Solomon Volkov is Testimony: The Memoirs of Dmitri Shostakovitch (Pompton Plains, NJ: Limelight Editions, 2004 edition of the work first published in 1979). It provides a chilling sense of what it was to live under Stalin. But also, he gives detailed and appreciative memoir of the composer Glazunov (who had collaborated with Petita, gone on to head the Conservatory, and became mentor to many). Among the many striking comments in Shostakovitch’s memoir is this general observation which he reports hearing from another composer [p. 65]:

Rimsky-Korsakov used to say that he refused to acknowledge any complaints from composers about their hard lot in life. He explained the position thus: Talk to a bookkeeper and he’ll start complaining about life and his work. Work has ruined him, it’s so dull and boring. You see, the bookkeeper had planned to be a writer but life made him a bookkeeper. Rimsky-Korsakov said that it was rather different with composers. None of them can say that he had planned to be a bookkeeper and that life forced him to become a composer.

It’s that kind of profession. You can’t complain about it. If it’s too tough, become a bookkeeper or a building manager. Don’t worry, no one will force you to keep at the hard work of composing. A Russian concert stage performance by a couple, to Shostakovitch waltz. With live orchestra and filmed multi-media evocation of balls from an earlier time. Nicely done!

Miscellaneous! A nice 4-hand performance of just the waltz from Samuel Barber’s suite Souvenirs, which was set as a ballet by Todd Bolender. Unfortunately no dancers online for this. The pianists are Asuka Fu and Ferran Cullel. 2014.  Bravo! A most unusual website for the Brazilian composer Ernesto Nazareth, listing all his piano compositions, and allowing downloads of the sheet music. (N.B. The harpsichord audio is not typical. Nazareth earned his living playing solo piano in salon and movie theater settings. No harpsichord!)

Johann Strauss II was invited to the World Peace Jubilee in 1872 held in Boston. He conducted an orchestra of some 2,000 musicians and among the pieces performed were his own Blue Danube Waltz and a specially composed Jubilee Waltz. See

The Last Waltz of a Maniac is from a collection of piano arrangements titled The Home Circle: Being a Repository of Music for Parlor and Drawing-Room Recreation (Boston: Oliver Ditson, 1859) This doesn’t fit any category: Patsy Cline singing The Tennessee Waltz but incongruous dancers in formal outfits!

Other online performances with waltzes:  A lovely performance of the first two of Ashton’s Five Brahms Waltzes in the Manner of Isadore Duncan. A three-minute lesson in How to Dance the Viennese Waltz, with an elegant couple demonstrating, and a BBC ballroom judge narrating. Back in time, but up-to-date! Also a contemporary evocation: the Vienna 2016 Opera Ball. There are lovely ballet waltzes performed by the men and women of the Vienna Ballet, all dressed in white. At some points Placido Domingo both sings and conducts the orchestra—and even dances during the performance of “The Merry Widow Waltz.” The most elegant location in which one could ever see waltzes in our own time. This is the 2018 Vienna Opera Ball. The professional Vienna Ballet performs to waltz by Josef Strauss. At the very end, everybody waltzes to “The Blue Danube.”  Brief history of the Vienna Opera Ball.  From the 2020 Vienna Opera Ball, a nearly 10-minute ballet starring Manuel Legris and the Vienna State Ballet, dancing to music by Offenbach. Everybody in white and quite lovely.  New York City Opera Co. performance of Franz Lehár’s opera The Merry Widow, conducted by Alexander Sander in 1996, with choreography by Sharon Haley. The entire opera in English. Overture begins with that famous waltz, with elegant couples dancing onstage. Franz Lehár (1870-1948) was a Hungarian composer, but he became a conductor in Vienna, and composed his famous opera The Merry Widow in 1905. Megan Woodard mounted her “10 Top Favorite Viennese Waltzes” from Dancing with the Stars TV program. Examples of how highly diverse styles of music are used. Tchaikovsky Waltz of the Flowers, from the Disney film Fantasia.Conducted by Leopold Stokowski.  Complete film is now available as a DVD. New York City Ballet dancers perform Balanchine’s setting of the Waltz of the Flowers.

one more set:

Robert Schumann composed a delightful set of piano pieces titled Papillons, all waltzes except for two polonaises, with titles suggesting depictions of various characters at a masked ball. These were set as a ballet by Michel Fokine for the Ballets Russes in 1914, with orchestrations by Nikolai Tcherepnin.  More recently, young choreographer Lauren Lovette talks about her setting of the much-loved Schumann, with clips of rehearsals at the 2018 Vail Festival under Damian Woetzel. Quite different from traditional ballroom waltzing, and very cheerful! Cameron Grant is the pianist. For a purely concert performance of Papillons, here is a film of Vladimir Ashkenazy. And this is Claudio Arrau’s fine interpretation, just audio.