From Mozart to the Danube.
This page contains a brief, illustrated history of the development of the waltz from its 18th century beginnings to the appearance of Johann Strauss II's Blue Danube.
All of the "facts" on this page have been culled in about five minutes from internet sources by me. I am not an historian or a musicologist (... or a musician ... or a writer ... or a web designer) so everything here should be taken with a very large pinch of salt. Do not base your thesis on this!
The waltz is descended from German and Austrian country dances. The migration to the ballroom started in the 18th Century with the appearance of Deutsche Tänze. Musically, these are little more than speeded up Minuets and Trios, although the dance itself was considerably less formal.
Mozart and Haydn, amongst others, wrote sets of Deutsche Tänze. Here is a set by Mozart dating from 1790.
The second major root of the waltz is the Landler. This is a country dance that migrated to the beerhalls and taverns in Vienna and then later became more respectable. It is slower than a waltz and shows its rustic origins, but at least you got to hold your partner. It remained popular till the mid 1830's but was largely supplanted by the waltz by then. There are later ländler but they are pretty much novelties. The "waltz in the style of a landler", a waltz with rustic tunes, had its devotees including Johann Strauss II.
Here is a set by Joseph Lanner dating from 1830
The Congress of Vienna after the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815 provided a boost in publicity for the waltz as representatives of Europe's heard the waltz played in an authentic way and liked what they heard. At this time the waltz was still very primitive as typified by this piece by Joseph Wilde, a prominent dance composer of the day.
The chain of waltzes has no introduction and a perfunctory coda and are all in this same key with only minor excursions into others.
Michael Pamer was a popular composer of dances in the period after the Congress. He directed the dances at the Sperl ballroom. His music has largely fallen into obscurity, probably because he dates from just before the major boom of the 1830's. He is remembered today for having in his orchestra two teenage string players named Johann Strauss and Joseph Lanner, although not at the same time.
His waltzes are typical of the period. Simple and charming - and all in the same key! This set dates from 1820.
This is a fairly early waltz by Joseph Lanner. In structure, it is little different from the Wilde and Pamer waltzes above but is light years away in terms of melodic and harmonic writing.
Lanner was lucky in that he was coming into his own just as the waltz boomed. An improvement in printing techniques and the social changes of the times meant a rising middle class could buy cheap, printed piano scores of the new dances, aggressively promoted by Viennese publishers such as Haslinger and Mechetti, and could afford to buy the piano on which to play them.
In 1825, Lanner's "Vice Conductor" left the orchestra, taking some of the musicians with him, to form his own orchestra. There are colourful descriptions of fights in the ballroom etc., but the parting seems to have been more or less amicable and pre-planned. Certainly, Lanner soon had a waltz ready to mark the occasion.
Two years later Strauss had made enough of a name for himself to start attracting the attentions of publishers. This waltz is his first published piece, and very much gives a promise of what is to come.
By 1836, the date of this waltz, Joseph Lanner's star had risen considerably as had the ambition shown in his compositions. In 1829 he had gained an appointment as a director of music for the court balls. His small orchestra had been enlarged to about 30 players including four trumpets, two of which were early valve instruments. This very much defined Lanner's "sound" at this period and shows itself in this waltz. The scale of the introduction and the sophistication of the melodic and harmonic writing is a big step up from his work of five years earlier. Even better was to come.
In 1838-9, Johann Strauss undertook a tour of Europe. Both Strauss and Lanner had made short excursions from Vienna, but this one was on a much larger scale. It might be said to be the first instance of a pop band going on tour, staying at the best hotels and living in some style. Strauss may not have made much money from it but the publicity value was enormous, giving the Strauss name an identity and reputation that was to last for the rest of the century. He caused a sensation wherever he went. It was an incredible effort, considering the lack of anything resembling a modern transport system.
This waltz was written in Paris and contains a tune that was still banned in many part of Europe.
In the meantime, Lanner was content to remain in Vienna, having established a reputation that allowed his music to be played at the highest level of society. His music developed apace. This waltz was written for the court balls and if the introduction is still Rossini like, the waltz itself is beginning to show signs of what it will later become, thanks in no small part to Lanner.
There was competition for Strauss and Lanner in Vienna as the demand for dance music outstripped supply. Philipp Fahrbach had worked for both Strauss and Lanner, and would continue to be associated with Strauss until that composer died. Fahrbach would go on to write some impressive music for his own orchestras later in his career but even in 1840 was capable of turning out a very serviceable waltz.
The rapid rise in popularity of the waltz created a demand for dance orchestras throughout Europe. In the days before recordings there was simply no other way for the latest music to be heard. Consequently, most major cities had their own dance orchestras and there were opportunities for other composers to make careers writing and performing Viennese style music. The music varies in quality and rarely reaches the standard of the great Viennese composers. It has mostly fallen into oblivion, with the exception of some one hit wonders. Some don't even manage that status. Joseph Labitzky had a very successful career throughout Europe, but his music is rarely performed.
In the last three years of his life Lanner wrote music that took the waltz to another level. The degree of sophistication in these waltzes would not be surpassed until the golden age of Josef Strauss and Johann Strauss II, two decades later.
This is Lanner's waltz with the highest opus number, although I think Die Rosensteiner Op. 204 was written later. Lanner's masterpiece, Die Schönbrunner, is elsewhere on the site. I think this piece runs it close, and some of the melodic writing is better here. The orchestration has some very nice touches.
Less than two years after Joseph Lanner's death, Johann Strauss I's dominance of the Viennese dance scene received a challenge from the unlikely direction of his son. After a dazzling triumph with his first concert, Johann Strauss II made a reasonable start as a dance band leader, without really impacting on his father's popularity.
This is his first published waltz, and if it is a long way to the Blue Danube it has a style of its own, owing nothing to Strauss's father.
The year 1853 saw the debut of Johann Strauss I's second son, much against his will.
Initially a reluctant composer, Josef Strauss developed into perhaps the best of the waltz composers. Lacking his brother's charisma and flair, Josef's music is often quite serious for what is, after all, a dance. The quality of the late works is unsurpassed, however.
This waltz shows the composer finding his feet, much influenced by his brother but nevertheless individual.
The second notable debut of 1853 was that of Joseph Lanner's son August. His music is largely forgotten today owing to his having made a poor career move by dying at the age of 20. Between his debut and death he published 32 pieces (33 if the March Op. 10 is not mythical) of astonishing maturity.
It is not inconceivable that Lanner would have provided stiff competition for Johann Strauss II if he had lived to develop his style.
Also in the 1860's, the young Carl Michael Ziehrer was being promoted as competition for the all-conquering Strauss organisation. Although initially derided by Johann Strauss II, Ziehrer would develop into the major challenger to the Strausses, and by the 1880's and 1890's would become a thorn in their sides.
This is an early waltz but it certainly shows the potential.