Let's do some word-association: I say "waltz", and you say - what? Let me guess: "quaint"; "graceful"; "old-fashioned"; "something my grandmother would enjoy"; "refined", and so on. Pretty close to the mark?
Ah, but here is where we encounter our old friend the Theory of Relativity. It's all about context, dear readers. Let me regale you with some nineteenth-century descriptions of this "refined, quaint" old dance.
- "But when (a male dancer) put his arm around her, pressed her to his breast, cavorted with her in the shameless, indecent whirling-dance of the Germans and engaged in a familiarity that broke all the bounds of good breeding - then my silent misery turned into burning rage." (from Sophie von La Roche's novel Geschichte des Frauleins von Sternheim)
- "...an orchestra from which emanate those seductive siren tones, the waltzes, which, like a tarantulas' sting, incite the young bloods to riot. ...In Bacchanalian abandon the pairs waltz; joyful frenzy is on the loose; no god checks it. The couples hurl themselves into the maelstrom of gaiety." (a description of an evening's dancing at Vienna's Sperl dance hall)
- "A young maiden, lightly clad, throws herself into the arms of the young man. He presses her to his breast with such vehemence that they soon feel the beating of their hearts and their heads and feet begin to spin; that is what is known as the waltz." (Description by Madame Genlis, a nineteenth-century writer on etiquette)
See? Context is everything. This was the original "dirty dancing". Every generation since has cut loose with its own version of a scandalous dance resembling public making-out. Consider this description of the 21st-century phenomenon known as freak dancing: "A teenage boy dances behind his winter-formal date, hands on her hips, thrusting his pelvis against her while she hitches up her satiny gown and bends at the waist. Another couple dance facing each other, their bodies enmeshed and their hips gyrating in a frenzy. (Los Angeles Times, 2006)
Everything old is new again.
Last week we explored the societal changes in Vienna producing the culture that made a mania for waltzing possible: the decline of abstract concert music in the Biedermeier period; the repression of human rights and civil liberties under Metternich's regime; the cholera epidemic of 1832; and so on. The fact is, we in the United States went through a similar experience not so long ago.
Just as the Viennese Biedermeier culture was in reaction to the traumas of the Napoleonic Wars and the machinations of Metternich, Americans were suffering a lot of post-traumatic stress disorder of our own following the Great Depression of the 1930's and the horrors of World War II. How did we respond to our adversity? Look at our TV sit-coms of the 1950's and early '60's: Father Knows Best, The Donna Reed Show, Andy Griffith, I Love Lucy, and so on. The world depicted in these shows expresses the same escapism, the same "cozy domesticity and denial" of the early 19th-century Viennese. Perfect little homes and wifes and husbands, with the worst problem being Junior skipping school. What about dancing? Did a guy named Chubby Checker come along and create a national craze among young people with his "scandalous" hip-gyrating dance called The Twist?
Why, yes he did. And it became the same phenomenon as Vienna's obsession with the waltz. Everything old is... you get the idea.
So: here's a fun way to observe how history loves to repeat itself. Let's meet the "rock stars" of 19th-century Vienna; that succession of waltz composers who fed the public's insatiable appetite for "oom-pah-pah", and find their 20th-century counterparts.
|Josef Lanner: C'mon, baybee, let's do the waltz!|
|Johann Strauss, Sr.: He weren't nothin but a hound-dog|
|Johann Strauss, Jr.: waltzes go global|
And it's those qualities which inhabit every bar of Die Fledermaus.
Next week: why did this most popular of waltz kings find his great waltzing operetta playing to half-empty houses when it opened in 1874? Be prepared for a faceful of irony and paradox.
My book THE OPERA ZOO: SINGERS, COMPOSERS AND OTHER PRIMATES is available from Kendall Hunt Publishing. Order online or by phone from customer service: 1-800-344-9034, ext. 3020.