For old long since

New Year’s Day brunch with my in-laws: bibimbap and duk gook—according to Korean tradition, the latter is said to make you one year wiser. (Not likely in my case, but a man can dream.) Unlike Christmas traditions, which seem to get more homogenized every year (well, except for Krampus), New Year’s traditions persist in their quirky glory. You have your Hogmanay in Scotland, the Mummers’ parade in Philadelphia, crazy Polar Bear Clubs in northern climates, excesses of football (both kinds) on both sides of the Atlantic, etc. And my favorite: Strauss waltzes in Vienna. So I put on some Strauss while my lovely wife and I chopped ingredients for the bibimbap.

I’ve loved Strauss waltzes as long as I can remember. And one set of them is one of the reasons I became a composer: the Kaiser-Walzer, op. 437. Mercy, there’s a lot going on in this piece. In the first place, it starts off in 4/4 time, which I always thought a nice pre-surrealist touch. (Ceci n’est pas une valse.) Then there’s a sly bit of thematic transformation when you go from 4/4 to 3/4—when this:
turns into this:
But for me, the magic moment is in the second waltz. It starts off:
At the next phrase, Strauss could have just repeated this motive. But instead, he changes the opening harmony from major to the relative minor.
All he does is drop the root of the chord a third, and it’s like the moon comes out from behind the clouds and you can suddenly see for miles. I’ve ripped off this little trick in one way or another more times than I could list here, and it always works—although it’s never quite as effective as when Strauss does it.

My fondness for this turn of phrase goes a long way towards explaining why I eschew exact repetition as much as I do (even when I’m trying not to)—once you’ve had the rug pulled out from under you by such a simple harmonic switch, you start to see every possibility of repetition as a chance for variation. The thematic transformation, too; each event becomes an opportunity to turn your listening ear in a direction you weren’t quite expecting.

Music doesn’t have to work this way, of course—repetitive music from Renaissance dances to G&S to Minimalism can cast wonderful spells of its own—but it’s what I tend to gravitate towards, and it’s why I don’t find it cognitively dissonant to go from Strauss to Schoenberg. For that matter, neither did Schoenberg; he knew a kindred developing-variation spirit when he heard one, and among his works are a few ingenious arrangements of Strauss waltzes—you can listen to his chamber version of the Kaiser-Walzer at the Schönberg Center website. I wouldn’t go so far as to call Strauss a proto-Expressionist, but it’s remarkable how much of a piece with the rest of Schoenberg’s works the Waltz King can sound when the music is boiled down to its bare essentials. The surface is all charm and delight, but at their shifting, whirling core, those Strauss waltzes may have had an inkling of the dizzying chaos of the modern world.

One comment

  1. Matthew — if you have the German, you might enjoy looking at Dieter de la Motte’s _Harmonielehre_. The 1992 edition includes an appendix dealing specifically with the Viennese style, “Der Wiener Klang”. All those ninths…

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