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“Unfortunately not by me”, wrote Brahms next to a few bars he had noted down on a napkin. The musical idea that made him so envious was the waltz An der schönen blauen Donau by Johann Strauss II. Of course, Brahms had nothing to be ashamed about: he found his very own voice for his sung Liebeslieder waltzes and could confidently risk being called “an ass if our Liebeslieder do not give pleasure to some people”.
Brahms was in good company with his admiration of Strauss. Ferruccio Busoni composed his Tanzwalzer “while walking in the street, prompted by waltz sounds coming from inside a coffee house”, and dedicated it to the memory of Johann Strauss. Little is left here of the harmless Ländler from which the ballroom dance evolved. Busoni’s waltz boasts grace and the typical verve as well as monumental orchestration. In its melancholy passages, a nostalgic farewell to the glorious era of the waltz shines through. In Richard Strauss’s Rosenkavalier, the dance also becomes a cipher of past times in a particular way: the opera is set in the Austria of empress Maria Theresa, in a time when the waltz had not yet been invented – a wonderful anachronism.
While the waltz in Tchaikovsky’s ballet Swan Lake is eminently danceable and the same can be said of Berlioz’s ball scene waltz from the Symphonie fantastique, choreographing the second of Rachmaninov’s Symphonic Dances would be much more difficult in view of the great changes in tempo. And any attempt with Ravel’s La Valse would be downright dangerous: a Strauss-like waltz that builds up into such a frenzy, that at the end it becomes a “deadly whirlpool” (Ravel).