Tuesday, July 06, 2004

By Strauss - Coda

In my post on Strauss's Emperor Waltz I mentioned an article on this piece by David Hamilton. I finally found the article, "The Secret Life of a Waltz": it's in the October 1975 issue of High Fidelity and was also included in the book High Fidelity's Silver Anniversary Treasury, which includes other memorable articles like Conrad L. Osborne's "A Plain Case for the Golden Age," Milton Babbitt's "Who Cares if You Listen?" (on the idea that advanced modern music is a specialized discipline, like advanced mathematics), H.C. Robbins Landon's "A Pox on Manfredini" (on the '50s vogue for second-rate baroque music) and the totally incomprehensible "Glenn Gould Interviews Glenn Gould About Glenn Gould." Well worth picking up a used copy, just to get a taste of what was the best music magazine in America, and probably the world.

Here's an excerpt from Hamilton's analysis of the Emperor Waltz, writing about the march introduction:

The first sounds we hear in Johann Strauss's Emperor Waltz are surely those of marching, rather than dancing, feet. The steady alternation -- one, two, one, two -- of soft string chords leads to a modest tune, its lightly military rhythm underlined by the rustle of the snare drum. Four bars in the woodwinds are answered by a pendant in the violins, then repeated in a slightly fuller setting (with the merest soupcon of a martial gesture from the trumpet), answered by a different pendant. Indubitably a march, but on a very special scale: perhaps a bird's-eye view of the parade ground, or toy soldiers at drill -- the specific metaphor doesn't really matter, rather the sense of distance and of proportion that it conveys.

Two bars of vamping trumpet and snare drum lead to another tune, still tiny and cheerful, not unrelated, in its trills and general shapes, to what has gone before. Then a fuller sound -- a throbbing in the bass, melody in strings, horns and bassoons -- transforms the initial march tune into something broader, more sweeping. Insistent fanfares urge it into a crescendo. Now the original march is close upon us, in the full splendor of C major, and its pendant swings down proudly in the violins before the putative marchers move away, fading into quiet plucked-string sounds and eventually leaving behind only an echo of rhythm in the snare drum -- over which, however, our ears surely supply the remainder of the melody.

The point of the article is to show how much is going on, in terms of musical craftsmanship, even in a piece of so-called "light" music, and how much goes into a good performance of it. As Hamilton writes: "Light music is not merely less well-made 'heavy' music, but music with an entirely different purpose, crafted (at its best) with equal finesse. It's worth keeping this in mind -- not so that we will treat light music more solemnly, but so that we should widen our perceptions, not miss any of its special distinctions."

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