Saturday 18 November 2017

Classic talk: The Frenchman who waltzed like Strauss

Deft touch: Émile Waldteufel
Deft touch: Émile Waldteufel

George Hamilton

Everybody loves a good dance tune. You've only to think of the jigs and the reels that have given so much pleasure in this part of the world down all the years. It's the same whichever way you look. From the tribal set-pieces to the trendy clubs, music and movement hold sway.

As the art form evolved, so too did the dance. From the formality of the gigues, bourées, and chaconnes, things developed as society's conventions were recast, until, sometime in the mid-1800s, the waltz burst into the ballrooms of Europe.

At the heart of this, of course, was Vienna, the seat of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, where they knew a thing or two about enjoying themselves. And there, leading the way, was the family Strauss.

A star at home and abroad, Johann made the name of Strauss well known. His son, also Johann, took up the baton and it was he who became known far and wide as the "Waltz King".

Émile Lévy was born in Strasbourg in 1837. His father - like the elder Strauss - led a dance orchestra. A Jewish family, they took the Germanic name of Waldteufel (in English, "devil of the forest").

One possible reason is that they were inspired by the exploits of grandfather Lévy, an itinerant violinist well known in the wooded countryside around the city, where German was widely spoken.

Émile had an older brother, Léon, who got a place at the Paris Conservatory. That prompted the family's move to the French capital.

By the time he was 15, Émile was at the Conservatory, too. His classmates included Georges Bizet and Jules Massenet.

Highly regarded, Waldteufel's big break came when he was hired as pianist at the court of the empress Eugénie, wife of Napoleon III.

A guest at one of her concerts was the future king of England, Edward VII, who was so impressed, he had him set up with a London publisher. Waldteufel would soon be a household name.

His most famous piece - Les Patineurs, to give it its French title, though best known as The Skaters' Waltz - dates from 1882.

It's a stunning composition in so many ways. It may be a straightforward dance tune, but it acts as a tone poem as well, telling a tale in music.

Paris had suffered its most severe winter on record just a couple of years before. The River Seine had completely frozen over.

Inspired by this, Waldteufel wrote his waltz. It opens with a slow solo on the horn - the skaters stepping gingerly on to the ice - before flutes and violins engage in an up-and-down dialogue that carries on the idea that those skaters are uncertain on their feet.

But then we're off, gliding smoothly in time to the music, which just like a Strauss piece, sparkles on many facets.

No single theme, as one deftly flows into the next, giving the piece its contrasts, its light and shade.

You'll hear bells, too, as a sleigh arrives, the percussion section affirming the wintry theme. This attention to detail decorates already attractive, contrasting melodies. Waldteufel knew the value of a good tune. He was on to a winner.

Les Patineurs was one of over 250 orchestral dance pieces he composed. He also made arrangements of other composers' work, notably Estudiantina, another waltz, and España, a dance version of Emmanuel Chabrier's lively rhapsody.

Émile Waldteufel may not have dominated the dance scene to the extent that the Strauss family did, but his contributions have earned their place alongside those of the Viennese masters.

George Hamilton presents The Hamilton Scores on RTÉ lyric fm from 10am each Saturday and Sunday

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