Emperor Waltz (arr. Schoenberg)
February 12, 2023 – Gloria Chien, piano, Benjamin Beilman and Alexi Kenney, violins, Milena Pajaro-van de Stadt, viola, Mihai Marica, cello, Yoobin Son, flute, Pascual Martinez-Forteza
On November 23, 1918, in Vienna, Schoenberg founded the Society for Private Musical Performances. For slightly more than three seasons, the Society presented new works in thoroughly prepared performances for an audience of card-carrying members, many of them his friends and students. Critics were not allowed, nor applause or expressions of disapproval. The repertoire naturally included some of his own works, though he refrained from programming any of them until the second season. The composers whose works were performed most frequently were Max Reger (34 works) and Claude Debussy (26). Other composers who figured prominently were Berg, Webern, Bartók, Ravel, Scriabin, Mahler, Stravinsky, R. Strauss, Busoni, Szymanowski, Hauer, Zemlinsky, and Suk.
Orchestral works had to be transcribed for performing forces that the Society could manage—two- or four-hand piano, or chamber orchestra consisting of piano, harmonium, flute, clarinet, string quartet, and, occasionally bass, percussion, or other added instruments. Though Schoenberg sometimes assigned the work of transcribing to his students, he made many of the arrangements himself.
The Society was losing money, and so on May 27, 1921, Schoenberg and his colleagues presented a benefit concert with new arrangements of four Strauss waltzes—among them the Emperor Waltzes—followed by an auction of the scores. The program listed the following performers: Eduard Steuermann, piano; Alban Berg, harmonium; Rudolf Kolisch and Arnold Schoenberg, violins 1, Karl Rankl, violin 2; Othmar Steinbauer, viola; and Anton Webern, cello. Unfortunately, the Society had to fold that December, but in its three years the Society had presented 154 works, some with multiple performances, in 117 concerts!
To turn to the original composer of the Emperor Waltzes, Johann Strauss II was originally discouraged in a musical career by his father who ran a celebrated dance orchestra in Vienna. Eventually, however, it was Johann Strauss II who achieved international recognition as “the waltz king.” In 1888 he was inspired to write two different compositions in his capacity as “imperial court ball music director” for the jubilee celebrating Franz-Joseph’s fortieth anniversary as emperor. The first, the Emperor’s Jubilee Waltzes, op. 434, is rarely heard today, while the Emperor Waltzes, op. 437, has proved to be one of Strauss’s most enduring and popular works.
Most of Strauss’s great waltzes stem from the 1860s, including his most well-known On the Beautiful Blue Danube. The present Emperor Waltzes as well as the Voices of Spring, however, were written two decades later when he was concentrating more on operettas than independent dances pieces. He did include waltz sequences in his operettas, of which Die Fledermaus (The Bat) and The Gypsy Baron achieved the greatest success and renown.
The set of Emperor Waltzes finds itself equally at home in the concert hall as in the dance hall. The work is introduced by a quiet march—a bit Mozartean in style, orchestration, and trills—in which Strauss previews the theme of the first waltz and builds an impressive climax that subsides in a cello solo. The waltz proper is a tender, lilting affair, leading off a string of four charming waltzes. The third is said to recall Franz-Joseph’s military career in its second half, and the last constitutes a ländler (Austrian folk dance in triple meter, precursor to the waltz). The lengthy coda, which again highlights the solo cello, recalls and develops themes from the first and third waltzes. The final reminiscence of the first theme is tinged with an elegant nostalgia before the final flourish.
© Michael Parloff