Monday, November 2, 2009

D779n13 and dancing

In Schubert's major published collections of dances, the only piece to bear an affect label--apart from the occasional dolce in early sets--is D. 779 no. 13 (zart), but because there is no extant holograph, we cannot be sure the label is actually his.

I have noted several times already that this waltz has a distinctive design. All the numbers of D. 779 are in small two-reprise forms of either sixteen or twenty four bars; the A Major Waltz is thirty eight bars (18 + 20). The first reprise would be eight bars if it had a repeat sign, but the repetition of the first reprise is written out to simplify the overlap of the ending and return of the opening phrase; the introduction adds two additional bars. The second reprise would be sixteen bars, but Schubert's abrupt harmonic shifts oblige him to smooth things over with analogues to the introduction, adding two bars to each eight-bar phrase.

Thus, there is tension between this waltz as music for dancing and as a small-scale piece for listening. Like the peculiar scherzo-like pieces in the posthumous Letzte Walzer (D. 146)--most of which were composed not as waltzes but rather as minuets or scherzi with trios--the A Major Waltz threatens to burst the boundaries of its genre on the scale of the individual waltz, just as Weber's Invitation to the Dance and the concert waltzes of Chopin and others broke the boundaries of the functional dance environment and moved the waltz to the salon recital and, eventually, the concert hall.

Eric McKee argues that it is problematic to use this shift as an excuse to cut off these dances from their social origins and treat them merely as autonomous artworks (155) -- that is to say, he disagrees with Margaret Notley (see the score post). Although Chopin began to introduce non-dance elements into his waltzes after 1830 (when he left Warsaw), still "many of [his] Viennese and Parisian waltzes are eminently danceable, and the distinction between functional and stylized was largely a matter of how they were used in their social context" (121).

The A Major Waltz does remain invested in the social culture of dancing (despite its hypermetric peculiarities); to go even farther, more than any other waltz of the early 1820s, it is easily heard as a miniature portrait of a couple dancing. (This again follows McKee, who argues that Chopin's waltzes are "musical visions of the dancers on the ballroom dance floor" (122) and that the composer tends to focus his musical gaze, as it were, on the woman (141).)

Schubert did not have Chopin's ability, gained from his own experience, "to translate [dancers'] bodily motions into an artistic musical vision" (McKee, 121), but from everything we know about Schubert's extensive activities as an improviser for social dancing, we can assume a similar skill from him even if he did not dance himself.

The bass figures provide the necessary metric contexts, and the two "empty" bars (1-2) depict the dancers setting themselves and internalizing meter and tempo. The two upper voices are continuously paired, soprano and alto, leader and follower, mirroring each other's figures in the two-bar pattern of the waltz step (in the graphic below, "W" is "woman," "M" is "man," "L" and "R" are left and right foot, respectively, and "p" is the pivot made without a new step). What we hear once these voice leading parts acquire voices, as it were--once they become agents or personae--is what we might see in the valse à trois temps, a common waltz figure known before the turn of the century and common through the 1830s (Aldrich 1991, 19-20; Aldrich 1997, 134; McKee, 123-4.): not simply alternation of figures, but, in the eighth-note gestures, the waltz's trademark circling or whirling.

And what we sense is not so much desire as it is the piquant charm of sublimated desire (flirting, in a word): two persons in a social setting accept one another as partners and dance. One would normally dance with a number of partners through an evening in, say, a house ball, but it is clear from statements in contemporary sources that a couple's sexuality was always a potential diversion of the dance from its social purpose. (For additional context and description, see my discussion of D779n13 and dancing in Neumeyer 2006, 217-220.)

The A Major Waltz, under those terms, might even be taken as a portrait of a couple in love and of the power relations that obtained in their intimacy during the era at hand. The effect would be very like the one David Gramit describes as arising near the end of Schubert's song "Seligkeit" (D. 433), whose Ländler rhythms and strict four-bar phrase design at first seem "allegorical-a symbol of worldly pleasure standing in for heavenly ones." In the final strophe, however, the poem's narrator reveals his willingness to abandon heaven for the favors of his earthly lover; thus, "what we initially hear like a dance turns out to be dance itself; the hoped-for pleasure is not spiritual but embodied" (222; his emphasis). (A similar use was cited by Hoorickx in "Hänflis Liebeswerbung," D. 552, but in this case a deutscher (D. 972 no. 3) is quoted intact as the introduction. Hoorickx also notes that in the same year (1817) Schubert quoted all of the Cotillon, D. 976, as the second theme in the finale of the Violin Sonata, D. 574.)


Aldrich, Elizabeth. "Social Dancing in Schubert's World." In Raymond Erickson, ed. Schubert's Vienna, 119-40. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1997.

Aldrich, Elizabeth. From the Ballroom to Hell: Grace and Folly in Nineteenth-Century Dance. Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1991.

Gramit, David. "Between Täuschung and Seligkeit: Situating Schubert's Dances." Musical Quarterly 84/2 (2000): 221-37.

Hoorickx, Reinhard van. "Schubert's Reminiscences of His Own Works." The Musical Quarterly 60/3 (1974): 373-88.

McKee, Eric. "Dance and the Music of Chopin: The Waltz." In Halina Goldberg, ed. The Age of Chopin: Interdisciplinary Inquiries, 106-61. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2004.

Neumeyer, David. "Description and Interpretation: Fred Lerdahl's Tonal Pitch Space and Linear Analysis," review-article, Music Analysis 25/1-2 (2006): 201-30.