This time of year is synonymous with waltzing, with the New Year’s concert from Vienna’s Musikverein beamed to millions around the globe. To celebrate the start of 2019, Bachtrack editors Mark and Elisabeth have compiled their top ten waltzes. Up against an Austrian, Mark knew he’d battle to keep the Strauss family from occupying all ten places – restricting the selection to just five Johann Strauss II entries was a major diplomatic achievement. Happy New Year!

Click the link below to listen to our playlist on the streaming service, IDAGIO:

https://idagio.onelink.me/0uza/toptenwaltzes

 

1Johann Strauss II: Kaiserwalzer (Emperor Waltz)

Unlike Mark, I’ve waltzed to almost every Viennese waltz that has ever been written. And although I love the sheer music of them, what makes them special to me is that I associate each waltz with a particular ball, a charming dance partner or even painful blisters caused by new shoes. Most Viennese waltzes have an introduction before the actual waltzing begins – the Kaiserwalzer has a particular long one – which gives you plenty of time to get to know your dance partner. The Kaiserwalzer is full of verve, little thoughtful moments and musical gimmicks – there’s no better waltz to whirl through the ballroom! [ES]

2Tchaikovsky: The Nutcracker: Waltz of the Flowers

The Waltz of the Flowers takes place as part of the Act 2 divertissement in The Nutcracker. With its long harp cadenza, Tchaikovsky imitates the slow introduction to many a Viennese waltz and its heart-lifting melody can rival any by the Strauss family. Introduced by the horns, the main theme was used as a hook by Randy Crawford in her hit song, "One Day I'll Fly Away"! [MP]

3Johann Strauss II: An der schönen blauen Donau (The Blue Danube)

Thanks to the New Year’s Concert, The Blue Danube is without doubt the most famous waltz of all, and one of the most magnificent as well. Violin tremolos sparkle like beams of morning sunlight reflected on the rough surface of the water, horns herald a new day along the river; close your eyes and you can see children play on the river bank, distant thunderstorms, the grape harvest in the Wachau valley and the enchantment of a Viennese ball.

New Year’s survival tip: In Austria, every TV and radio station plays the Donauwalzer at midnight and we all waltz into the New Year. Make sure to stand next to the right person at 23:59 as ten minutes of waltzing can feel awfully long after a few glasses of Champagne! [ES]

4Johann Strauss II: Rosen aus dem Süden (Roses from the South)

Strauss composed this waltz in 1880, drawing on themes from his operetta The Queen's Lace Handkerchief. It’s top drawer Strauss and contains delightful melodies but it is special to me as it was to this that I was taught to waltz (after a few glasses of Grüner Veltliner too many!) [MP]

5Johann Strauss II: Wiener Blut (Viennese Blood)

There is a certain magic about Viennese waltzes that is hard to explain. It is this particular verve, those little hesitations and accelerandos that feel so natural when the Vienna Philharmonic plays them. It makes the waltzes incredibly difficult to dance to, but when you listen to them it is pure Viennese bliss! With Wiener Blut, Strauss takes you on a Fiaker ride through time, to bustling Kaffeehäuser and the grand palaces of the Austrian capital.

Wiener Blut also marked the first encounter between Johann Strauss II and the Vienna Philharmonic. Strauss had composed the waltz for a ball to celebrate the wedding of the Emperor Franz Joseph I’s daughter, Archduchess Gisela Louise Maria, and Prince Leopold of Bavaria that took place at the Musikverein. Strauss personally conducted the first performance. [ES]

6Tchaikovsky: Swan Lake: Waltz

Act 1 of Swan Lake opens with Prince Siegfried celebrating his birthday with his friends, but the festivities are interrupted by his mother who tells him that he must choose a bride at the royal ball the following day. The waltz is as carefree as the prince’s life and, as it was written for a ballet, it is a perfect waltz for beginners. [ES]

7Johann Strauss II: Wo die Citronen blüh'n! (Where the Lemons Blossom)

This isn’t one of the better known Strauss waltzes, but I love its charming string theme, as airy as a meringue. It was composed during a tour of Italy – indeed, Strauss nearly titled it Bella Italia – before naming it after a quote from Goethe's novel Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre: "Kennst du das Land, wo die Citronen blühn?" (Do you know the land where the lemons blossom?). [MP]

8Khachaturian: Masquerade, Suite: Waltz

Aram Khachaturian wrote his Masquerade as incidental music for Mikhail Lermontov’s play of the same title. He had great difficulty responding to the heroine’s line "How beautiful the new waltz is!” and studied waltzes from the early 19th century as inspiration. The resulting waltz has a darkly hypnotic impetus, helped by Khachaturian’s liking for brass and military-sounding percussion. [MP]

9Léhar: Die lustige Witwe: "Lippen schweigen, 's flüstern Geigen"

You might recognise "Lippen schweigen, ‘s flüstern Geigen" (Lips are silent, Violins whisper) from Alfred Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt where it is used as a leitmotif for Uncle Charlie and his murders. Slightly less sinister is the plot of Franz Lehár’s operetta Die lustige Witwe: due to hierarchic family reasons, Count Danilo isn’t allowed to marry Hanna, a girl from the countryside. Instead, she ties the knot with a rich banker who – luckily – dies during their wedding night. Years later, Danilo and Hanna meet again and, after the usual operetta shenanigans, they live happily ever after and waltz into the sunset singing “At each step of the waltz, my soul joins in the dance, my eager heart leaps, knocks, and pounds: be mine, be mine!” [ES]

10Ravel: La Valse

“It’s a masterpiece… but it’s not a ballet. It’s a portrait of a ballet.” With these words, Sergei Diaghilev, impresario of the Ballets Russe, dismissed Maurice Ravel’s La Valse. Composed in the aftermath of the Great War, many have seen it as an end-of-an-era depiction of Imperial Vienna, from its restless, murky opening through to its cataclysmic implosion at the end. [MP]

Wilhelm Gause's <i>Hofball in Wien</i>
Wilhelm Gause's Hofball in Wien