When Composers Stopped Dancing

Brahms and waltzing couple © Lodewijk Muns 2019, Johannes Brahms with waltzing couple from Edward Muybridge's zoopraxiscope collection (1893), LoC ID ppmsca.05949
Click to see the couple waltzing.

Mozart danced. Haydn (I suspect) danced. Beethoven didn’t, as far as I know. That may have been a matter of temperament. He did write minuets, Ländler and contredanses for the dancing hall, as did his elder colleagues. Even if music for dancing has a somewhat marginal place in these composers’ oeuvre, rhythmic dance patterns are pervasive in their more substantial works.

Several decades earlier, Bach may have danced, but I’ve seen no reference to it. He was well acquainted with the French dance styles he used in his suites and partita’s. And dance instruction was common in those days among the German middle class, a specialist study tells us. But the question whether the Bach family danced themselves isn’t asked. It’s a charming image: nearly a dozen sons and daughters, plus several student lodgers, pushing the chairs aside after dinner and performing a few gavottes and polonaises to papa’s improvisation on the harpsichord. But to my knowledge it is completely unfounded.

Given the widespread practice of social dancing in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, it is likely that most composers of that era shared in that activity. But around 1850 this seems to have come to an end. I’m merely speculating – the subject of the ‘classical’ composers’ dancing experience seems by and large to have eluded scholarly attention.

Sentimental Bathwater

While Beethoven stands apart as a (putative) non-dancer, an exception of a different kind is Schubert, who excused himself from the dance floor by tirelessly improvising waltzes on the piano to accompany his friends’ hopping around. Some of these improvisations became well-known in written form. In one famous-notorious instance, the waltz published in 1821 as op. 9 nr. 2 achieved genuine hit status. It contributed nothing to his fame or income: under its unauthorized nickname Trauerwalzer (Mourning Waltz) it circulated anonymously (and sometimes under the profitable name of Beethoven). A touch of sadness may have added to its aura, and in many respects the story of Schubert’s most popular waltz is similar to that of Weber’s so-called dying thought (Dernière pensée de Weber), actually from a collection of waltzes by C.G. Reissiger. But unlike Reissiger’s wooden tune (in the same key of A flat), Schubert’s most popular waltz may still exercise its somewhat melancholy charm.

The young Robert Schumann gratefully used the Trauerwalzer (more appropriately titled Sehnsuchtswalzer, Waltz of Longing) as a theme for his own improvisations. But he also danced himself, and his adventures on the dance floor fluctuated with his love affairs. He later seems to have developed a distaste for the Sehnsuchtswalzer, “in which a hundred girlish feelings have taken a bath” (den Sehnsuchtswalzer, in dem sich schon hundert Mädchengefühle abgebadet). By that time (1836) he had become involved with the teenage Clara Wieck, and dancing continued into their married life. (It has been said that Schumann danced like a bear, but I can’t remember the reference, so don’t take my word for it.)

The piano waltzes, mazurkas and polonaises of his contemporary Chopin are definitely not meant to be danced to, though sometimes they were used for the purpose. What they offer is rather, like Schumann’s dance pieces, an image of a dance, a highly particular vision of dancing. Dancing to them would at best be an illustration of the music – a reversal of roles. But they are rooted in the physical experience of the dance, as Chopin was a “rather proficient” dancer himself.

The Musical Body

Schubert is still an inspiration in Brahms’s Waltzes op. 39, for four hands on one piano (1865). As with Beethoven, I find it hard to imagine Brahms waltzing around, holding his partner in loose embrace. Both composers seem too serious and unsociable. The deeper cause might be similar for both: a traumatic youth and a thoroughly spoiled relation with the other sex.

These composers’ particular attitudes do not explain why composers generally seem to have stopped dancing. Part of the explanation might be the different standard set by Chopin’s generation. While Schubert produced music-for-dancing that is musically not ambitious, but can be enjoyed (in moderate doses) as chamber music, his successors transferred dance music to the domain of virtuoso chamber music. At the same time Strauß Sr. and Jr. produced music for the dance hall of superior quality – the first ‘light music’ specialists to achieve classical status. Entertainment and art become increasingly distinct domains.

This also manifests itself in the tendency to view those qualities that make good dance music as doubtful ‘aesthetically’. I put the word between quotes, because the underlying assumption that aesthetic value (‘beauty’) can and should be strictly distinguished from emotional and other, more ‘bodily’ values is rather odd. The most famous advocate of this idea is the music critic Eduard Hanslick, to whom Brahms dedicated his “little innocent waltzes in Schubertian form”. That may have been typical Brahmsian irony, but at the same time the gesture was appropriate: Hanslick was fond not only of playing four hand music, but of twirling around in the occasional after dinner waltz as well. As the case of Hanslick shows, in practice and theory the segregation of the ‘aesthetic’ value of music from other values can be maintained only at the cost of contradictions and inconsistencies.

Those qualities of music related to our physical and emotional responses are nowadays subsumed under the fashionable term ‘embodied’. It is ancient wisdom, however, that music comes through the ears to the brain, but makes its effect largely through the subtle interplay between mind and muscles. Hearing dance music, we dance, even when glued to our seats.