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The Waltz: Music, Sex, Society, and Politics in Three-Quarter Time

All-Day Program on Zoom

Full Day Lecture/Seminar

Friday, May 14, 2021 - 10:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. ET
Code: 1M2130
This program is part of our
Smithsonian Associates Streaming series.
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The Ball by Julius LeBlanc Stewart, 1885 (Detail)

It blossomed in Vienna and then spread like a mania through Europe. Springing from rough peasant revelries into the more refined strata of aristocratic and bourgeois entertainment, the waltz proclaimed a new freedom of sexual expression and individual liberties in the early 19th century. It was a musical form and a dance that changed history.

Classical music and opera expert Saul Lilienstein traces that development through beautiful music, film clips, vivid illustrations, and the first-hand reports of entranced and aghast observers of the phenomenon.

10 a.m.–12:30 p.m.  The Waltzing Mania Begins

Examine how this new music began, distilled from a combination of Bavarian peasant rhythms and the courtly minuet. From these early sources the musicians of Vienna created the waltz. The generation of Haydn and Schubert gave way by mid-19th century to the popular strains of waltz masters Johann Strauss, Sr. and Josef Lanner. It was an era of political oppression throughout Austria, but no ordinance could stop its citizens from singing and dancing. Every night the response to a heavy-handed bureaucracy was voiced through music in the crowded cafes and streets of Vienna.

12:30–1:30 p.m.  Break

1:30–4 p.m.  The Golden Age of Music in Vienna

In the second half of the 19th century the core of Viennese life was expressed in its concert halls, ballrooms, and stages. The emperor was Franz Josef, but the king of hearts was Johann Strauss, Jr. He enchanted everyone with a waltzing repertoire that included “The Blue Danube” and “Wine, Women and Song.” His theatrical masterpieces Die Fledermaus and The Gypsy Baron set the gold standard for operettas. Surpassing his own father, Strauss toured the Continent and the United States, seducing audiences with his intoxicating rhythms and garnering a rock-star level of adulation.

In the early the 20th century, Franz Lehar’s operetta The Merry Widow introduced an uninhibited and modern sexuality to the stage, and its waltz theme was a global sensation. The melodies of Richard Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier and Ravel’s La Valse resonated across Europe, offering an escape from the grim realities of a continent that was now at war. Vienna’s glorious musical past retains a hold on the imagination today, and the world still joins in the city’s joyous and champagne-filled New Year’s celebrations.

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