Oom pah pah

I showed up at work yesterday morning only to find out that, once again, I had forgotten to get myself off – somehow, anyhow – of a service containing waltzes. I have nothing against the waltz form in and of itself, but it’s been many years since I could get through the viola part of an entire waltz without serious pain.

Why do waltzes hurt so much? There are two things that invariably cause me physical pain when playing – immobility and having to suspend the right arm. Walzes involve both; the right shoulder is essentially frozen and the off-beats need to be played very lightly. It’s a variant on the general premise that loud and fast is easier (and less painful) than soft and slow.

Something that causes me pain of another sort when playing waltzes is the near-universal desire on the part of conductors to interpret. This generally means frequent changes in tempi, odd stretching of certain notes, and very little attention paid to what the composer actually wrote, especially in terms of dynamics. Given that waltzes are usually placed on programs that receive the barest minimum of rehearsal, such a compulsion to interpret invariably leads to messy performances and the desire for an immediate post-concert shower to wash off the dirt. It also leads to many bad musical ideas seeing the light of day. I’d gladly trade the few good ideas I’ve seen in my many years of playing waltzes for not having had to play the bad ones.

But I got to thinking, in the middle of one of the musical deserts that constitutes the typical waltz viola part, just what it is that the Viennese do – or are reputed to do – to offbeats in waltzes. Mariss Jansons explained it, in an interview with PBS that went along with his conducting the Vienna Philharmonic on New Year’s Day 2006, as “playing the second beat immediately after the first, and then the third beat a little later.” That’s about as helpful as saying that the way to make money in the market is to buy low and sell high. No doubt realizing this himself, he went on to be of even further assistance:

…in a [non-Viennese] orchestra, to get everyone to play it this way, and on time, is very difficult; you need a while to adjust to this. But somehow the Vienna Philharmonic just does it naturally.

I love watching a conductor kiss up to the boss. In this country it usually only happens behind closed doors. I wonder if the musicians in Vienna ever let the conductor forget who’s working for whom.

But back to playing offbeats. My personal belief is that “early” means placing the second beat where it would be when one stylizes the following rhythm: eighth eighth quarter quarter (which happens all the time in Strauss waltzes). It’s not quite as if the first three notes were really a triplet on the first beat, but it’s close to that. A very good example happens in the Kaiser-Walzer, when the violas have a long passage consisting of a three-note C major chord on the second and third beats. If one rolls the second beat to arrive at the top on time, then the open C-G are going to happen the right amount of “early.”

If one does that and then plays the third beat where it is actually supposed to be metronomically, it’s going to feel plenty late anyway. I try to play it softer than the second beat, which also helps to emphasize the second beat. What seems to really kill the Viennese “swing” is a good healthy kick in the pants on every third beat. Sadly, lots of waltz performances die that way.

But I’m not Viennese, so what do I know?


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