Born as a simple peasant dance in the Austrian countryside, the waltz has grown into a nearly ubiquitous feature of classical and popular music. In the realm of solo piano music alone, the waltz has served as a common subject for experimentation and the expression of personal artistic idioms. If the waltz seemed quaint at the twilight of the nineteenth century, composers took little notice. The solo piano waltz grew significantly after the Romantic period, experiencing a myriad of styles, transformations, andexploitations by some of the most brilliant composers of the modern and postmodern periods.
To be sure, the recession of Romanticism left the solo piano waltz vulnerable to great change. Ravel’s Valses nobles et sentimentales, Satie’s Les Trois Valses distinguées du précieux dégoûté, and Ravel’s La Valse each recall the “good old days” of the waltz in grand nineteenth century fashion, but introduce startling changes in form and harmony. Between 1920 and 1950, the piano waltz splits into two paths - the traditional route, led by Gershwin’s Two Waltzes in C, Poulenc’s Valse-Improvisation sur le nom de BACH, Copland’s “Saturday-Night Waltz” from his ballet Rodeo, and Ross Lee Finney’s Nostalgic Waltzes - and the esoteric route, reflected in Schoenberg’s Waltzer in Five Piano Pieces, which employs the composer’s twelve-tone method. From 1950 to 1980, the eclecticism of the postmodern era splintered the piano waltz even further. Alwyn’s Fantasy - Waltzes calls upon the style of nineteenth century, but the collection Waltzes by 25 Contemporary Composers insists upon more contemporary techniques. After 1980, Pütz’s Waltzing the Blues: 3 Jazz Waltzes completely absorbs the jazz idiom, but Gould’s Ghost Waltzes and Helps’ Shall We Dance fuse both the new and the old.
This document serves not as an exhaustive study of any one piece, but as a detailed chronicle of one of the most colorful genres in recent music literature. Henceforth, this paper invites the interested reader to step outside the “quaint” piano waltzes of Chopin and Tchaikovsky, and take a journey through the twentieth-century, where the waltz is more alive than at any point in its history.