Spread of the Waltz Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The waltz, which expanded from its roots in the rotating folk dances of rural Central Europe, first appeared in written music by the end of the eighteenth century. The dance, which involves couples in close contact, became extremely popular with the rising middle class and then within elite circles.

Summary of Event

Although the word waltzen, a modification of the Latin volvere, meaning to turn or rotate, had existed for many years prior to the emergence of the dance known as the waltz, it was first applied to dance during the mid-eighteenth century. For centuries, the folk dances of central Europe had included movements in lively three-beat patterns, with couples spinning around and holding each other tightly. Although similar in style, each dance, from particular regions, had a different name, including ländler, dreher, spinner, weller, schleifer, steirer, and others. They were also described collectively as German dances. These dizzying, intoxicating dances would have been unthinkable in the pre-nineteenth century courts of Europe, in which dancers maintained a degree of distance from each other, always stayed in strict control of themselves, and rarely made physical contact. Courtship in elite circles was closely circumscribed, and it was often connected to political allegiances, inheritance, or both. The earthy peasants, having little to gain or lose, had no such concerns. Waltz Dance;waltz Vienna;waltz Strauss, Johann, Sr. Music;waltzes [kw]Spread of the Waltz (19th cent.) [kw]Waltz, Spread of the (19th cent.) Waltz Dance;waltz Vienna;waltz Strauss, Johann, Sr. Music;waltzes [g]Europe;19th cent.: Spread of the Waltz[0030] [g]Austria;19th cent.: Spread of the Waltz[0030] [c]Dance;19th cent.: Spread of the Waltz[0030] [c]Music;19th cent.: Spread of the Waltz[0030] Strauss, Johann, Jr. Lanner, Joseph

The Waltz King, Austrian composer Johann Strauss.

(Library of Congress)

During the late eighteenth century, political and economic transformations would affect social dancing. The rise of the middle class gave more leisure time and social mobility to large numbers of young people who were attracted to the sensuality and simplicity of the rustic dances. Also, with the influence of the French and American Revolutions, there was a trend toward the rejection of overly formal and intricate forms of interaction. Eventually, the verb describing the rotating of the dancers came to be used as a noun, and the word “waltz” began to appear in print in the 1790’s as a category of dance music.

According to written accounts, the original German dances were more boisterous and a bit slower in tempo. Partners would often hop and jump, and male partners would lift their female partners. At some point during the transition from rural to urban environments, these movements were replaced by a sort of gliding and sliding, which accelerated the spinning even more, and which required a polished floor to reduce friction from the feet. The triple time was retained as a key feature of the genre. With one step to each beat of the meter, every successive measure of music placed the dancer’s weight on the opposite foot, increasing momentum.

The waltz became wildly popular all over Europe, but it was not without controversy. Many believed it was undignified and was morally suspect because the partners held each other so closely. One of the earliest and best-known centers for waltzing was Vienna, Austria, which became the capital of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and one of the most prosperous and powerful cities in the world. The Viennese could afford to hire musicians for their dances, and since Vienna was surrounded by the folk cultures from which the waltz had emerged, area musicians were quite familiar with its rhythmic requirements and its potential for evoking infectious joy among dancers. In the first decade of the nineteenth century, great dance halls opened in Vienna, including the Apollosaal, which could hold up to six thousand dancers. Large groups of dancers also resulted in larger groups of musicians.

Collection of popular waltz music by the American composer Fred T. Baker first published in 1890.

(Library of Congress)

In this environment, the first great dance orchestras evolved and then developed parallel to, and sometimes overlapping with, Vienna’s well-established tradition of concert music. The first two musicians to achieve great fame as composers of waltzes and leaders of dance orchestras were Johann Strauss, Strauss, Johann, Sr. Sr., and Joseph Lanner Lanner, Joseph . Until 1825, the two were partners and played in the same group. As composers, they contributed to the development of the waltz as a musical form, grouping waltzes together into extended pieces with introductions and recapitulations. Strauss, Sr., the founder of the waltz, introduced rhythmic variations, and Lanner was known for his beautiful melodies.

Strauss’s and Lanner’s orchestras were respected by concert musicians, who were impressed by the composers’ high standards of ensemble precision and intonation. The two developed these standards partly from constant practice and also from receiving long-term employment in the dance halls. The music grew more and more lavish and contributed to a glamorous atmosphere far removed from the humble origins of the waltz. Well-dressed couples could almost leave the earth together and escape into a dream world as they glided through a flowing environment of visual and musical beauty, expressing a romantic yearning for emotional transcendence.

Concert musicians quickly adopted the waltz for their own purposes. Solo piano works were among the first pieces to include the term in their titles or interpretive instructions. Franz Schubert Schubert, Franz [p]Schubert, Franz;waltzes wrote two sets of waltzes for piano in the years 1815-1821, and Carl Maria von Weber’s Weber , Carl Maria von Invitation to the Dance (1819) anticipated the formal innovations of Strauss, Sr., and Lanner Lanner, Joseph . A waltz melody by Anton Diabelli Diabelli, Anton became the basis for elaborate variations by Ludwig van Beethoven Beethoven, Ludwig van , Franz Liszt, and Schubert. The Polish pianist Frédéric Chopin Chopin, Frédéric [p]Chopin, Frédéric;waltzes , who lived in Vienna for a time in the 1830’s before relocating to Paris, made some dismissive comments about the popular waltz scene, but he would compose significant works in the form, which aside from its faster tempo bears some similarities to the mazurka of his homeland. Chopin’s waltz pieces introduced many complex rhythms and changes of tempo. Later, Johannes Brahms Brahms, Johannes , who became a friend of the Strauss family, also composed piano pieces in the waltz idiom.

In Vienna, the orchestral dance tradition continued throughout the nineteenth century. Johann Strauss Strauss, Johann, Jr. , Jr., the son of the elder composer, and his brothers Josef and Eduard, were all conductors, and Johann became even more successful than his father as a composer and conductor. Of his many waltzes, The Blue Danube Blue Danube, The (Strauss) (1867) is his best-known work. In 1872, when he was billed as the Waltz King, he was engaged to conduct a performance of this piece by an orchestra of twenty thousand for an audience of one hundred thousand. Strauss later turned his attention to composing operettas, in which waltz music was an important ingredient, including Die Fledermaus Fledermaus, Die (Strauss) (1874) and others. The waltz entered the world of symphonic music Music;symphonic as well. Richard Wagner Wagner, Richard [p]Wagner, Richard;waltzes included one in his opera Opera;Parsifal Parsifal (1882). Parsifal (Wagner) Opera;Parsifal Peter Ilich Tchaikovsky Tchaikovsky, Peter Ilich [p]Tchaikovsky, Peter Ilich;waltzes , who loved waltzes, included them in his symphonic works for ballet, including Swan Lake Swan Lake (Tchaikovsky) (1877), Sleeping Beauty (1889), and The Nutcracker Nutcracker, The (Tchaikovsky) (1892).


The waltz at first heralded social transformation, but its long association with Vienna became a tradition unto itself as an ongoing source of local pride. After World War I and the end of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the social context changed, and the waltz was preserved as a genre to be included in ballroom dancing, which became very popular internationally. In this new context, the waltz was studied along with other dances, often in schools that were partially recreational and social. Contests, too, were held. Taken from the Viennese model, the waltz became more stylized and defined.

The traditional waltz survived its inclusion in the vast nineteenth and early twentieth century repertoire for ballet, operetta, and concert music. It also was frequently included in films with historic themes. Classical composers continued to use the waltz style, sometimes as a stylistic quotation and sometimes transplanted into more modern, even disturbing settings. As a genre within the swing style, the “jazz waltz” entered the stylistic vocabulary of instrumental jazz musicians in the 1950’s.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Carner, Mosco. The Waltz. London: Max Parrish, 1948. A comprehensive history of the waltz as a social and musical phenomenon, including discussion of the major composers and a section on the impact of the waltz on concert music. Illustrated. Includes music examples and an index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Fantel, Hans. The Waltz Kings Johann Strauss: Father and Son, and Their Romantic Age. New York: William Morrow, 1972. A colorful descriptive language describes the musicians, their friends, families, and associates, and the world in which they lived. Illustrated.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Reeser, Educard. The History of the Waltz. Translated by W. A. G. Doyle-Davidson. Stockholm: Continental, 1949. A historical account and commentary, with illustrations, music examples, and a bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Schönberg, Harold C. The Lives of the Great Composers. 3d ed. New York: W. W. Norton, 1997. Includes a chapter that discusses the artistic impact of the waltz orchestras and anecdotes about the musicians. Illustrations, bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Wechsberg, Joseph. The Waltz Emperors: The Life and Times and Music of the Strauss Family. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1973. A detailed portrait of the Strauss family and its popular music reflecting a period of eighty years. Beautifully illustrated, with an index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Yaraman, Sevin H. Revolving Embrace: The Waltz as Sex, Steps, and Sound. Hillsdale, N.Y.: Pendragon Press, 2002. Detailed musical analyses and social commentary. Illustrations, bibliographical references, and index.

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