Saturday, 3 February 2018


Two dancing figures, thought to be Queen Elizabeth I of Tudor fame, and the Queen's favorite Sir
Robert Dudley scandalized (and excited) her invited guests to an impromptu semi-erotic dance
derived from the lowly peasants of Italy. In many countries in Europe, the touching of one's
dance partner was strictly verboten amongst "decent" society. La Volta. however, was a
documented favorite of the Queen.
Before we delve deep into the contributions of Herren Lanner and Strauß II, we must first begin in the centuries that immediately preceded the dance/music craze, by exploring the basis from which Der Walzer (the Waltz) flourished.

We begin with a festive scene in London England, and with it's present ruler, Queen Elizabeth I. In the video below, we see a modern depiction of a dance known as La Volta (from the 1998 British biopic Elizabeth), as performed by Queen Elizabeth I and her alleged paramour, Robert Dudley. Whilst la Volta was seen by many as a dance most untoward a fine lady due to it's semi-intimate nature, the true scandal here is that Dudley was suspected of throwing his wife, Amy Robsart down a flight of stairs to get closer to Elizabeth.

The fall would kill Robsart, breaking her neck at some point during the tumble. To this day, many believe Dudley is considered the main suspect in the alleged murder, which was immortalized in paper by the coroner who cited the manner of death as a "broken neck," and the cause as “Death under mysterious circumstances.”

There is no denying it: he certainly had all the duds: 
 strikingly handsome, the son of a English General,
highly decorated - and certainly most important of
all, Sir Robert Dudley (allegedly) had stolen the
Queen of England's heart.

Whilst Dudley was merely a minor nobleman, (son of the late English General John Dudley, 1st Duke of Northumberland) at the time he met Elizabeth, it seemed the notorious "virgin" Queen was smitten with the handsome noble, even creating for him a position at Court as Master of the Horse in order to be closer to her much besotten forbidden fruit without arousing any suspicion of a Royal cavorting with a mere noble: a huge no-no according to English customs of the era. Elizabeth would later bestow upon his head the Knight of the Garter a mere two years into her tenure on the English throne - a systematic pattern of raising the status of the nobleman which would continue well through the 16th century: in 1562, just two short years after Robsart's untimely death, Sir Dudley would permeate internal governing affairs, becoming Privy Councillor, in 1587, appointed Lord Steward of the Royal Household, and a mere four years after Robsart's alleged murder, allegedly orchestrated by Dudley himself, Elizabeth would promote her Master of Horse to the 1st Earl of Leicester - no meager a gift by any means - being the first to own an Earldom significantly raises the status of it's proprietor.

Prior to Robsart’s death, the obviousness of Elizabeth’s favoritism to the handsome Earl (who was said to have free reign over the Queen's sacred and private chambers - sometimes entering at nightfall and not re-emerging until dawn!) allowed much room for rumor to spread: “She will marry him!,”  became the hot gossip both within and outside of Royal circles - of course, only, they concluded, " the case his wife should die.” Dudley, who desperately wanted Elizabeth and a royal seat, had overheard these rumors. It was not long after he became aware of them that Amy Robsart 's corpse was found mangled at the foot of a tall set of stairs. Could Dudley have been so power-hungry and lustful as to murder his wife? Or could it be that someone, who had overheard the rumor that the frustratingly "celibate" Queen might wed the Earl, expedited the potential “marriage” (which would have never happened anyway, Dudley being too "low-born") in order to create an heir to the English throne? Perhaps it was suicide?

No one really knows for sure – what is known is that Elizabeth openly flaunted her lust for the newly minted Earl of Leicester, often engaging him in dance, as we can see by the contemporary illustration at the beginning of this post (above left) of the duo performing Elizabeth’s favorite dance, "la Volta" (Italian for ‘the turn(ing)”: (It should be noted that after a brief 'banning' from court (merely for show), Dudley would return to Elizabeth's palace, it was at this time, after Robsart's alleged murder, that Dudley was knighted 1st Earl of Leicester - a mere four years after his spouse's untimely death!)

As one can clearly see, this 16-17th century dance involved some moments of intimacy formerly considered inappropriate and lewd during it’s time. The style originated in Italy and would soon find fame in the royal Courts of France and Germany. It was considered a tad risqué for the man to place his arms about the waist of the woman, lifting her in to the air, as close body contact was, for the most part, strictly verboten during this era. Once Elizabeth chose the dance for her ball with a lowly Dudley as her partner – a noble touching a Royal – it became less than dignified – just shy off a full-blown scandal.

Such rules of limited engagement weren't country-specific: here is a clip from the excellent film The Countess, also depicted in the 17th century, which showcases the alleged serial murderess/bloodthirsty Hungarian noble and warlord Erzebet Báthory engaged in a similar dance sometime during the 16th and 17th century:

Herr Joseph Lanner, the TRUE master of the
But, things weren’t always so chaste – at least they soon wouldn’t be. Enter one Joseph Lanner, composer of Austria, and his likeminded musical ‘rival’ Johann Strauß II (aka 'the younger) of Germany, who composed music especially for dance, and in Lanner’s case, transformed the simple peasant’s dance, known as the waltz, into an incredibly intimate dance dignified enough for the higher middle and upper classes. Der Walzer – German for “the turn(ing)" is often likened as a more intense version of La Volta - originating from the impoverished streets of Italy - that seemingly broke all the rules of decorum. That it was founded and celebrated in Austria and Germany is no small surprise: if the reader will recall, it was in Germany that the Royal Courts celebrated the 16th century Italian dance la Volta, popularizing it during the 17th century. As you can see from the videos of the popular dances of the era above, rules - however minor the may be - were often broken in terms of just how intimate or close the dancing couples could be from one another without getting caught.

By the 18th century, Lanner had seen enough ‘law-breaking’ to become both frustrated and profiteering. He would single-handedly exploit the frustrations of the dancers and the demeaning class distinctions which decided who could or couldn’t perform the couples dance, and transformed it into the waltz. He would now compose, specifically for the newfound 18th century dance (Der Walzer) – which was incredibly intimate – allowing couples to hold each other so close as to be breast to breast, and with a much relieved sigh of long awaited delirium at finally being able to hold their lover and display a little PDA in public, the lusty couples would twirl: maniacally, dizzily – about the ballroom floor.

Der Walzer had it’s critics, to be sure – but those who wanted to dance, danced - with nary a second thought as to outdated religious and discriminatory disciplines that separated the “peasants” or lowborn nobles from the entertainments of the Royals.

Listen: Lanner's Die Schönbrunner Walzer,  so named and dedicated by the composer for the beautiful Schönbrunner Palace, performed  here by the Wiener Philharmoniker under maestro Lorin Maazel for the 1994 annual Neujahrskonzert (New Year's concert) at Vienna, was all the rage in Europe prior to Strauß' The Blue Danube penned in the late 19th century. It was also one of the last works written by Lanner, and was so beloved by the masses, it is said the maestro was forced into performing it a whopping 21 more times before he could step down from the podium in 1842. Sometime later, avant-garde composer Igor Stravinsky would return to the six-decades old waltz, and borrow parts of the score for his ballet Petrushka

So popular (and I daresay, so long awaited and relieving) a dance was the waltz, that by 1760, Teresa Cornelys, a popular Venetian (imagine!) opera singer created the first ever public dance hall in Europe. A new establishment born unto the world, thanks to Lanner’s bravery, his music, and the music of his sometime running mate Joseph Strauß II - who quickly caught onto the sexy trend, and whose fame would outshine Lanner’s due to his ability to travel and perform across Europe.

Cornelys’ public dance hall was dubbed the “Carlisle house.” Although it was an exclusive club, it would be Cornelys who would assist Lanner in gradually breaking out of subjective stereotypes without inciting a riot by those opposed to the new musical tradition. She did this by allowing the ‘sinful’ acts of playing cards, and opting to either listen and watch the couples dance the waltz or join in if they so chose – in total contrast to when it was mandatory for all couples in a royal setting to dance in a display of reverence and servitude.

The dance hall idea proved so successful, by the early 1800’s five of them had already popped up in Vienna. Younger generations formerly unable to mingle with upper classes, flooded the ballrooms to get their sexy groove on. It is said that by 1832, over half of the population of Vienna had joined a dance hall and remained members for decades to come. It would mark an ingenious and highly profitable move for Lanner.

Emperor Franz Josef I, Emperor of Austria and King of
Hungary, is seen here performing the waltz at
the Hoffburg Palace in in 1906 Vienna.
Johann Strauß the Elder, and the younger would create music for the waltz themselves, the most famous of which is the younger’s “The Blue Danube” (1866, seen in the video below), which remains a favorite piece of work to this very day.

Herr Strauß II's The Blue Danube. One with a keen eye will notice the ever escalating erotic nature of the improved la volta - der walzer - as centuries passed and the religious public came to accept the new trend sweeping across the globe.

The freeing dance proved so popular, it became a craze in the Far West: American soldiers were known to have embraced it during the hardships of the Civil War, and even added their own spin on the dance itself, two of the most famous being the Boston Waltz and the Boston dip.

It also enchanted the Far East: Russian composer Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky famously included the waltz in his most popular ballets: Swan Lake, Sleeping Beauty, and the Nutcracker.

Today, we recognize Johann Strauß the younger as the "King of the Waltz," largely due to his ability to travel over Lanner, and, undeniably, due to the catchiness of his music – but, according the author of this blog, neither Der Walzer, nor public dance halls, nor Strauß himself would have been - and remain in - such high reverence were it not for Lanner’s early innovations and for his daring tenacity to turn a simple peasants-only dance from the streets of Italy into a sensation that continues to dominate ballrooms across the globe to this very day.

Joseph Lanner, I salute you.


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