6 Greatest waltzes ever written

Rosie Pentreath

Discover all the best waltzes that music has produced

Johann Strauss II: The Blue Danube Waltz

Surely the single most popular and well-known waltz in the world, Strauss’s “An der schönen blauen Donau”, Op. 314 (“By the beautiful blue Danube”) is performed every year at the New Year’s Day celebration in Vienna led by maestro André Rieu.

Its popularity no doubt has to do with this tradition, as well as its easy-to-remember melody and the way Strauss cleverly reuses that melody in rousing variations to make sure we never forget it. The Blue Danube Waltz was used notably in Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 film, 2001: A Space Odyssey, as well as the 1986 film, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, and seems to have become a major signifier of “classical music” more generally to even non-music fans.

 

Dmitri Shostakovich: The Second Waltz

Another firm favourite at André Rieu’s Viennese New Year’s frenzy is “Waltz No. 2” from Shostakovich’s Suite For Variety Orchestra (previously misidentified as the “lost” Suite for Jazz Orchestra No. 2 of 1938).

With a melody as catchy as that of The Blue Danube Waltz (if not more so), it is a powerful, evocative waltz in the minor key, juxtaposed strikingly with a chirpier middle section, that challenges anybody not to sing along.

The piece is believed to have been composed in the 1950s and this waltz was used to great effect by Stanley Kubrick in his 1999 film, Eyes Wide Shut (we’re sensing a theme developing here). In the film, the waltz lends itself perfectly to the tension between a couple growing more and more distant in a rather tense ballroom scene.

 

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky: Sleeping Beauty Waltz

With a perfect lilt in the bass and that soaring, irresistible melody, Tchaikovsky’s stirring “Grande valse villageoise” from The Sleeping Beauty, Op. 66 is one of the dominant ear worms of the late-romantic waltz cannon: once you’re humming it, it’s hard to find your way out of its revolving phrases (we bet you’ll be trying for the rest of today, like us).

Not that that we’re complaining. The elaborate and beautiful waltz takes place in Act I of Tchaikovsky’s 1889 ballet as a prelude to the protagonist Princess Aurora being introduced to four expectant suitors, and the rest of the rather sinister fairytale unfolds from there.

 

Antonín Dvořák: Slavonic Dance No. 2

Dvorak’s Slavonic Dances Opp. 46 and 72 are a must-have in any classical music library, and the Allegretto Grazioso from the 1886 Op. 72 set of dances is a divine slow waltz.

Melancholic and beautiful, it’s a heart-rending piece for reflection and introspection. The cheerful mid-section may give us a bit of a lift, but it’s laced with enough anxiety and tension to keep the mood firmly rooted in contemplation. Sublime.

 

Franz Liszt: Mephisto Waltz

Now to something a little more upbeat. Franz Liszt’s Mephisto Waltz No.1, originally written for orchestra but also transcribed into a technically-challenging solo piano work, is a concert hall favourite.

Extremely virtuosic and devilish, the waltz is the first of four Liszt named after the literary character Mephistopheles, who in German folklore is a demon trapped in servitude to the devil. Mephistopheles crops up in Goethe’s Faust and other similar tales. The first remains the most popular of Liszt’s Mephisto waltzes, but they’re all well worth a listen.

 

Frederic Chopin: Minute Waltz

Any Radio 4 fans in the house? You will almost certainly be familiar with Chopin’s Waltz for piano No. 6 in D flat major, Op. 64 then. Doesn’t ring a bell? What if we say Nicholas Parsons and “Just A Minute!”.

Chopin’s frenetic D flat major piano waltz has ushered in the comedy game show for over 50 years of the show being transmitted, holding for many of us a comforting and cheerful familiarity. We recommend Lang Lang’s performance below—just don’t forget to listen out for hesitation, repetition or deviation!

Read our interview with the ultimate waltz maestro, André Rieu

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