Like a faint drop of blood
Shading diseased lips,
So over these notes looms
A desperate desire for self-destruction.
The waltz is dead. Love live the waltz! Waltz-death, love-death, wild chords of passion, tarantella with blood-lipstick. Here’s where things. . .go off, where what had been a little strange, fantastic, or mystical takes a decisive turn toward the gruesome. That it does so with Chopin reminds you – doesn’t it? – of those skull-stacked catacombs stretching beneath the streets of Paris, or perhaps of that famous photo of Fryderyk, our consumptive Polish exile in the cholera-infested City of Lights. And yet there he is, dancing – whether in the salon or with les polonais – floating, gossamer, in the moonlight. Dancing to his death.
We were warned. The vision of eine blasse Wäscherin (“a waxen laundress,” I suggested) removes whatever comfort we had drinking moonwine or musing about Colombine or what makeup to wear. That washerwoman – nameless peasant? mother? – wrests us away, forces us to look away from ourself, from Pierrot. We look out at her, at her thankless task – the fathomless abyss she plunges her arms into, the bleak and mournful chorale chords of the opening stretching out, beyond, into the deep. The piano was absent in that place, and it will be silent again in nos. 6 (mostly) and 7. It’s more than that. In the first three numbers the piano was participant in the ensemble, doing what the other instruments were doing – painting the picture, drawing out the text, or (if you prefer) contributing to the richness of Schoenberg’s atonal idiom at its freest and most inventive. Not so in “Valse de Chopin.” Now, for the first time, isolated by its absence from surrounding movements, the piano becomes a character, or perhaps a presence, through its sheer sound and also, wryly, through flashes of waltz idiom and perhaps the occasional musical pun. Most obviously, in the final two bars, the repeated A sharp I hear as a through-the-looking-glass version of the repeated B flats that launch Chopin’s Grande Valse Brillante, Op. 18. Not a direct copy, because Schoenberg wouldn’t, but playfully respelled, retaining the hemiola effect of the original, and transported to the end of the movement – manifold topsy-turveyism.
There is something more here, though, in the reference to Chopin’s waltz. Yes, the repeated A sharps suggest a distorted quotation, but more immediately they are a distilled presentation of the Tropfen Bluts (“drops of blood”) that are part of the language of the movement from the vocalist’s first phrase. Schoenberg is creating a sort of imagistic trope on top of a borrowed rhythmic gesture – looking for drops of blood in Chopin’s music – in a way that shoots the listener backward and forward in time, a musical malady. “Melancholy, gloomy waltz / You won’t leave me alone! / You’ve taken hold of my mind,” goes the poem. And this a year before Proust’s Du côté de chez Swann, where the title character also hears a tune obsessively, a musical marker of another self-destructive obsession. Oh, you just have to hear it. . .and you can, on October 28 and 29, 2022, in San Antonio, Texas.