Fred Lerdahl

The Music and Writings of Composer Fred Lerdahl

Program note for Waltzes


Waltzes (1981), a cycle of twelve virtuoso waltzes for violin, viola, cello, and bass, was commissioned by the Spoleto Festival USA in Charleston, where the first nine waltzes were premiered in 1981. Soon thereafter I composed the final three waltzes. The work is dedicated to Scott Nickrenz. 

The character of Waltzes arose from three impulses: first, to compose a work that was suitable for summer-festival listening; second, to provide a challenge for brilliant string players accustomed to 19th-century repertory; and third, to simplify the intricacies of my contemporaneous string quartets (1978 and 1982). The piece includes occasional references to the music of past composers, transformed to fit my syntax and style and the playful character of the work. The instrumentation, for “low” string quartet, is reminiscent of Schubert’s Vienna; the lack of a second violin often forced high writing for the viola and cello. The part-writing and motivic treatment, which are quite classical in spirit, are woven out of a harmonic and voice-leading system of my own invention, one that I have used in one form or another in a number of pieces. This system is “tonal” in an extended sense and allows for orderly progression across the extremes of consonance and dissonance. 

The individual movements, all in some variant of ABA form, break down as follows:

1. Grazioso. A congenial wind-up waltz.
2. Con brio. Two Chopin waltzes gone mad.
3. Cantabile. A cello melody reminiscent of a tune in Swan Lake.
4. Leggiero. String harmonics give a special twist to a passage in Ravel's Valses nobles et sentimentales.
5. Valse triste. No Sibelius here, just soulful phrases slowly tossed between the violin, viola, and cello. 
6. Misterioso. Five against two within 3/4 time, in the ghostly guise of a presto minuet. 
7. Amoroso. Another nod to Ravel's Valses nobles et sentimentales, with passionate intent.
8. Humoresque. A wild fantasy, with pizzicato and legno effects, climaxing in a quote from my Second String Quartet, accompanied by glissando harmonics. 
9. Vivace. A cross-accentual whirlwind. 
10. Lento. The double bass speaks from the depths. 
11. Delicato. An intimate duet for viola and cello, converting a 2/4 turn from Schumann's Carnaval into a waltz rhythm.
12. Waltz-fugue. A veritable grande valse brillante, alternating with two fugal sections that culminate in quadruple inversional counterpoint.

Fred Lerdahl


all materials copyright Fred Lerdahl 2009