i. Valse brillante
ii. Valse caprice
iii. Strauss, Strauss et Straus
The composer’s only original work for the piano duet medium sets out to squeeze the very last drop out of the waltz. The first - Valse brillante - opens with an unchanging bass accompaniment for the initial 32 bars. Any sense of monotony is avoided by Berners’ adoption of tonic and augmented fourths, as opposed to straight tonic and dominant. It contains, at the first rallentando what Stravinsky, Berners’ early mentor, called ‘one of the most impertinent passages in modern music’. Apart from the obvious inflections and phrasing derived from the ‘originals’, Berners does quote from another source; however, not a waltz, but a march in triple time – and that of the ‘Davidsbundler against the Philistines’ in Schumann’s Carnaval. As the title suggests, the music is ‘brilliant’ but also surprisingly contrapuntal – a welcome contrast to the inevitable, if hardly predicable harmonies of the accompaniment.
Whether by accident or design, the appearance of this set of waltzes, and this second number in particular, coincided with the publication of Ronald Firbamk’s novel Valmouth in which the author pays Berners this complimentary sentence – “the maitre d’orchestre had struck up a capricious concert waltz, an enigmatic, au-delà laden air; Lord Berners? Scriabin? Tchaikovsky?” The melody of this ‘capricious’ piece begins with an alla viennese instruction which develops later into one which bestrides four octaves in range.
The third waltz pays tribute (of sorts!) to the music of Johann, Richard and Oscar with near quotes in places, most pointedly with Der Rosenkavalier. The odd bar of 2/8 or 4/4, wrong-footing any would-be dancers, the frequent rallentandos and accelerandos, and a precipitous final page, all combine to give the genre of the waltz a fine ‘send-off’ – or to put the final nail in its coffin, depending on one’s point of view!
© Philip Lane