Lisztomania: The Butterfly Effect

When I was a first-year in high school, I created a chart listing all of the immediate and long-term effects of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria. After several months of working, I eventually produced an extensive document regarding the assassination and its effects, and turned it in under the name “the Butterfly Effect.” I was, and still am, fascinated with this pop-history phenomenon of the butterfly effect, which is centered around the idea that one seemingly insignificant action can end up having drastic effects in the future, but have since realized that my original document is incomplete; I now know that I failed to include any effects that the assassination had on music. In this column, I am going to attempt to prove, in less than 500 words, that, on June 28, 1914, two things died: Franz Ferdinand and the waltz.

A waltz is both a dance and a work of music. The dance involves a pattern of steps grouped by threes, which is supported by music written in 3/4 time. In a waltz, emphasis is typically placed on the first beat of any group of three so that the rhythmic structure is ONE two three, ONE two three, and so on. Waltzes were primarily composed during the Romantic period, which lasted throughout the 19th century and, some historians argue, ended at the start of World War I. Composers such as Franz Schubert, Johannes Brahms and Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky are known for their waltz compositions, most of which were composed with the intention that they would, in fact, be danced to. However, the most prominent composer of the waltz is Johann Strauss II, who was born near Vienna in 1825. Strauss developed a genre of instrumental music known as “light music,” which is comparable to modern-day “easy-listening” music. Light music was generally not intended for a concert, but rather for dances and social events, both of which saw a growth in occurrence during this era in Vienna.  

The extravagance of Viennese culture under the Austro-Hungarian empire was cultivated until World War I, which began with the assassination of Franz Ferdinand. Vienna’s decline as the European center of instrumental music began when the empire started to deteriorate as it entered the war, and when the cultural center of Europe moved to both Berlin and Paris, and away from Vienna. With the attention of the Austro-Hungarian empire having been turned towards war and away from music and culture, the golden age of Vienna, and the Viennese waltz, came to an end. There were several composers such as Robert Farnon and Eric Coates, both of whom were composers of British light music who attempted to revive the waltz after World War I, but did so with little success; it has since proven to be nearly impossible to fully revive an extinct musical genre back to its former glory.

Suggested listening:

Robert Farnon — Westminster Waltz (1958)

Johann Strauss II — Schatz-Walzer (Treasure Waltz) (1885)

Émile Waldteufel — Les Patineurs (Skaters) Waltz (1882)

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky — Waltz of the Flowers (1892)


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