What is a... Ländler?

Stephen Johnson gets to grips with classical music's technical terms

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What is a... Ländler?
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If you’ve ever been to a performance of a Bruckner or Mahler symphony – or perhaps a recital of Schubert sonatas – you’ve probably found the word Ländler in your programme. You may also have found, maddeningly, that the note-writer presumes you know what a Ländler is. 

The word itself helps – up to a point. Ländlich, as the bigger kind of German dictionary will tell you, means ‘rural’. If that conjures up images of beer-fuelled village bands, Lederhosen, vigorous yodelling and thigh slapping then you’re already thinking on the right lines. 

Whatever its precise provenance, by the mid-19th century the Ländler was established as a clear type of popular music: a kind of unpolished country cousin to the sophisticated Viennese Waltz. Like the Waltz it was in three beats to the bar, but slower, without the Waltz’s characteristic slight trip forward on the second beat. It was also seen by many as a rather more wholesome form of entertainment than the Waltz, whose faster, swaying motion was viewed by the custodians of public morality as dangerously intoxicating. For nationalists especially, the Ländler was a ‘purer’ form. Its dancers were honest rustic sons of toil, not sexually abandoned urbanites. In an age when the (allegedly) uncultivated folk lyrics of the classic verse collection Des Knaben Wunderhorn were the embodiment of national ‘soul’, the Ländler was its natural musical accompaniment. 

That helps explain why, when composers from Schubert to Alban Berg invoke the Ländler, the tone is often deeply nostalgic. The Minuet from Schubert’s gorgeous G major Sonata (D 894) is a classic example: robust foot-stomping in the outer sections frames a Trio of aching, lilting sweetness – already there’s a suggestion of a ‘land of lost content’. There’s a similar feeling in some of Bruckner’s Ländler tunes, and in the almost desperately sad Carinthian dance tune that haunts Berg’s elegiac Violin Concerto. But nostalgia has a way of turning sour: witness the Scherzo of Mahler’s Seventh Symphony. And in the Second Act of Berg’s Wozzeck it degenerates into sheer drunken grossness, before erupting into a nightmarish orchestral orgy that might have made even Mahler draw breath. ‘How potent cheap music is’, wrote Noël Coward; and as so often, it seems, the potency can swing either way. 

This article was first published in the Christmas 2011 issue of BBC Music Magazine

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