The valse lente was very fashionable in the early 20th century. It was a slow, sentimental waltz, also called a Boston waltz. I am still confused over the precise technical moves of the valse lente or Boston Waltz. What makes it so ‘lente’ or ‘Boston’, still eludes me, though I’ve read more than a few instruction texts. I even dared a few hesitating steps in my boudoir.
I also tried hard, but found no reliable explanation for its name or origin. Different Western regions or continents claim to be the cradle of this wildly popular dance. Some say the Boston waltz is an American, slower and gliding variant of the traditional Viennese waltz. The oldest reference that I could find is a composition by Marie Félicie Clémence de Reiset, Vicomtesse de Grandval. She composed Prélude et Valse Lente in 1885.
According to the composer Clifton Worsley it was he who coined the term Boston waltz.
Clifton Worsley is the pseudonym of the Catalan musician Pere Astort i Ribas. A trained pianist, Pere Astort started working as a clerk at a popular sheet music shop located on the most emblematic street, La Rambla, in Barcelona. This shop then called Can Guàrdia still exists as Casa Beethoven.
In the sheet music shop Pere Astort worked as a song demonstrator (or song plugger) to help sell the sheet music. Patrons could select a title of a song for him to play on the piano, thus getting a first listen before buying.
The story goes that while Astort was playing one of his own compositions, an American musician walked into the shop. Stunned by Astort’s song the visitor told him that the music reminded him of fashionable waltzes from his home town, Boston. The American also suggested to adopt a pseudonym with a more ‘artistic‘ and international resonance. Pere Astort went for the dignified sounding Clifton Worsley nom de plume.
Clifton Worsley had a rival in Theodor Pinet who also claimed to be the Bostonkungen or the Boston King. Pinet was a Swedish composer, with a Belgian father, who used to play at the royal court of Sweden. He introduced the Boston waltz in Sweden around 1902. Clifton Worsley had then already composed his first Boston walz in the late 1890’s. Anyway, Theodor Pinet became a big name in Sweden thanks to the Boston Walz. In 1910 he launched his own music hall: the Boston Palace! According to Sweden’s state archives, the rush to Pinet’s Boston Palace was huge: “Ladies in exquisite toilets, gentlemen in coats and tuxedos, students, little shop girls in blouses and skirts, jacket-clad office workers and demi-mondaines in rustling silk with or without cavalier, all bitten by the Boston fly […]”
In 1900 the French Roi de la Valse Rodolphe Berger composed a valse très lente (a very slow waltz), the hugely successful Amoureuse.
And after Massenet also having written a Valse très lente, Debussy created La plus que lente or ‘the even slower waltz’ in 1910. It was his tongue-in-cheek riposte to the countless lightweight valses lentes that were so successful in the Parisian salons and dance halls. La plus que lente is a charming sentimental waltz with a lot of rubato written for solo piano and arranged for strings.
Debussy mentioned in an interview that he had written La plus que lente for the Hungarian violinist/leader of a gypsy orchestra. He had discovered the ensemble in the newly opened Parisian Carlton Hotel where he regularly went with his wife and friends for the afternoon tea. Who better then, than the Hungarian Antal Zalai to perform La plus que lente …
The gesture of a wealthy man patronisingly lifting the chin of a ballerina hides a grim and sordid truth.
In the 19th century most ballet dancers of the Parisian Opera came from poor and deprived families. They were also often illiterate. Sometimes a family’s hope for a better future rested on the frail shoulders of a daughter with dancing skills. These young ballerina’s were commonly called Les Petits Rats, or the little rats of the opera.
Around 1830 Louis Véron, a short corpulent man, became the new administrator of the Parisian opera. Véron was a trained physician turned businessman who had made fortune from cough drops (Pâte pectorale de Reginauld Ainé). He had arranged a lucrative deal that yielded two-thirds of the profits to him without having to work.
Véron devised several strategies to make the opera profitable. One was to create the Foyer de la danse, an exclusive and lavishly decorated backstage salon. Véron, the shrewd entrepreneur, offered to the well-heeled season ticket holders or abonnés not only a private theatre box, but also secluded access to this backstage. There the wealthy male abonnés enjoyed a kind of droit de seigneur over the little dancers. Astonishingly to modern standards, these men in top hats had obtained the right to prowl the corridors and meet the (very young) ballet dancers in the lavishly decorated Foyer de la danse. They could enjoy informal performances and hold private parties with the danseuses. In the corridor leading up to the Foyer, they could negotiate with the ‘mothers’ the right fee to get an ‘introduction’ to a pretty dancer.
The most affluent of these abonnés were the members of the Jockey Club. This club was the epitome of exclusivity, its elite members solely being aristocrats. They were connoisseurs of horses, cigars and women. Their preferred part of the opera was the ballet. At that time the ballet was often nothing more than a choreographic interlude performed during the second part of an opera. The members of the Jockey Club used to dine during the first act. They then arrived at the opera just in time to admire their protégées on the gaslit stage, and —immediately after the ballet— left quickly for the Foyer… (*)
Another strategy of Véron was to decrease the wages of the dancers, thus forcing the girls to find a wealthy protector. In this way Véron set up a patronage system for the opera’s corps de ballet based more or less on sexual services. The opera had become a place where there was art on the one hand and prostitution on the other.
But the story becomes even more Dickensian or Zolaesque. The opera also housed the ballet school. Girls as young as ten had to work up to twelve hours a day, six days a week, dividing their time between lessons, rehearsals and shows.Arriving too late or faults were fined. They had to live close to the Opera, because with their meagre pay they couldn’t afford the tram or omnibus. Only a minority of these young dancers would become famous and earn a salary sufficient to support their family. Meanwhile, some mothers hunted for a rich protector for their (underage) daughters.
The most famous of these girls was Marie Van Goethem. She was of Belgian descent and stood model for the beautiful Degas statue of a 14-year-old dancer.
At first Marie was a respectable dancer of the corps de ballet. But a year after the Degas statue was exhibited (1881) she went off the rails. Marie’s older sister Antoinette, had robbed a man in Le Chat Noir. She was arrested and put in prison for three months. The evidence at the trial made it clear that her mother was prostituting her. It is supposed that Marie was also on the game because she started to miss her appointments in the Opera until at last she was sacked.
Degas also illustrated the short stories Les Petits Cardinal written by his friend Ludovic Halévy. These stories tell, slightly veiled, about the obvious similarities between life at the Opera and scenes in a brothel where the abonné is the client, the dancer is theprostitute, and the mother is the madam.
The Musée Grevin, the Parisian wax museum, understood that the Foyer de la danse captured the public imagination and made it into a tableau. It was exhibited from 1890 on, for eleven years. It offered the visitor a voyeuristic peek behind the scenes on how the rich abonnés got entertained. The representation of the Foyer de la danse was Grévin’s greatest success after the famous crime scenes.
It was only from 1927 on that the director of the opera, Jacques Rouché, tackled the problem of the excesses at the Foyer de la danse. His newly nominated Ballet Master, Serge Lifar, supported him fully. Under the dramatic protests of the abonnés they banned the backstage access to the Foyer de la danse, and made from the ballet in the opera a real art form. The film The Ballet of the Paris Opera, featuring Serge Lifar, dates from that period.
(*) When Wagner broke with the tradition and included a ballet in the first act of Tannhauser instead of in the second act, the members of the Jockey Club arrived too late to ogle their young protégées. They booed during the 1861 Parisian premiere and for the next two performances of Tannhauser, they disturbed the performances to such an extent, distributing whistles and rattles to the audience, that Wagner was forced to withdraw the opera after three performances.
Sir Roger de Coverly is an intriguing name for a dance. Some say its name refers to a fox. Surely, the wiggly dance steps suggest the jumpy flight of a hunted fox. As early as 1685 John Playford included the instructions for the country dance in his manual TheDancing Master.
The subsequent popularity of the dance gave rise to the creation of a fictitious character, the debonair country squire Sir Roger de Coverley. In 1711 The Spectator started to daily publish the gentleman’s hapless adventures. These short pieces were entertaining portrayals of early 18th-century English life: “The first of our society is a gentleman of Worcestershire, of ancient descent, a baronet, his name is Sir Roger de Coverley. His great-grandfather was inventor of that famous country-dance which is called after him.” (The Spectator of March 2, 1711)
Fiction of course, but it led to ‘Sir’ being added to the dance previously simply named the Roger of Coverley. Moreover the Spectator articles described the gentleman as a philanthropist who always kept open house at Christmas and sent “a string of hog’s puddings to every poor family in the Parish“. Sir Roger de Coverley was thus a paragon of Christmas benevolence and charity. Possibly by association the homonymous dance became a typical Christmas dance. Often it was the closing dance of the ball: “this dance should be the finishing one, as it is calculated from the sociality of its construction, to promote the good humour of the company, and causing them to separate in evincing a pleasing satisfaction with each other.“
The Sir Roger de Coverley knew a revival in the 19th century and also became a success in the French ballrooms.
Perhaps it is this print in The Graphic that inspired Hyacinthe Royet to draw the sheet music cover that started this post. A polite image of country gents and ladies who stiffly move around under the mistletoe, wearing bored expressions. No foxy ladies and no fun at all, if you ask me.
We found a more lively rendition of the dance in a cover drawn by Barbizet. An annotation in this copy indicates that the French preferred a more vibrant dance: “In England, the jig is concluded by a lady’s chain, but the length of the dance in that case renders it monotonous and for this reason, the finale has been suppressed in France.” Strangely, the Sir Roger de Coverley was in this case sold as a Danse Américaine.
Did you wonder how to dance the Sir Roger de Coverley? The 1951 film Scrooge might give you a good idea. It is an adaptation from A Christmas Carol, the book that Charles Dickens wrote 175 years ago. The fragment begins with the spirit showing to Ebenezer Scrooge the annual Christmas party thrown by his former employer, old Mr. Fezziwig.
Just tap your feet in time to the music and enjoy the Yuletide dance. Beware, this version is danced at a very swift pace.
Interestingly, in 1922 the English composer Frank Bridge arranged the folk song for a string quartet. To enhance the Christmas mood the composer mixed in the Auld Lang Syne melody (at around 3’50”).
I, for my part, will blithely put on my skates and dance the Sir Roger de Coverley on Ice. Merry Christmas!