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Emil Waldteufel and “The Skaters” Waltz

Émile Waldteufel (December 9, 1837–February 12, 1915) was a French (Alsatian) pianist and composer of dance music, who was born on Dec. 9, 1837, in Strasbourg to a Jewish Alsatian family of musicians and studied first with his parents. His father Louis had a respected orchestra, and his brother Léon was a successful musician. When Léon won a place to study violin performance at the Conservatoire de Paris, the family followed him there and Emil spent the rest of his life in that city. He studied the piano at the Conservatoire de Paris from 1853 to 1857. Among his fellow pupils was Jules Massenet. During his time at the conservatory, Louis Waldteufel’s orchestra became one of the most famous in Paris, and Émile was frequently invited to play at important events.

After leaving the Conservatory, Waldteufel worked for a piano manufacturer, gave piano lessons, and played at soirees. In 1865, at the age of 27, he became the court pianist of the Empress Eugénie and the following year conductor of court balls. After the Franco-Prussian War had dissolved the Second French Empire, his orchestra played at Presidential balls at the Élysée. At this time only a few members of the French high society knew of Émile; he was nearly forty before he became better known. In October of 1874 Waldteufel played at an event that was attended by the then Prince of Wales, future King Edward VII of the United Kingdom. The Prince was enthralled by Waldteufel’s “Manolo” waltz, op. 140 (c. 1874), and was prepared to make Waldteufel’s music known in Britain.

With the success of his first waltzes, Waldteufel decided to devote himself entirely to composing dance music, producing some 270 such pieces, most of which were first created at the piano and later orchestrated. A long-term contract with the London-based editor Hopwood and Crew followed. Part of the company belonged to Charles Coote, director of the Coote and Tinney’s Band, the first dance orchestra in London. Through these means, Waldteufel’s music was played at Buckingham Palace in front of Queen Victoria. Waldteufel dominated the music scene in London and became world-famous. During this period he composed his most famous works, many of which are still heard today around the world. He became best known for the waltz “Les Patineurs,” op. 183 (The Skaters), composed in 1882.

Waldteufel, who conducted with a stick rather than the then-customary violin bow, gave concerts in several European cities, such as London in 1885, Berlin in 1889 and the Paris Opéra Balls in 1890 and 1891. The typical Waldteufel orchestra consisted of strings and a doubled woodwind section, two cornets, four horns, three trombones, and ophicleide or euphonium, along with percussion. He continued his career as conductor and writing dance music for the Presidential Balls until 1899 when he retired. His music can be distinguished from Johann Strauss II’s waltzes and polkas in that he used subtle harmonies and gentle phrases, unlike Strauss’s more robust approach. In 1915 Waldteufel died in Paris at the age of 77. His wife, Célestine Dufau, a former singer, had died a year earlier. They had two sons and a daughter.

My collection of Waldteufel pieces includes the following:
Espana, op. 236.
Estudiantina, op. 191.
Les Patineurs (The Skaters), op. 183.
Les Sirenes, op. 154.
Mon Reve, op. 151.
Pluie de Diamants, op. 160.
Pomone, op. 155.
Solitude, op. 174.
Tres Jolie, op. 159.


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