Work: Thunder and Lightning (Unter Donner und Blitz)
About This Work
Some of the characteristics of the polka appear in music performed by and written for Bohemian village musicians around 1800. Aside from this, the dance's origins are obscure. A couple-dance in 2/4 meter, it seems the polka developed in Bohemia as a
type of round-dance with three short, heel-and-toe half-steps on the first three half-beats and a rest on the fourth. The name may be derived from the Czech pulka (half) or polska, the Czech word for a Polish girl. Whatever its origins, it is certain that the polka first appeared in Prague in 1837. The dance was exported to Vienna in 1839 by a Bohemian regiment band, precipitating its rapid spread throughout Europe. By 1843-44 it was the favorite dance of Parisians and in May 1844 it was first performed in the U.S.A. Local musicians created variants of the dance, and in the 1850s in Vienna the elegant Polka française and the lively Schnell-Polka developed, the second of these influenced by the fast galop. The polka was very popular in the late nineteenth century and examples were penned by nearly every major composer of dance music, performed by almost all military bands, and distributed in the form of sheet music throughout the world. A French dictionary of dance terms dating from 1847 describes the polka as having a tempo of 104 beats per minute with an emphasis on the second beat of the measure. It exhibits a ternary (ABA) form with eight-measure subsections, and sometimes includes an introduction and a coda.
Unter Donner und Blitz (Thunder and Lightning), Op. 324, was published in 1868, just after the equally illustrative waltz, Geschichten aus dem Wienerwald, Op. 325.
Possibly the noisiest of Strauss' dance pieces, Unter Donner und Blitz evokes the sound of thunder and lightning through incessant timpani rolls and cymbal crashes. In the first half of section A, a loud timpani roll occurs every four measures, while the cymbals crash on each beat of the detached descending melody of the second half. Drum answers cymbal in the arching woodwind tune that begins section B, moving the accent to the second beat of the measure. A note-for-note return of section A completes the traditional ternary form, and a rambunctious coda creates a thunderous close. The only peculiar aspect of Unter Donner und Blitz is the percussive, eight-measure bridge between the two parts of section A, and the absence of any return to the first part of section A. Clearly, Strauss sought to amuse as much as compose a successful piece of music.
-- John Palmer
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