Toward An Understanding Of Leonard Cohen’s Take This Waltz

takethiswaltz

Notes On And Recommended Analyses Of Take This Waltz

The Unrealized Potential of Cohen’s Take This Waltz in The Gin Game, a two-part discussion1 published earlier this year triggered interest among reader about the song itself. Now, in my personal edition of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, the “need to analyze Take This Waltz” falls somewhere between the “need to distinguish between sierra gold and amber sunshine” and the “need to catch a bowling ball dropped from a five story building in ones teeth.” I can, nonetheless, offer some notes and direction toward an understanding of Leonard Cohen’s 1986 tribute to  Federico García Lorca.

Leonard Cohen On Lorca

Take This Waltz is an especially important song in the Leonard Cohen canon, in large part because the lyrics derive from Pequeño Vals Vienès  (“Little Viennese Waltz”), a poem written in Spanish by Federico Garcia Lorca (pictured on right).

Cohen has commented on his discovery of Lorca’s poem and its significance in numerous concerts and interviews. These quotations are representative.

I was fifteen when I began to read Federico Garcia Lorca. His poems perhaps have had the greatest influence on my texts. He summoned up a world where I felt at home. His images were sensual and mysterious: “throw a fist full of ants to the sun.” I wanted to be able to write something like that as well. A few years ago I wrote a musical adaptation of Lorca’s “Little Viennese Waltz .” Then I noticed what a complex writer he was: it took me more than a hundred hours just to translate the poem. Lorca is one of those rare poets with whom you can stay in love for life.2

Here of all places I don’t have to explain how I fell in love with the poet Federico Garcia Lorca. I was 15 years old and I was wandering through the bookstores of Montreal and I fell upon one of his books, and I opened it, and my eyes saw those lines “I want to pass through the Arches of Elvira, to see her thighs and begin weeping.” I thought “This is where I want to be”… I read alone “Green I want you green. ” I turned another page “The morning through fistfuls of ants in your face.” I turned another page “Her thighs slipped away like school of silver minnows.” I knew that I had come home. So it is with a great sense of gratitude that I am able to repay my debt to Federico Garcia, at least a corner, a fragment, a crumb, a hair, an electron of my debt by dedicating this song, this translation of his great poem “Little Viennese Waltz,” “Take This Waltz.”3

You’ve just heard Take This Waltz, which is a translation I did of a very great poem by Federico Garcia Lorca, a poet who touched me very deeply, a poet who provided a landscape which I could inhabit, and people have been kind enough to say that I’ve done the same for them.4

Long time ago I was about 15 in my hometown of Montreal, I was rumbling through….or rambling as you say down here. We say “rumbling.” Actually we don’t say that at all. I was rumbling through this bookstore in Montreal. And I came upon this old book, a second-hand book of poems by a Spanish poet. I opened it up and I read these lines: “I want to pass through the arches of Elvira, to see your thighs and begin weeping.” Well that certainly was a refreshing sentiment. I began my own search for those arches those thighs and those tears….Another line “The morning threw fistfuls of ants at my face” It’s a terrible idea. But this was a universe I understood thoroughly and I began to pursue it, I began to follow it and I began to live in it. And now these many years later, it is my great privilege to be able to offer my tiny homage to this great Spanish poet, the anniversary of whose assassination was celebrated two years ago. He was killed by the Civil Guards in Spain in 1936. But my real homage to this poet was naming my own daughter Lorca. It was Federico Garcia Lorca. I set one of his poems to music and translated it. He called it “Little Vienese Waltz.” My song is called “Take this Waltz.”5

Leonard Cohen’s affection for the poet led him to name his daughter after him.

YF: You’re known as a pretty fair interpreter yourself, given your handling of Lorca. Is it difficult for you?

LC: Unfortunately, all my efforts are painstaking. I’d prefer it if I were gifted and spontaneous and swift, but my work requires a great deal of painstaking. That’s no guarantee of its quality, but it does. With the Lorca poem, the translation took 150 hours, just to get it into English that resembled–I would never presume to say duplicated–the greatness of Lorca’s poem. It was a long, drawn-out affair, and the only reason I would even attempt it is my love for Lorca. I loved him as a kid; I named my daughter Lorca, so you can see this is not a casual figure in my life. She wears the same name beautifully; she is a very strange and eccentric soul…6

My daughter dyed her hair blue and I didn’t mind,and she put this ring in her nose : I didn’t mind that either.And she put this stud through her tongue.That was a little hard for a father to take but I didn’t really feel like doing violence to her relationship just because you put a nail through a tongue. There are things you have to accept.Then she said she want to move to Amsterdam. That’s when I put my foot down. (All this is my way of introducing a song) My daughter was named after a great poet that touched me very much when I was her age. His name is Federico Garcia Lorca.My daughter’s name is Lorca.And this is the song for him.7

Pequeno Vals Vienes and Its Translations

Wilhelm_Gause_Hofball_in_Wien
Lorca’s original poem, Pequeno Vals Vienes, in Spanish alongside an English translation (more literal than Cohen’s) of Lorca’s Little Viennese Waltz can be viewed at Lyrics Translate.

Analyses Of Take This Waltz

The 800 Pound Gorilla
While I lack statistical evidence, the most frequently referenced analysis of Take This Waltz appears to be Re-membering the Love Song: Ambivalence and Cohen’s “Take This Waltz” by Charlene Diehl-Jones. This is a dense, sometimes abstruse, often challenging, and consistently impressive piece of scholarship. I’ve excerpted the opening,

After the opening four-measure instrumental lead of “Take This Waltz,” we hear Cohen’s voice, earthy, sometimes unbeautiful, with that lingering possibility of a sardonic undercurrent:

Now in Vienna there’s ten pretty women. There’s a shoulder where
Death comes to cry. There’s a lobby with nine hundred windows.
There’s a tree where the doves go to die.

Add to that voice — and its conspicuous hyperbole — the thumping insistence of a barrel-organ oom-pa-pa background, and you wonder what you might salvage, if there’s anything to remain after the acid has pocked the surfaces here. Still, there’s something disarmingly direct about this stylized waltz, something potent and compelling. It is, I would say, a love song. Or perhaps more accurately a love song from the other side: it doesn’t pretend another Edenic beginning, but assumes — and even advertises — the borrowed nature of the lover’s position, the conventions that make a love song possible. The necessary ambivalence, you might say, of the lover’s stance in a textual/musical world which admits to its multiple layers of inscription.

Much of the paper deals with issues such as chord structure and tonality in language that is inaccessible to those  uneducated in musicology. An example follows:

The structural ambivalence is echoed by the more immediately perceptible tonal ambivalence: “Take This Waltz” can hardly resist the lure of its own relative minor, and constantly swings between major and minor modes. The introductory four measures are securely positioned in the major, and though the voice enters in that key, by midway through the first line it is sketching the possibilities of the relative minor (Figure 1). (I have, for ease of reading, transposed these passages up a semitone, and sketched in the bass-line movement; for clarification of labeling techniques, and concepts of tonality and chord function, see especially Piston, 47-63.)

 

Well, thank goodness that she “transposed those passages up a semitone” for “ease of reading.” Otherwise, I might have been up the proverbial creek. Clearly, I am unqualified to judge those musicological portions of the essay.

My recommendation for those with a casual interest in Take This Waltz8 is to read through this work, blithely skip the music discussions unless those terms are familiar to you, and take the time to puzzle out portions that grab your interest.

Also Of Interest

Translation with a clamp on its jaws is actually a post about literal and free style translations that opens with a consideration of Nabokov’s literal translation of “Eugene Onegin” and his free style translation of “Alice in Wonderland” and ends with the example of Federico Garcia Lorca’s “Little Viennese Waltz,” the literal translation by Greg Simon and Steven White, and the free translation by Leonard Cohen. It is well worth reading on its own merits as well as for a better understanding of Take This Waltz.

Finally, I recommend this excerpt from the Stylus Magazine article, Leonard Cohen: Take This Waltz.

“Take This Waltz,” also from I’m Your Man, is about as close to singing as he got in the late 80s. Rare for Cohen, the lyrics are not his own; they are adapted from “Little Viennese Waltz” by Lorca. As with all of Cohen’s work in this period, the backing is almost chintzy, especially the section where he and Jennifer Warnes start singing “this waltz, this waltz, this waltz.” It sounds like something out of a bad Disney movie. Mostly Cohen just purrs over muted violin and beatless ambience. As is usual with his later work, it’s hard to describe without sounding vaguely contemptuous. It shouldn’t work, and it almost doesn’t.

But then, you hear the way he sings “Oh my love, oh my love! / Take this waltz, take this waltz / It’s yours now, it’s all that there is.” He sounds helpless, like a supplicant. And you think back to the weird fantasia of imagery, as much Cohen as Lorca:

“There’s a piece that was torn from the morning, and it hangs in the Gallery of Frost”
“On a bed where the moon has been sweating, in a cry filled with footsteps and sand”
“And I’ll dance with you in Vienna, I’ll be wearing a river’s disguise”
“Take this waltz, take this waltz, take this waltz with the clamp on its jaws”

And it becomes clear that the singer is hiding something. And, if you’re me, you think back to “Chelsea Hotel #2”, where Cohen was at his most forthright, singing “I need you / I don’t need you / And all of that jivin’ around.” And suddenly, in those swirling six minutes as Cohen waltzes ’round Vienna, I see, clearly, that Cohen really hasn’t changed, that he’s still singing of the same old hurts and balms. There’s still the push and pull of “I need you / I don’t need you,” but now there’s this towering, Gothic edifice erected over it. Part of it is boredom, I imagine—when you keep your hand in for as long as Cohen has, you have to vary things a little. And part of it is probably protection, the sadness in Cohen’s voice only tolerable for short periods.

But all that can be figured out. The beauty, the genius, the true devastation of the love song that is “Take This Waltz” is that as Cohen sings to Her “And you’ll carry me down on your dancing tothe pools that you lift on your wrist” (and it’s always Her of course, the same Her), you really feel it, you feel all the ways that this massive construction doesn’t just hide the deeper issues, but amplifies them, renders them rich and strange. I can hear now that Cohen’s earlier work is necessary to understand his later, but it’s the dream-like potency of those later excursions that have me addicted.

Credit Due Department:  The painting,  Hofball in Wien by Wilhelm Gause is from Wikipedia Commons.

Note: Most of this content was originally posted Jul 26, 2007 at 1HeckOfAGuy.com, a predecessor of Cohencentric

_____________________________

  1. See Part 1: The Basics Of The Play & Its Add-on Dance Scene and Part 2:The Tragedy Of Love Touched But Not Grasped []
  2. From ‘Gesprek met Leonard Cohen, de boeteprediker van de popmuziek; Het Oude Testament is mijn handboek’ [Talk with Leonard Cohen, the philosopher of pop music; the Old Testament is my guide] by Pieter Steinz, NRC: December 4, 1992. translated by Anja Deelen []
  3. From the 24 June 1988 Reykjavik Concert []
  4. From a BBC Interview []
  5. From the 31 October 1988 Austin Concert []
  6. From a 1997 Interview, “Morning Becomes Eclectic”, KCRW Radio []
  7. From the 18 May 1993 concert at The Hague []
  8. “Casual interest” in this case includes the range that begins with curious and ends just before writing ones University of Chicago Ph.D. dissertation on The Conflicted Psychosociomusical Elements of Take This Waltz. []