Understanding Leonard Cohen’s Take This Waltz

Notes On And Recommended Analyses Of Take This Waltz

In my two preceding posts on The Unrealized Potential of Cohen’s Take This Waltz in The Gin Game,1 the specific content of the song, Take This Waltz, was a secondary consideration.

Some readers have expressed interest in the song itself. While my own need to analyze2 Take This Waltz has been adequately sated by those last two blog entries, I can offer some notes and direction.

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.

From the Reykjavik Concert (24 June 1988)

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”.

From a BBC Interview

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.

From the Nurnberg Concert (10 May 1988)

It was about 300 years ago today that I stumbled on a book by a Spanish poet. A book that was to alter my life completely. You see I was destined to be a brain surgeon or a forest ranger or even just to go into the family clothing business. But in this old bookstore I opened a book and I read the lines “I want to pass through the arches of Elvira, to see your thighs and begin weeping.” I turned to the cover of the book, it was written by a Spanish poet by the name of Federico Garcia Lorca, and for the first time I understood that there was another world and I wanted to be in it. So it was a great honour for me when I was asked to translate one of his great poems into English and to set it to music. The poem is Little Viennese Waltz which I called Take This Waltz.

From the Austin Concert (31 October 1988)

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”.

From a 1997 Interview, “Morning Becomes Eclectic”, KCRW Radio

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…

Leonard Cohen’s affection for the poet led him to name his daughter after him.
From the concert at The Hague 18 May 1993)

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.

Pequeno Vals Vienes and its Translations

A side-by-side comparison of Leonard Cohen’s Take This Waltz and a more literal English translation of Lorca’s Little Viennese Waltz can be viewed on the Speaking Cohen site and Lorca’s original poem, Pequeno Vals Vienes, in Spanish is available at Pequeno Vals Vienes

Analyses

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.

Unfortunately for those uneducated in musicology, such as me, much of the paper deals with major and minor chords, tonality, and similar language that is, in effect, indecipherable. 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 music-centric portions of the essay.

My recommendation for those with a casual interest in Take This Waltz3 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 to the 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.

  1. See Part 1: The Basics of the Play and Its Add-on Dance Scene and Part 2: The Tragic Poignancy Of Love Touched But Not Grasped []
  2. The “need to analyze” is listed in a special edition of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs 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 []
  3. “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. []

0 responses to “Understanding Leonard Cohen’s Take This Waltz

  1. A fascinating series of posts.

  2. Thank You for the amazing analysis and very big bunch of data about the most important song in my life. I was eight when I heard Leonard Cohen first time and that was “Take This Waltz”. Three years later I tried to translate it for myself with my father’s old English-Polish dictionary. I didn’t know it that time, but I was already at home…

  3. Pingback:   Take This Waltz: The Supplement by fashion.ZapiZapi.com