Every style of music has its signature tune, the one song or tune known by people who don’t know anything else about that music. Irish music has “Danny Boy” (not even Irish), Scottish, “Amazing Grace” (not Scottish at all) and bluegrass “Orange Blossom Special.” People who dont know the difference between Celtic and bluegrass fiddling will ask me to play “Orange Blossom Special,” so I’m especially sensitive to musical stereotyping, and when I asked a German trio at Epcot Center once to play a landler, I like to think they were gratified I didn’t request “Beer Barrel Polka.”
The landler is my favorite type of alpine tune, an Austrian folk dance in 3/4 time originally called the Landl ob der Enns. The name comes from the German “land,” meaning country, signifying a dance from the countryside as opposed to court or city dances, the countryside in this case being the states of Upper Austria (Oberosterreich) and Styria (Steiermark). Enns is a city in Oberosterreich near the confluence of the Enns and Danube rivers. The name was shortened to landler sometime around 1690, and the dance, gaining popularity around 1720, entailed close body contact between men and women, a stark contrast to circle dances and the formal minuet, a court dance reserved for the wealthy who had time to practice its complex steps. Knowing the nature of rustic dances, I suspect the landler, which included turning, gliding, hopping and stomping in hobnail boots, was an energetic, lustig amusement, a celebration of rural life.
The music for the landler, a medium-tempo dance, is characterized by many eighth-note runs played at a stately speed. Landlers (and other alpine music) are rich with close harmonies — thirds and sixths, and the dominant chords have many flatted sevenths, contrasting markedly with Scottish and Irish music, with harmonies of fifths and fourths that impart an ancient, droning, driving sound. Alpine music is written in major keys, imparting a happy sound, but many British Isles tunes are written in the Dorian mode, which is heavily minor key in feel. In common with the traditional music of the British Isles and much of Europe, the tunes are built on arpeggios, the notes grouped in vertical patterns that clearly suggest the chords. As Benjamin Franklin wrote about Scottish music, this structure combines melody with harmony. The Celts once lived in Austria, and I suspect that their music is the source of alpine tunes. The instrumentation of the landler in the 1700s was probably similar to that of British Isles music. Alpine music these days is played by accordions and brass bands, nicknamed oompah bands for the bass notes played on tubas. But brass and woodwinds came into full flower only in the early 1800s, and the accordion was invented in the mid-1800s. Landlers in the 1700s would have been played on string instruments, such as hammer dulcimer, violin and cittern, and on bagpipes (Dudelsack) and fife. Those instruments gradually gave way to the louder brass band and accordion, which are suitable for noisy beer halls and festivals. The accordion, which now is the size of a riding lawnmower and about as loud, is also popular because one person can play melody and accompaniment.
The landler in the early 1800s went to Vienna, where new smoother dance floors and better shoes (men got rid of their hobnail boots) gave rise to faster dance steps, and the landler, it is thought, gave way to the waltz. The Viennese waltz, being faster, used more long notes, such as groups of three quarter notes or dotted quarters and eighth notes.
Landlers are still played by alpine groups, alongside the faster waltzes and polkas, and a landler can be seen in “The Sound of Music,” during the party at the Captain’s house, when Maria and the Captain realize they’re in love. Maria tries to teach the landler to the children on the patio, the music wafting outside, and the Captain intervenes to help demonstrate. String instruments, especially the hammer dulcimer, are still used in some groups, and the notes of the landler cascade from the reeds of accordions and strings of the dulcimer, evoking a rural life in the hills of Osterreich.