The Cigarette Waltz

A couple of days ago we heard a ballet called The Cigarette Waltz by a French composer, Edouard Lalo, on one of the Iowa Public Radio (IPR) classical music programs. The announcer told a little anecdote (most of which I didn’t hear) about the saying “Smoke‘em if ya got’em” which he traced to the World War II era, reflective of the general idea that you can do what you like if you have the means. I didn’t get the connection, frankly.

I was curious about why the ballet Namouna (Valse de la cigarette) was connected with cigarettes. The first thing I did was to look up the ballet on the web. I found the version done by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by—Yondani Butt. That’s actually a better joke than the one by the IPR radio show host.

At first the only thing I could find out about Lalo was that his name is the answer to a crossword clue, which is “composer of the Cigarette Waltz.” I followed several dead-end leads. There’s no real connection with Lalo himself that I could find, unless you count his “hemiplegic attack” (a stroke from smoking?) which prevented him from finishing the score for the ballet.

I read the Wikipedia article summarizing the ballet, which didn’t mention cigarettes.

And finally, I found a Google book entry after using the search terms “why is Namouna called the cigarette waltz.” The book’s title is “Traveling Sprinkler Deluxe: A Novel,” written by Nicholson Baker, published by Penguin Group in 2013. It might help to read the Wikipedia synopsis of the ballet before you read Baker’s passage, which mentions a cigarette:

“It’s true that there is an opera by Edouard Lalo called The King of Ys about the flooding of Ys, based partly on a forged Breton ballad by Theodore Hersart de la Villemarque, and true that Debussy had wildly applauded Lalo’s ballet Namouna while at the conservatory, and had memorized parts of it, including perhaps the scandalous waltz in which Namouna rolls a cigarette for her paramour…”

It’s still not exactly clear what’s going on with the cigarette, but because the waltz is described as scandalous, I wonder if there was something salacious about the rolling of the cigarette. The slave girl Namouna is, after all, flirting with Ottavio.

Baker’s point is probably that the ballet is not so much about the cigarette as it is about a larger issue, judging from my general sense of his passage. Larger than a cigarette anyway.

There’s a book titled “Cigarette Waltz: Seventeen Short Stories Adaptable for Theater” by Philip-Dimitri Galas” but I was unable to access any inside text.

Alas, I couldn’t find Cliff Notes about it.

Author: James Amos

I'm a retired consult-liaison psychiatrist. I navigated the path in a phased retirement program through the hospital where I was employed. I was fully retired as of June 30, 2020. This blog chronicles my journey.

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