Maurice Ravel: La Valse
Maurice Ravel composed La Valse between 1919 and 1920, with the premiere taking place on 12th December 1920 in Paris. Although originally conceived as music for ballet, La Valse is now more commonly heard as a concert piece. The commission from the work came from Sergei Diaghilev, with the original title reading as La Valse, poème chorégraphique. The work was to be used for a new production by the Ballets Russes, however after Ravel completed the score, Diaghilev bailed. He disliked the music and commented that it had “no balletic character.” This then led to the ballet not being produced at all, as well as Diaghilev and Ravel’s relationship coming to a sour end.
La Valse has been described as a tribute to the waltz, with the score showing this short description at the start:
“Clouds whirl about. Occasionally they part to allow a glimpse of waltzing couples. As they gradually lift, one can discern a gigantic hall, filled by a crowd of dancers in motion. The stage gradually brightens. The flow of chandeliers breaks out fortissimo.
Due to the work being composed post-World War I, many have surmised that La Valse’s ethos lies in that of themes of war:
“Whether or not it was intended as a metaphor for the predicament of European civilization in the aftermath of the Great War, its one-movement design plots the birth, decay and destruction of a musical genre: the waltz.” – George Benjamin
This seemed to not be the case, however, with Ravel setting the record straight about his intentions:
“While some discover an attempt at parody, indeed caricature, others categorically see a tragic allusion in it – the end of the Second Empire, the situation in Vienna after the war. This dance may seem tragic, like any other emotion…pushed to the extreme. But one should only see in it what the music expresses: an ascending progression of sonority, to which the stage comes along to add light and movement.
It doesn’t have anything to do with the present situation in Vienna, and it also doesn’t have any symbolic meaning in that regard. In the course of La Valse, I did not envision a dance of death, or a struggle between life and death – the year of the choreographic setting, 1855, repudiates such an assumption!”
This impressionistic take on a classic Viennese Waltz begins with a hazy opening, which encapsulates the idea of clouds clearing the way so you can see the dancing couples. Ravel had a true fascination for the waltz, how it was structured and how it translated into dance. In 1906, Ravel wrote to his friend Jean Marnold:
“You know of my deep sympathy for these wonderful rhythms, and that I value the joie de vivre expressed by the dance.”
As La Valse begins to grow in dynamic, so does the tension in the music. Expanding through a long crescendo, the music is intermittently interrupted and restarted, leading to an energetic and dramatic climax. The captivating rhythms swirl with the carefree nature of parts of La Valse. This resonates with the general thoughts on this social dance, with its domination of Viennese ballrooms being a particular focal point.
Described as carefree, seductive and mind-numbing, the waltz posed an interesting stance in a then crumbling Austrian society. Falling under an intensely reactionary government in the midst of the 19th century, society in Vienna was a delicate matrix. The waltz gave the impression that everything was okay, with many people taking part in the art of dance or music to hide this. The mindless whirling around a ballroom successfully concealed a government volcano that was soon to erupt.
La Valse can be read in two halves. The first, a quintessential Ravelerian impressionistic waltz style, the second a captivating, violent and expressionistic representation of the demise of society at the time. Conscious or not, Ravel’s two halves of La Valse play perfectly into this society story.
After the dark and moody introduction led by the basses, variations of the main melodic material begin to surface. Led by the bassoons, there are a handful of waltz fragments that are heard. What makes La Valse so effective is Ravel’s use of opulent orchestrations, an eclectic mixture of atmospheres and an array of effects such as string slides and using commonly underused bass instruments such as contrabassoons.
Ravel’s captivating orchestrations captures the violence and glitter of a society that was rapidly fading aware. His use of grotesque humor and horror leads to the twisted ending which becomes an intense dance of death.
In a tribute after Ravel’s death in 1937, Paul Landormy described La Valse as:
“The most unexpected of the compositions of Ravel, revealing to us heretofore unexpected depths of Romanticism, power, vigor, and rapture in this musician whose expression is usually limited to the manifestation of an essentially classical genius.”
From Ravel’s masterful orchestration to his use of the waltz structure, La Valse is one of his most intense and musically colourful works.
This blog is dedicated to my friends at Orchestre National de Lille
Ⓒ Alex Burns
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