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La Valse

About the Work

Maurice Ravel
Quick Look Composer: Maurice Ravel
Program note originally written for the following performance:
National Symphony Orchestra: Leonard Slatkin, conductor/Yundi Li, piano, performs Liszt Apr. 5 - 7, 2007
© Richard Freed

Ravel began work on La Valse at the end of 1919, using sketches he had made as early as 1906, and completed the score the following spring; at the same time, he prepared versions for piano solo, and for two pianos. It was in the latter version that the work was first performed in public, by Ravel himself and Alfredo Casella in Vienna on October 23, 1920; the orchestral premiere was given in Paris on December 20 of the same year by the Lamoureux Orchestra under Camille Chevillard. The National Symphony Orchestra' first performances of this work were conducted by Edwin McArthur at the Lyric Theater in Baltimore on February 13, 1940, and Constitution Hall the following day; the most recent ones were conducted by Leonard Slatkin during an East Coast tour between October 30 and November 2, 2002, following performances at the Kennedy Center the previous week.

The score calls for piccolo, 3 flutes, 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, snare drum, bass drum, triangle, cymbals, castanets, tam-tam, tambourine, crotales, glockenspiel, 2 harps, and strings. Duration, 12 minutes.

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In 1906 Ravel began sketching a symphonic poem in tribute to Johann Strauss, the Waltz King, who had died only seven years earlier. He did not take it very far at that time, and in 1911 one of the themes in those sketches found its way into his Valses nobles et sentimentales for piano solo. (That work, whose title implies a similar homage to an earlier Viennese master, Franz Schubert, was orchestrated in 1912 for a ballet called Adélaïde, ou le langage des fleurs.) The Strauss tribute had not been abandoned, though, and by 1914 Ravel settled on Wien, the German name for Vienna, as a working title. By the time he returned to the project after World War I, though, Vienna and every facet of European life had been drastically and irrevocably changed, and his original concept for the piece could not avoid being changed as well. Ravel himself had been shaken by his front-line service as a truck and ambulance driver for an artillery regiment. His health had been affected to the point of requiring surgery for dysentery in September 1916, and his convalescence was prolonged by his depression over the brutality he had witnessed, and the loss of numerous individuals who had been close to him. When he returned to his creative work, in 1919, he memorialized seven of those lost friends in his dedications of the six sections of his piano suite Le Tombeau de Couperin.

It was only then that he got down towork on the piece inspired by the Waltz King. He now called it simply La Valse, and spoke of it as "a kind of apotheosis of the Viennese waltz, with which is mingled in my mind the fantastic whirl of destiny." It still had more than an echo of Johann Strauss (its principal theme bears a strong resemblance to that of the waltz O schöner Mai, which Johann Strauss based on tunes from his own operetta Prinz Methusalem), but destiny' whirl had taken on a darker quality.

Ravel had discussed La Valse with the famous ballet impresario Serge Diaghilev, and in April 1920 he and Marcelle Meyer performed his two-piano version for Diaghilev at the home of the painter Misia Sert, with Francis Poulenc, Igor Stravinsky and the dancer-choreographer Léonide Massine among those present. Diaghilev declared the work "a masterpiece . . . but it' not a ballet. It' a portrait of a ballet—a painting of a ballet." He added that Ravel' scenario would be too costly to produce. Stravinsky, according to Poulenc' recollection, said not a word; nor did Ravel, who picked up his music and left—and never forgave Diaghilev.

As already noted, it was actually in that same two-piano version that La Valse was first heard in public, in Vienna itself, seven weeks before the orchestral premiere in Paris. Although Diaghilev never changed his mind about it as a ballet, it has been given several danced productions. The first was given by the Royal Flemish Ballet in Antwerp on October 2, 1926. Ida Rubinstein, for whom Ravel subsequently composed his Boléro, danced La Valse in Paris on several occasions, each with different choreography and décor. The New York City Ballet has in its current repertory a choreographic version by George Balanchine, introduced in 1951, which includes the Valses nobles et sentimentales as well. Ravel apparently approved most of the danced versions presented in his lifetime, but objected to one staged in 1929 because the choreographer and designer disregarded the specific time and place indicated in his preface to the score:

Viennese waltz rhythm. Drifting clouds allow a restricted vision of waltzing couples. The clouds gradually disperse and we see an immense room filled with a whirling crowd. As the rhythm becomes clear the scene takes on more illumination, until the light of the chandeliers bursts forth. An imperial court, about 1855 . . .

Beneath the voluptuous exterior of this music is a sinister undercurrent. By midpoint in the work the waltzing couples seem to be, as one writer put it, "dancing on a volcano." In the context of its postwar creation, it seems not at all farfetched to find in the closing pages of this score not only "the motif of death" cited by Arbie Orenstein in his discussion of this and Ravel' other postwar compositions (in Ravel: Man and Musician, Columbia University Press, 1975), but the reflection of a shattered dream, in which the world symbolized by the imperial court crumbles into dust at the height of the forced and joyless revelry.

Avril 2007