La Valse

by Max Derrickson

Maurice Ravel
(Born in Cibourne, Basses-Pyrénées, France in 1875; died in Paris in 1937)

La Valse

Always in love with dance forms as structures for music, Ravel turned to both dance and Vienna for another inspiration in 1906.  He focused on that most ubiquitous of dance forms, the “Viennese waltz,” specifically those composed by Viennese composer Johann Strauss, II, known the world over as the “Waltz king” (1825—99).  By the last few decades of the 19th Century, Strauss’s waltzes had emerged as a kind of Austrian national dance and they soon flooded nearly every concert and ball room in Europe.  Ravel began his reimagined version of the waltz with a title of Wien (Vienna).   He later wrote that

I conceived of this work as a sort of apotheosis of the Viennese waltz, mingled with, in my mind, the impression of a fantastic, fatal whirling.

With this as its conception, it would be a long journey towards one of his most impressive masterpieces.  Other projects intervened and postponed Wien for almost a decade up until 1914, when suddenly France and Ravel himself found themselves pulled into the calamitous depths of World War I with the Austrians and their allies.  Being of slight build – Ravel was only was 5’ 3” tall – and not robustly healthy, he was deemed suitable only for driving a supply truck.  At one point, for several months, he delivered ammunition and supplies at all hours, amidst German and Austrian shelling, to that desperate and awful trench warfare in Verdun.  The experience took its toll on Ravel, and it affected both his composing output and the way he wrote.  Several pieces were directly inspired by the War: Le tombeau de Couperin (1914-17), with six movements each dedicated to a friend who died in the War, and the Piano Concerto for Left Hand (1930), commissioned by concert pianist Paul Wittgenstein who lost his right arm in battle.

As for Ravel’s unfinished Wien, it took Sergei Diaghilev to raise it from its slumber, the impresario who led the Ballets Russes to such great heights.  Diaghilev commissioned Ravel for a new ballet, and Ravel dusted off Wien.  Almost 15 year after he’d conceived of it, Ravel completed Wien in 1922 and it bore a new title, La Valse.  Ironically, Diaghilev immediately rejected it as undanceable.  […]

Since its very first performance, La Valse has been loved by audiences as a masterpiece, but always with a bit of puzzlement over what Ravel was trying to convey.  In his program, he described his La Valse in the following way:

Through breaks in the swirling clouds, waltzing couples may be glimpsed. Little by little they disperse: one makes out (A) an immense hall filled with a whirling crowd. The stage is illuminated gradually. The light of the chandeliers […]

Though Ravel’s programmatic description is generally accurate, the waltz goes much further than a Hapsburg social frivolity […], soon to blend into a staggered pulse: this is an oddly limping waltz.  All manner of dazzling effects begin to unfold from the pen of Ravel, the great orchestrator.  But lightness and twinkling return as a waltz tune emerges amidst a magical array of swirling woodwinds, trading phrases behind the strings, revealing those waltzing ghosts and their partners.  Ravel makes the light grow with ever more glittering colors, not least from the percussion.  Everything is tuneful and beautiful … but something always seems slightly amiss.  The tune never seems[…] becomes almost nightmarish and violent – like a saber dance with victims – and begins its demonic dash toward its wild and thrilling ending.  As Ravel noted at this key point for Rubinstein’s choreography: “We are dancing on the edge of a volcano.”  La Valse becomes anathema to the urbaneness of a Viennese waltz just before the cataclysm of history.

Although Ravel very deliberately never elaborated on any underlying message of his La Valse, it’s extremely tempting […].  Amidst all of the tunefulness and colors and excitement of Ravel’s masterful La Valse, its ambiguity is perhaps its crowning achievement.