Ravel’s “La Valse”
Notes by TŌN horn players Tori Boell and Kenshi Miyatani
La Valse (literally translating to “The Waltz”) is a single-movement tone poem that began as sketches intended for a piece known as Wien (Vienna). Ravel himself described the idea as “. . . a kind of apotheosis of the Viennese waltz, with which is mingled in my mind the idea of the fantastic whirl of destiny.” The final La Valse, however, carries a far more foreboding character, touched deeply by the devastation of World War I. As a composer with a penchant for utilizing his music as commentary for current events, the piece can easily be seen as a commentary on the decline of European civilization in the wake of the war.
In receiving a commission from Sergei Diaghilev, the founder of the Ballets Russes, Ravel utilized his sketches from before the war to create what he imagined as a ballet for the choreographer. He describes the opening as follows: “Through whirling clouds, waltzing couples may be faintly distinguished. The clouds gradually scatter: one sees . . . an immense hall peopled with a whirling crowd. The scene is gradually illuminated. The light of the chandeliers bursts forth . . . .” The piece itself opens with an unstable, almost murky sonority, utilizing scattered fragments of waltz rhythms and melodies. As the poem progresses, a series of waltz themes are presented utilizing Johann Strauss II’s commonly assumed waltz gestures and construction. However, they are colored with grating dissonance and polytonality, and never fully realized. In the second half of the piece, the themes from the first half are brought back, but are deconstructed and rebuilt with more tension and instability. The music repeatedly builds and backs away from the climax, finally breaking into the ending coda.
The Portrait of a Ballet
After hearing Ravel play the piece with Marcelle Meyer, Diaghilev said to Ravel, “it’s a masterpiece, but not a ballet . . . it’s the portrait of a ballet.” With such a decisive review, the ballet itself never came to fruition. However, La Valse became a wildly popular orchestral work. The waltz style itself almost represented a bygone era of levity and beauty, destroyed by the brutality of war.