La Valse


Maurice Ravel

(1875 - 1937)

Symphonic poem or ballet? Virtuoso work for piano or orchestral showpiece? Sentimental reminiscence of Imperial Vienna or frenetic “Danse Macabre”? La Valse has at one time or another represented all of these things, and more. Ravel himself was not entirely certain. The work was initially conceived in 1906 and went by the title “Wien” (Vienna), and was, in the composer’s own words, “an

Johann Strauss, “The Waltz King”

apotheosis of the Viennese waltz, linked in my mind with the impression of a fantastic whirl of destiny”. Ravel was also paying homage to Johann Strauss, the “Waltz King”, composer of beloved masterpieces such as The Blue Danube, Die Fledermaus, and Roses From the South, to name only a few. As Ravel wrote to a friend, “You know of my deep sympathy for these wonderful rhythms, and that I value the joie de vivre expressed by the dance.” The work was not completed until 1920, and by that time, the impact of two tragedies--one personal and the other global, had completely shattered the composer’s life. One was the death of his mother, and the other was of course the First World War.

The death of Marie Delouart Ravel on January 5, 1917 came as a devastating blow from which the composer would in some respects never recover. For the only time in his career he basically stopped composing, and from this point forward his output would dwindle to an average on perhaps one piece per year until his death. Letters from the end of 1919, when Ravel was finishing La Valse, bear witness to his continuing grief.  As for the war (Ravel served in the French Army as a truck driver), it seems entirely plausible that this experience caused the composer to see the Viennese waltz in a different light. Interestingly,

Ravel in uniform, WWI

refused to join his colleagues in endorsing an official French ban on modern German and Austrian music during the war, asserting that “the best way to defend French music would be for French composers to write good music.”

    Ravel wrote the following with regard to La Valse:

“Through clouds whirling around, flashes of light permit us to see waltzing couples. They thin out, by and by, and we can see an

Serge Diaghilev

immense haa crowded with a rotating throng. The stage gets progressively brighter. Light from chandeliers bursts from the ceiling. An imperial court around 1855”.
       As can be gleaned from the paragraph above, La Valse was set to be a ballet score, composed for the famous impresario Serge Diaghilev and his Ballets Russes. However, when Ravel played the work through for Diaghilev, the impresario was not impressed, saying “Ravel, it’s a masterpiece, but it isn’t a ballet”. Ravel was deeply offended, and from that moment on, he would have nothing more to do with Diaghilev. When they happened to meet again in 1925, Ravel refused to shake Diaghilev’s hand, and Diaghilev challenged Ravel to a duel! Fortunately, friends persuaded Diaghilev to recant, and the men never met again. La Valse was first heard as a concert piece for orchestra, and it was not staged as a ballet until 1929.

     La Valse begins with low-pitched instruments, setting a sinister tone as the pulse of the triple-meter dance is established. The pulse is further colored by fragments of melodies and washes of orchestral sound. The critic/musicologist Carl Schorske gives an impressive characterization of the piece, viewing it as a metaphor for the “violent death of the nineteenth-century world.”

La Valse ballet, staged by the

New York City Ballet

     Ravel himself offered a tantalizing clue as to what he was trying to depict:

     “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.”

    La Valse contains every element of a Strauss waltz except its gaiety.  Instead, there is a sinister atmosphere that becomes frenzied by the end. Not until the final minutes of the piece is one forced to accept that the waltz has run irretrievably amok, and the brutality of the piece’s conclusion--which is nothing short of violent, terrifying, and bitterly final--is shocking.


Ravel (right) at the time of the premiere of La Valse