It is hard to think of a work by the French composer Maurice Ravel that would surpass his Boléro in fame and renown. The piece, performed for the first time in 1928, became an immediate success, much to the surprise of Ravel, who regarded it with no little condescension, said it consisted wholly of “orchestral tissue without music” and was certain that orchestras would refuse to play it. The Boléro was the last link in a long chain of dance music composed by Ravel, some of it written for the ballet, some of it conceived as purely instrumental music – as stylized dances for the orchestra or for piano. Dances permeate his work, from the Menuet antique he composed when he was 20, up to the beautifully melancholic slow waltz which forms the second movement of his Concerto in G, one of his last works. Within this group, among the menuets, rigaudons, forlanes and pavanes (which were all considered antiquated already in the 19th century) one also finds several waltzes, dances from the not so distant past: the aforementioned waltz from the Concerto in G, a string of Valses nobles et sentimentales for piano, written in 1911, and one other work, called simply La Valse, which is the subject of this article.
The waltz, which stems from the Walzer and the Ländler (both peasant dances, popular throughout Austria, Bavaria and the Tyrol since the 1750s), became fashionable in the Viennese salons by the end of the 18th century, and spread out to other countries during the 19th century. Ravel spoke of his attraction to the waltz’s “wonderful rhythms”, and of the joie de vivre that he felt was expressed in the dance. As early as 1906 he mentioned his plans for writing a piece in tribute to the waltz form and to the “Waltz King”, Johann Strauss the Son. Strauss, who during his lifetime composed over 400 waltzes, polkas, marches and quadrilles (as well as 16 operettas, one opera and a ballet called “Cinderella”) was largely responsible for the great popularity of the waltz in Vienna during the 19th century, and many of the best-known Viennese waltzes were composed by him; among others, By the beautiful blue Danube – likely the most famous of them all:
This, therefore – the embodiment of elegance and suggested sensuality – was the music to which Ravel wished to write a tribute. The composition he heard in his imagination and which he at first intended to call “Vienna”, was to be “a kind of apotheosis of the Viennese waltz” and was mingled in his mind with the idea of a “fantastic and fatal whirling”. (The word fatal is somewhat bizarre in the context of the Viennese waltz, which is by its nature bright and devoid of care, and we’ll come back to it later). As such things happen, the work was only completed in 1920, fourteen years and one world war later. Ravel returned to his idea in 1919, prompted by a commission from Sergei Diaghilev, the famous impresario and the founder of the Ballets Russes in Paris, for whom Ravel had previously composed the music for the ballet Daphnis et Chloé (1909-1912).
The title of the new work became La Valse (The Waltz) and Ravel worked on three versions simultaneously: a version for a large symphony orchestra, a version for piano solo and a version for two pianos. The latter was the one in which the work was first performed for Diaghelev, who promptly rejected it, saying the work was a masterpiece but only a “portrait of a ballet”, not a real ballet. His reaction put an end to the relationship between the two: when they met again several years later Ravel refused to shake Diaghelev’s hand, and Diaghelev, offended, challenged Ravel to a duel, which luckily never took place. That was their last encounter.
Disregarding Diaghelev’s opinion about La Valse’s danceablity, we know that Ravel conceived it entirely as a visual work and had even written a detailed programme for its first part:
“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 […]. Set in an imperial court, about 1855.”
The music follows Ravel’s plan to the letter. (I present two recordings with this listening guide; the first is clear and transparent, and therefore accompanies the explanations well, but except for its ending it is not, in my opinion, very exciting or compelling, so I would suggest following the guide with this recording and at the end listening to an alternative version – one conducted by Leonard Bernstein, and imbued with great dramatic power, despite the lesser quality of the recording.)
The work begins with a muted, undefined hum in the double-basses; without measure, without beat. Out of this chaos, a few bars later, the main uniting element of the work emerges: the waltz rhythm (00:06). At first just two notes of the three, they are later joined by the third note (00:11), in a kind of unending hypnotic gesture. Finally, a fragment of a melody appears above these (00:14). It is interrupted (you will hear the flashes in the violins at 00:17 and 00:24), just a hint, a suggestion of a tune, of a melodic element. It returns at 00:29, more strongly present, and with it the clouds begin to disperse and other waltz melodies are briefly revealed, before the endless whirling carries them away from us (at 00:48, 00:54, 01:01 and 01:08). Ravel wondrously manages to transmit the feeling of opacity; his notes paint before us the clouds which obscure the scene and the proceedings. Everything is half-concealed, and we are left tense and alert, not knowing where the music will lead us.
And then, at once, the mist is lifted, and the main melody appears before us (01:23) – the great hall filled with the whirling waltzing crowd. Here is the epitome of elegance, of charm, of good taste. The harmonic key of the work is finally revealed as well: in the opening not only the rhythmic pulse and the melody but the harmony too was clouded and lacking a stable centre – and here, together with the appearance of the main melody, the soft radiance of D major, the work’s main key, emerges as well. The melody is long and continuous; three relaxed, refined sentences, with accompanying waves in the celli and bass clarinet. In the fourth sentence (01:57) the melody passes to the flute, and the whole section finishes with a typical Viennese waltz ending (02:02). Another melody appears (02:06), highly sensuous, accompanied by glissandi in the harps (those are the gentle metallic slides, going up and down along with the melody, which you can hear clearly at 02:04, just before the melody begins) and very soon the whirling grows faster (02:30), the brass and the percussion join in, and we reach the first culmination of the work (02:40). This is the spot where, according to Ravel’s plan, the light of the chandeliers illuminates the grand hall.
From this point and up to the last third of the work Ravel presents a string of Waltz melodies, one more beautiful than the other. They are elegant (02:49), graceful (03:23), slightly melancholic (04:56); stormy (03:57 and 05:12), worried (05:25), amorous (05:48), intimate (06:35), and some, at least for me, have nothing at all to do with Vienna but sound rather like a musical representation of Paris from the Belle Époque (04:26). As befits the spirit of the Viennese waltz, all of the above (except, perhaps, the one at 05:25) have neither care nor worry, and all the time in the world belongs to them. The last of these melodies, light-footed and sprightly (07:17) ends with a big crescendo (07:38) after which it suddenly plunges into the depths (07:42-07:44), and we return to the swirling clouds of the beginning.
And from there it all goes downhill.
The change comes so suddenly that at first we don’t even understand that it is upon us. We have seemingly returned to the beginning of the work, to the formless chaos, but the sense of the gradual brightening, the expectation of something magical, of a beautiful fairy-tale that would arise and unfold before our eyes, is now replaced by an undefined anxiety, by a shadow of an unclear danger floating like a cloud on the horizon and disturbing the peace of mind of the dancers. Tiny changes in the harmony that are scattered between 07:44 and 08:24 – sometimes it’s just a single note which is lowered or raised by a semi-tone – as well as changes in the orchestration (the most salient of which comes at 08:12 – a short melody which was played by the flutes and strings in the beginning, and is now taken over by the trumpet and muted horns: a far-away and slightly frightening sound) darken the harmonic surroundings and dim the brilliance of the chandeliers.
Ravel, like a talented thriller movie director, doesn’t show us the danger directly, at least not yet. We perceive it only second-hand, through the reaction of the dancers. In those pages, which can in retrospect be viewed as the beginning of the end, Ravel presents no new musical material (except for a short, melody-less transition at 08:24). The beautiful, nonchalant, sensuous melodies that we heard before are all played again, one after another. But if before they were presented separately, each one leisurely occupying a section of its own, now they are quickly swapped, treading on each other’s toes (this comes to an extreme at 09:13, when two of the melodies appear simultaneously), as if the dancing couples started sensing that the time which the world allocated to their dancing was measured and limited, and as it runs out, so their determination to go on with their dance increases.
The mixing of melodies leads to a grand climax (09:30), after which the music apparently calms down (09:42-09:50) and starts on one last ascent, as if out of a desperate attempt by the dancers to pretend everything was fine (09:57-10:14). But the threat has already penetrated the waltz itself, and is now growing out of the waltzing rhythm in a piercing chromatic line (10:25-10:35). This spurs the dancers to increase the tempo more and more and the waltz’s character becomes truly hysterical, that “fatal whirling” which Ravel saw in his imagination. Following this mad whirl we arrive at the climax of the entire work, the utmost point of breadth and volume (10:51), hammered out by the combined forces of the entire orchestra.
Starting from 11:04, the dancers begin to fight the threatening danger, which now starts acquiring a musical representation. The waltz motif climbs higher (11:11, 11:19, 11:27), as if to escape the waves which wish to flood and destroy it (11:14-11:19, 11:22-11:27). And then, suddenly, the waves disappear and the waltz reigns supreme (11:30). Has it truly defeated the danger? At the moment it seems so, and the waltz celebrates with triumphant waves of its own (11:35-11:50). But within a few short moments, after a fleeting appearance of one of the waltz melodies (11:50-11:53), as if a remembrance of times past, the tables are overturned, and here, in the last pages of the work, Ravel finally shows us the true face of the danger we had only felt before, and which the dancers had seen gathering around them and besieging them. This is its face (12:00-12:10):
Malevolent shrieks and whistles in the woodwinds and trumpets, beastly roars in the trombones and horns, collapsing blows in the timpani, tam-tam and cymbals – there is nothing human there, not a sliver of melody; this is the advent of mindless aggression which has the sole aim of destroying everything in its path. And that’s it, our waltz – with all its melodies, so beautiful and elegant at first, so worried and determined later – goes under. The waves rise above the walls and cover the city, which disappears beneath the foaming waters. There’s nothing left here but one hysteric hastening towards the end, one last shriek and then, as if ironically, in the last two bars, Ravel brings a typical, pompous waltz ending (12:21-12:22), as if to say: yes, but actually nothing’s happened, I simply scared you, it’s all fine, look, there, a waltz, all as we agreed. But I think this is an empty gesture, which fools no one, and I am quite sure that Ravel did not think it would fool anyone. The waltz and those who danced it are utterly defeated and destroyed.
Who are those dancers, witnesses of the ruin of their dance and their world? What or who is La Valse about? Ravel placed the proceedings at the Imperial Court of Vienna, 1855, and if not for one certain thing we would have no reason to doubt that the music was related to a period of time 65 years into the past from the year of composition. This certain thing is the fact that La Valse in its final version was written in 1919-1920, immediately after the end of World War I. A war the like of which the world had never seen, and a war the horrors of which Ravel (who wanted to be a pilot but who was denied because of his age and state of health, and who in the end served as a truck driver along the Verdun front) had experienced both on himself and on his friends, many of whom perished in it. Moreover, we can assume that Ravel, like any great artist, did not exist in a vacuum, and could not remain indifferent facing the gigantic changes that the war brought about – changes, which we, perhaps a bit romantically, can call the end of the world as he knew it, or at least as the end of old Europe.
This is, of course, nothing but conjecture. Ravel, by the way, denied this interpretation, and said there was nothing in the music which would connect it to the situation in Vienna at the time of composition. He admitted the work could be seen as tragic, but said this was true of any sentiment if taken to its extreme. He repeatedly pointed out the date specified in the composition’s programme, 1855, and suggested seeing in La Valse nothing but what the music expresses: “an ascending progression of sonority, to which the stage comes along to add light and movement”. This is to say, to see in it pure, abstract music, which speaks of nothing and expresses nothing beside itself.
And with this open question I would like to finish: are an author’s words about their work those that should dictate the way in which we experience it? Or is it the case that once the work leaves the author’s hand, the author has no more control over it? Are we at all capable of experiencing a work as pure art without context? Will the fact that I presented to you the story of La Valse as I see and feel it, affect the way in which you experience a performance of it? Do we desire a performer in the most literal meaning of the word – one who stays true to the author’s instructions and performs them – or rather an interpreter, one who would project themselves and their personality, their views about the work, and present to you a personal version of it?
I have no answer to these questions, at least no short and decisive one, so I will finish here, and leave the stage to a full version of La Valse conducted by Leonard Bernstein and played by the Orchestre National de France: