Length: c. 13 minutes
Orchestration: 3 flutes (3rd = piccolo), 3 oboes (3rd = English horn), 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, percussion (antique cymbals, bass drum, castanets, cymbals, orchestra bells, snare drum, tam-tam, tambourine, triangle), timpani, 2 harps, and strings
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: October 10, 1924, Walter Henry Rothwell conducting
The historical context of Ravel’s La valse adds another rich layer of meaning to an already multifarious piece of music. Its darker, more brooding quality can be attributed to many things, although a contretemps with Diaghilev, who commissioned the work, reveals something especially telling about the work.
When Diaghilev first commissioned Ravel to write a ballet, the nearly hour-long Daphnis et Chloé in 1909, he did not foresee the numerous production problems which forced it to be premièred three years late. Among other things, the music was difficult to dance to, perhaps because the composer insisted that the music should be more prominent than the choreography. Daphnis et Chloé did not receive much success initially, but was revived and eventually appreciated as a great ballet and orchestral work.
After Ravel had served in World War I, Diaghilev decided to brave possible production delays again and approached him with another commission for a ballet. Ravel had already started a work in 1906 tentatively titled Wien (or Vienna) to be a tribute in two parts to the waltzes of Johann Strauss, Jr., so he adapted it to be Diaghilev’s new ballet project. Wien would eventually become La valse, and its brooding character is popularly interpreted today as reflecting the war and its carnage. Indeed, the original spirit of Wien, which explored the sweeping gestures of waltzing, now has a darker undercurrent to it, perhaps reflecting the Austria that Ravel fought against during the war. In other words, instead of thinking of the music illustrating lush, costumed couples dancing the waltz, the work now invokes images of the ravages of a bitterly fought war. On the score itself, Ravel described the “whirling” patterns of the waltz almost surrealistically:
Swirling clouds afford glimpses, through rifts, of waltzing couples. The clouds scatter little by little; one can distinguish an immense hall with a whirling crowd. The scene grows progressively brighter. The light of the chandeliers bursts forth at the fortissimo. An imperial court, about 1855.
Another popular myth about La valse is that its darker qualities reflect the death of Ravel’s mother in 1916. Ravel had never married and had an unusually close relationship with his mother. The loss noticeably changed his outlook on life.
Once again, Ravel insisted that his “ballet” should emphasize music over choreography, opting to call it a poème chorégraphique. Diaghilev was disappointed with Ravel and, no doubt foreseeing even greater problems than he had with Daphnis et Chloé, refused to produce it, claiming that the music for La valse could never be a serviceable ballet. La valse was successfully premièred in 1920 as an orchestral work, but Ravel’s contempt for Diaghilev endured. The rift developed into a mutual animosity, culminating years later when Diaghilev challenged Ravel to a duel (which thankfully never occurred).
Whether or not Ravel’s La valse represents a darker world than some of his earlier pieces might be a matter for each listener to decide. Some could also hear that the impressionistic world that profoundly inspired Ravel’s earlier pieces might have been left behind in 1918 with Debussy’s death.
Nonetheless, Ida Rubinstein stepped in to rescue the original ballet that La valse was intended to be. She produced it with her own money for the second season of her short-lived Les Ballets de Madame Rubinstein. In this way, it makes an interesting companion piece to Ravel’s most famous work, Bolero, which the Rubinstein troupe had premiered the previous year.
Gregg Wager is a composer and critic. He is author of Symbolism as a Compositional Method in the Works of Karlheinz Stockhausen. He has a PhD in musicology from the Free University Berlin.