In an autobiographical sketch Ravel wrote about what was to be his favorite among his own piano compositions: "The title Valses nobles et sentimentales clearly indicates my intention to compose a series of waltzes following the example of Schubert. The virtuosity of Gaspard de la nuit makes way for a clearer kind of writing, sharpens the harmony and clarifies the musical outlines. The Valses nobles et sentimentales were first performed amid protestations and catcalls at a concert of the Société Musicale Indépendante, in which the names of the composers were not revealed. The audience voted on the probable authorship of each piece. Mine was recognized, but only by a slight majority."
The year was 1911, and the brash opening chords, which sound fiery and energetic to our ears, confounded Ravel's contemporaries. The soloist must be playing handfuls of wrong notes. The set of eight uninterrupted waltzes did not gain popularity until the following year when Ravel orchestrated them as music for a ballet.
The score is headed by a line from the poet Henri de Régnier: "…the pleasure, delectable and ever new, of devoting oneself to something useless."
Since there is no indication, the listener can decide which of the waltzes are noble and which are sentimentale. These are not trifles. Debussy said they were the work of "the subtlest ear that ever existed."
- Annotator Grant Hiroshima is the executive director of a private foundation and the former Director of Information Technology for the Los Angeles Philharmonic Association.