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Beginning in Mozart's time, the waltz established a hold on the hearts - and legs of Europeans that gained in intensity throughout the 19th century and hardly lost strength in the first years of the 20th. Normally stuffy composers of serious music, captivated by the waltz’s simple rhythmic contour and by the fact that a dance-happy public was intoxicated by its lure, did not even try to resist the waltz mania. Of course, many composers wrote waltzes intended purely for listening (although dancing to them was not considered either illegal or immoral).

One of the most generous contributors to the waltz catalog was Schubert, whose dozens upon dozens of dance pieces for piano Ravel took as models when writing the present set of pieces in 1911. [In 1823 Schubert composed a set of 34 dances titled Valses sentimentales, and in 1826 a set of 12 titled Valses nobles.] Ravel was very open about the derivation of his dances, saying, “The title, Valses nobles et sentimentales, sufficiently indicates that I was intent on writing a set of Schubertian waltzes. The virtuosity which formed the chief part of [the piano work] Gaspard de la nuit,” he continued, “has been replaced by writing of obviously greater clarity which has strengthened the harmony and sharpened the contrasts.”

Ravel’s strengthened harmony and sharpened contrasts are not likely to fool anyone at this point in time; the composer’s distinctive use of dissonance and rhythmic subtlety, and his elegant sensuality – all rather more pungent here than in earlier works – are clearly recognizable elements of the Frenchman’s style. The set – written originally for piano and orchestrated in 1912 – consists of seven waltzes and an epilogue, the latter containing drifting allusions to what has gone before. And what has gone before is a sometimes caustic, sometimes sentimental, always bracing view of Viennese dances as filtered through sophisticated Gallic eyes.

—Orrin Howard