Ravel: La Valse

Maurice Joseph Ravel was born in Ciboures, Basses-Pyrenées, France, on March 7, 1875, and died in Paris on December 28, 1937. Though sketches for material used in La Valse go back as far as 1906, the work was composed only in 1919-20. Ravel and Alfredo Casella played the two-piano version in Vienna in November 1920 at a concert of Arnold Schoenberg’s Society for Private Musical Performances. Camille Chevillard conducted the Lamoureux Orchestra of Paris on December 12 that year in the premiere of the orchestral version. Alfred Hertz led the first North American performances of La Valse with the San Francisco Symphony in October 1921. The most recent performances were conducted by David Robertson in May 2013. The score calls for two flutes and piccolo, two oboes and English horn, two clarinets and bass clarinet, two bassoons and contrabassoon, four horns, three trumpets, three trombones, tuba, timpani, bass drum, cymbals, antique cymbals, castanets, tam-tam, triangle, snare drum, celesta, bells, two harps, and strings. Performance time: about thirteen minutes.

The piece that became La Valse was to have been a waltz portrait of unalloyed affection. As early as 1906, Ravel planned a tribute to Johann Strauss to be called Wien. For many reasons he kept getting distracted from the project, and the experience of the 1914-18 war made it impossible for him to retrieve the spirit of the original idea. To be sure, he declined to join a National League for the Defense of French Music, one of whose purposes was to ban music by living German and Austrian composers; nonetheless, early in the war he had written to his friend Cipa Godewski: “And now, if you wish, Vive la France! but above all down with Germany and Austria! or at least what those two nations stand for at the present time.” When, late in 1919, he began work on the score, the world had become a different place. Waltzing Vienna was no longer to be seen in quite the same way, and so La Valse became a bitter and ferocious fantasy, a terrifying tone poem that helped define a new language of musical nightmare.

Ravel completed La Valse on commission from ballet impresario Sergei Diaghilev. But when Ravel played it for him, the impresario saw no dance possibilities in it. The composer was offended, and this split counted for more than the memory of the success of Daphnis et Chloé in 1912. Ravel and Diaghilev never collaborated again. Still, Ravel published the score as a poème chorégraphique, and there is a prefatory note with a hint of a scenario: “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.” Ravel indicates specific musical cues for the scattering of the clouds (the slow tune for divided violas and bassoons) and for the full lighting of the chandeliers. Among the musical ghosts that spin about this imperial ballroom are the fourth and seventh of his Valses nobles et sentimentales.

La Valse, then, first made its mark as a concert piece. But beginning with Bronislava Nijinska, who set it for Ida Rubinstein in 1929, a number of choreographers have found it inspiring, and Balanchine in 1951 used Valses nobles et sentimentales and La Valse as a sequence.

Michael Steinberg

Michael Steinberg, the San Francisco Symphony’s Program Annotator from 1979 to 1999 and a contributing writer to our program book until his death in 2009, was one of the nation’s pre-eminent writers on music. We are privileged to continue publishing his program notes. His books are available at the Symphony Store in Davies Symphony Hall.

More About the Music
Recordings: Pierre Monteux conducting the San Francisco Symphony (RCA Victor Gold Seal)  |  Charles Dutoit conducting the Montreal Symphony Orchestra (Decca)  |  Seiji Ozawa conducting the Boston Symphony Orchestra (Deutsche Grammophon)  |  Ernest Ansermet conducting L’Orchestre de la Suisse Romande (Decca)  |  Claudio Abbado conducting the London Symphony Orchestra (Deutsche Grammophon)

Reading: Ravel: Man and Musician, by Arbie Orenstein (Dover)  |  A Ravel Reader, edited by Orenstein (Columbia University Press)  |  Ravel Remembered,by Roger Nichols (Norton)  |  The Cambridge Companion to Ravel, edited by Deborah Mawer (Cambridge)