La Valse (The Waltz) by Maurice Ravel, written between 1919 and 1920, exists in three different versions: a piano solo, a piano duet, and an orchestral version. The work was originally written as a ballet, but due to tension between Ravel and commissioner/impressario (one who organizes and produces concerts, plays, or operas) Sergei Diaghilev, it was never turned into a ballet.
The idea for the piece originated about 13 years earlier under the title Vienne (or Wein; French and German for Vienna) as a tribute to composer Johann Strauss II (read more about Strauss here). Strauss is sort of famous for his Viennese waltzes (he was even nicknamed the “Waltz King”), and Ravel wanted to create a tribute to him by writing “. . . a kind of apotheosis of the Viennese waltz, with which is mingled in my mind the idea of the fantastic whirl of destiny.” However. La Valse is much more than an idolized Viennese waltz.
Here’s some more context. When Ravel wrote La Valse, World War I had just ended, and Vienna was no longer a city of glory. Many people listened to La Valse and became entranced with its strange beauty; some want to believe Ravel wrote it as a commentary on life (or decay) after the war. And whether or not it was intentional, this 12-minute piece became a symbol for “the birth, decay and destruction of a musical genre: the waltz” (as quoted by composer George Benjamin) through the means of a new, nightmare-ish musical language. However, as romantic as this interpretation sounds, Ravel denied La Valse as being an observation of post-WWI Europe. He even said in a letter to Maurice Emmanuel (another French composer, read more about him here) in 1922 that “This dance may seem tragic, like any other emotion… pushed to the extreme. But one should only see in it what the music expresses: an ascending progression of sonority, to which the stage comes along to add light and movement.”
Here is an incredible recording of the solo piano version:
Ravel described La Valse in the preface to the score (English translations may vary):
“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.”
*Side note: the year 1855 has significance, as that year marks roughly the half-way point of the century Vienna dominated society through the waltz. This dance was seen as carefree, entrancing, and a symbol of glittery wealth as it filled homes, ballrooms, and concert halls all while Austrian society was slowly crumbling under the absolutism of the government.
And the music describes just that. The beginning opens softly, as if to create the impression of a mist (the swirling clouds mentioned above), and soft, fragmented melodies slowly appear and build into the main theme. The waltz goes through various mood changes, from sweet to elegant to pompous to restless and tragic. The music eventually explodes into an unstable and seemingly violent climax full of dark colors and frenzied sounds; “the fantastic whirl of destiny” demonstrated by hysterics (maybe regarding the decay of the waltz and Viennese culture). Click here to read an interesting and super in-depth analysis of this piece.
So there you have it. A colorful story of the tragic waltz told through intense emotion. Even if Ravel did not intend for La Valse to be a commentary on the destruction of Viennese – and European – culture as a result of WWI, it does offer a story of culture told through Ravel’s musical aspirations.
And for those of you who are curious, here’s a recording of the piano duet version:
*The featured image for this post is a painting by Wilhelm Gause entitled Hofball in Wien (Court Ball in Wien).