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Ravel: La Valse

Ravel: La Valse


707 words
program notes by Chris Myers

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Copyright © 2003 Chris Myers. All rights reserved. Unauthorized distribution or reproduction prohibited.

La Valse
Maurice Ravel (1875-1937)
3 flutes (3rd doubling piccolo), 3 oboes (3rd doubling English horn), 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion, 2 harps, strings

Composed 1920. First performance: 12 December 1920, Paris. Concert Lamoureux cond. Camille Chevillard.

There is a definite limit to the length of time a composer can go on writing in one dance rhythm (this limit is obviously reached by Ravel towards the end of La Valse and towards the beginning of Bolero).
—Constant Lambert

Though La Valse was not completed until 1920, Ravel began considering the piece at least fourteen years earlier. In a 1906 letter to Jean Marnold, he mentioned that he was thinking of “a grand waltz, a sort of homage to the memory of the great Strauss, not Richard, the other, Johann.” That same year, he also wrote to Misia Sert that he was about to begin work on “Vienne, which is destined for you, as you know.” By 1914, he had started the piece, now titled Wien. However, the outbreak of the war interrupted his work; he could not in good conscience continue work on a piece named after the enemy capital and celebrating the very culture with which his country was now at war. He turned his intentions, instead, towards a suite based on the music of French baroque harpsichord composers; this became Le Tombeau de Couperin.

After the completion of Le Tombeau in 1917, circumstances prevented Ravel from composing any major works for the next three years. The death of his beloved mother on 5 January 1917 led to his discharge from the army, and he returned to Paris. However, his health was in terrible condition. He had been physically unfit for the stresses of military service in the first place, and the strain of his grief proved more than he could bear. He spent several years in and out of hospitals, completely incapable of working (though he claimed this was because the piano in his apartment was flat). Eventually, by the end of 1919, he slowly regained interest in composition.

It was at this time that Serge Diaghilev commissioned Ravel to compose a ballet for his Ballets Russes. Ravel resurrected Wien, but after the horrors he had witnessed during the war, his view of Viennese culture was considerably altered. He retitled the piece La Valse and began referring to it as a “choreographic poem” rather than a symphonic poem. The orchestral score was completed on 12 April 1920. It was his first large-scale work since the war began in 1914.

In late April 1920, Ravel arrived Misia Sert’s apartment to play through the piece for Diaghilev. When he arrived, he found Diaghilev, the choreographer Léonide Massine, the pianist Marcelle Meyer, Igor Stravinsky, and Francis Poulenc waiting for him. After hearing Meyer and Ravel play the piece, Diaghilev rejected it, saying, “It’s a masterpiece, but it isn’t a ballet. It’s a portrait of a ballet, a painting of a ballet.” Poulenc and Ravel later expressed surprise at this comment and the fact that Stravinsky said absolutely nothing, either in agreement or in defense of the piece.

It is unclear why Diaghilev was so quick to dismiss the work. Though one can see how he might consider it a “portrait” or “painting” of a ballet, it is difficult to understand why he would consider it unballetic; Bronislava Nijinska’s (sister of Vaslav Nijinsky) 1929 ballet for Ida Rubinstein’s company and George Balanchine’s in 1951 for the New York City Ballet were both quite successful and are considered masterpieces of twentieth-century ballet. Perhaps Diaghilev, always obsessed with the newest trends, considered the piece old-fashioned; by this point, as Poulenc’s presence at the first read-through indicates, he was becoming interested in the music of Les Six. Whatever the reason, Diaghilev’s rejection angered the usually forgiving Ravel so much that, according to Serge Lifar, Ravel challenged him to a duel upon meeting him again in Monte Carlo in 1925, after which Diaghilev did his best to sabotage the premiere that year of Ravel’s L’Enfant et les Sortilèges. La Valse was never produced by the Ballets Russes, but was given its first orchestral performance in Paris on 12 December 1920.

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