Tablet - Portrait

Tablet - Landscape


Maurice Ravel

Ballet impresario Serge Diaghilev asked Ravel to write what would become La valse for the Ballets Russes, on a program to be shared with Stravinsky's Pulcinella, and thus was responsible for one of Ravel's most popular orchestral concert works. Ironically, the two-piano "test-drive" reduction of La valse never met with Diaghilev's approval, and so this is the work that precipitated the break between the composer and the producer, whose relations had been strained since disagreements over Daphnis et Chloé.

Ravel had for years intended to write some sort of tribute to Johann Strauss II, a Viennese-style waltz on Ravel's own terms. Strauss, had he been alive, would probably have found the result to be gruesome. Ravel's waltz is both nostalgic and sinister, rising from nothing but a vague rhythmic pulse, proceeding through several distinct waltz sequences (much more closely linked thematically than in any Strauss waltz), each culminating in an increasingly powerful crescendo and ending in apocalypse. Along the way come disturbing accelerations and ritards (making this particularly unsuitable for ballroom dancing), dynamic extremes, and eerie glissandi, creating an atmosphere of violence, decadence, and decay. In short, it is a portrait of Vienna (and Europe) in the years surrounding World War I.

Ravel's preface in the score hardly hints at any of this: "Drifting clouds give glimpses, through rifts, of couples waltzing. The clouds gradually scatter, and an immense hall can be seen, filled with a whirling crowd. The scene gradually becomes illuminated. The light of chandeliers bursts forth. An imperial court about 1885."

Ravel prepared the orchestral version first, but presented the music to Diaghilev in 1920 in a two-piano reduction, which Ravel played with Marcelle Meyer. Diaghilev declared it to be "a masterpiece...but it is not a ballet. It is the portrait of a ballet." He refused to have it choreographed. Stravinsky, who was also present, maintained absolute silence. Ravel gave the first concert performance of the two-piano version in Vienna that year with fellow composer Alfredo Casella. This reduction is very faithful to the orchestral score, right down to the glissandi. Ravel's solo-piano version is extremely difficult, and so it is infrequently played, although it did meet with the approval of Glenn Gould, who rarely bothered with Ravel's other music.

-- James Reel