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Monday, October 10, 2005

Maurice Ravel's La Valse

(Note: While you are reading this, be sure to download the many different versions of this work with eMusic's free trial. You get 25 mp3s for free no matter what with no obligations.)

A piece that I have recently come to love is Maurice Ravel's La Valse. My first exposure to the piece was at the 2004 New Orleans International Piano Competition. While the piece was originally written for orchestra, it was also arranged for solo piano by Ravel. Alexander Moutouzkine, the Gold Medalist, performed a brilliant rendition of the piece that garnered an immediate standing ovation from the audience. I think that the piece truly captivated the audience as I too was captivated.

Ravel composed the piece during 1919-1920. He had intended to compose the piece many years prior to this date, but what he ended up writing was his Valses nobles et sentimentales. Ravel wanted to write the piece as a tribute to Johann Strauss Jr. He described the idea for the work as "a kind of apotheosis of the Viennese waltz, mingled in my mind with the idea of destiny's fantastic whirl."

However, Ravel's intentions were skewed by the onslaught of the First World War. He no longer had such a kind view of Vienna. In 1919, Serge Diaghilev requested from Ravel a new work for his Paris based Ballets Russes. Ravel returned to his concept of a Viennese waltz, however, this time he called it La Valse, a piece that now took on a more sinister and grotesque form than the whimsical idea he once had for it.

Ravel's program notation in the original score gives an insight into the piece:

"Through rifts in swirling clouds, couples are glimpsed waltzing. As the clouds disperse little by little, one sees an immense hall peopled with a whirling crowd. The scene becomes progressively brighter. The light from chandeliers bursts forth at fortissimo (letter B in the score). An Imperial Court, around 1855."

Amazingly, anyone with an imagination can vividly picture exactly what Ravel described when listening to the work. Ravel once again proved his mastery of orchestration, scoring the piece for a large orchestra including triple winds, two harps, five drums and various metal percussion.

Shortly after the composition of La Valse, Diaghilev requested a four-hand reduction of the piece for piano. Ravel played his reduction with Marcelle Meyer at the second piano for Diaghilev and many other guests including Stravinsky and Poulenc. Poulenc was very impressed with the piece, but later recalled that Stravinsky didn't seem to be very enthused. "Stravinsky said not a word! I was 22, and, you can imagine, absolutely flabbergasted. Ravel proceeded to give me a lesson in modesty that has lasted all my life: he picked up his music quietly and, without worrying what we all thought of it, calmly left the room," recalled Poulenc.

The piece did not catch on very well as the "Choreographic Poem" which Ravel entitled it to be. However, it has enjoyed immense success as a concert piece in many different forms including arrangements for orchestra, piano duet and piano solo. It is particularly striking in its piano duet form. Some may be familiar with Martha Argerich's recordings of the work with Nelson Friere. Watching a live performance of the piece on video had me on the edge of my seat the entire time as the suspense heightened to frenetic levels until the string-popping climax.


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Comments on "Maurice Ravel's La Valse"


Anonymous Classical Music Starter said ... (4:09 PM, September 07, 2009) : 

I've always thought of La Valse as a neurotic sort of attempt at a waltz. Of course, I believe Ravel intended it to be so. The waltz was dying away when he wrote it and it sounds like the last dying gasps of the old style of music, especially near the end. It certainly seems like a transformational piece to me, ushering in a new kind of music, which the world would soon witness.


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