La Valse

by Maurice Ravel


Still as shattering and relevant today as when it was composed nearly a century ago, La Valse is a work of fascinating duality. In Ravel’s vision, the Viennese waltz is both glorified and deconstructed. Perhaps best known in its orchestral version, Ravel transcribed it for two pianos and solo piano. In fact, the first performance of La Valse was given as a two-piano work (with Ravel as one of the performers) at the home of Misia Sert, the dedicatee of the composition and legendary patron of the arts. This premiere of sorts occurred in 1920, and the audience included such seminal figures as Ballets Russes impresario Serge Diaghilev, composers Igor Stravinsky and Francis Poulenc, and choreographer Léonide Massine. The work was originally conceived as a ballet to be performed by the Ballets Russes, but Diaghilev’s criticism of the score led to an estrangement between him and Ravel. Today the work is rarely performed as a ballet, but the music is inseparably linked to dance in not only its rhythms but in its vivid imagery and sweep.

Composed in 1919-1920, the work was conceptualized over an extended period of time. A letter Ravel wrote in 1906 reveals his desire to pay compositional tribute to Johann Strauss, Jr.: “You know of my deep sympathy for these wonderful rhythms, and that I value the joie de vivre expressed by the dance.” This nascent idea materialized by 1914 into a work entitled Wien: Poème symphonique, which Ravel described as “a sort of apotheosis of the Viennese waltz, mingled with, in my mind, the impression of a fantastic, fatal whirling.” In the preface to the published score of La Valse, Ravel offers the following evocative scenario:

Through breaks in the swirling crowds, waltzing couples may be glimpsed. Little by little they disperse: one makes out an immense hall filled with a whirling crowd. The stage is illuminated gradually. The light of the chandeliers peaks at the fortissimo. An Imperial Court, about 1855.
— Maurice Ravel


The work is ostensibly a glittering homage to the Viennese waltz and old-world elegance. The music is steeped in nostalgia and is redolent of a bygone society’s seductive refinement, as illustrated by the charming melodic strains and suave rhythmic fluidity. A misty, surreal atmosphere prevails via the usage of whirling figurations, harmonic ambiguity, and various pianistic and pedaling effects. Colorful outbursts of virtuosity punctuate this representation of the imagined past.

Yet beneath the surface a menacing irony simmers, as presaged by the murky opening with its rumbling, oscillating heartbeat. Written in the immediate aftermath of World War I, La Valse depicts the demise of a civilization. Ravel was horrified by the unprecedented carnage and mayhem of the war, and he channeled his bitterness into this composition. As the piece unfolds, the waltz becomes increasingly distorted and dissonant; Ravel seems to mordantly comment on the poisonous effects of sociopolitical corruption as well as the eventual chaos of warfare. The music escalates with hallucinatory frenzy to a cataclysmic climax (where one can virtually hear bombs going off). Motivic fragments collide until the music spins itself to a conclusion of darkly exultant finality.

La Valse continues to resonate in our complex times. The atrocities surrounding Ravel incited him to create music of farsighted modernity and urgent eloquence.

— Greg Anderson & Elizabeth Joy Roe