Recorded on 12/19/2006, uploaded on 01/21/2009
Musician's or Publisher's Notes
In 1906, Maurice Ravel conceived of a tribute to Johann Strauss II and the grand waltz tradition of Vienna entitled Wien. He was fascinated by the waltz, its rhythms and the “joie de vivre” expressed therein. This conception of a work, however, was set aside during Ravel’s service in World War I, but was taken up again in its aftermath. During this time, the form of the piece changed in part due to a commission from Sergei Diaghilev for a ballet. Giving the work a new title, La Valse, Ravel completed its composition during 1919-20.
With the orchestration already completed, Ravel presented the piece in a two piano version to Diaghilev himself. Relations between the composer and choreographer were already strained after Daphnis et Chloé, and La Valse became the catalyst of their final falling out. After hearing the work, Diaghilev proclaimed the work a masterpiece, yet further remarked that it was no ballet, “but a portrait of a ballet.” Ravel was offended by Diaghilev’s judgment and ended their professional relationship. The animosity between the two men was great and when they met again in 1925, Ravel refused to shake Diaghilev’s hand. Insulted, Diaghilev challenged Ravel to a duel but friends fortunately persuaded him to recant. La Valse, however, was in time staged as a ballet, premiered by the Royal Flemish Opera Ballet in October 1926, and staged again later by the famed George Ballantine in 1951.
Despite its initial failure as a ballet, La Valse nevertheless became a concert favorite. It has also opened the way for much speculation as to the work’s philosophical meaning and Ravel’s intended imagery. In the preface of the score, he gave the following image: "Through whirling clouds, waltzing couples may be faintly distinguished. The clouds gradually scatter: one sees at letter A an immense hall peopled with a whirling crowd. The scene is gradually illuminated. The light of the chandeliers bursts forth at the fortissimo letter B. Set in an imperial court, about 1855." Despite this scene, one of such ethereal beauty and grandeur, some have attempted to find it a symbol of the decay and destruction of Europe in the aftermath of the Great War. Ravel himself denied this claim, stating “It doesn't have anything to do with the present situation in Vienna, and it also doesn't have any symbolic meaning in that regard. In the course of La Valse, I did not envision a dance of death or a struggle between life and death. (The year of the choreographic argument, 1855, repudiates such an assumption.)" Joseph DuBose
Ravel painted a grand and disturbing portrait of Vienna in the years around World War I with la valse. The piece opens with fragments of the waltz rumbling in the distance. As the waltz itself comes to focus, it becomes overshadowed by sinister lines, dramatic changes in tempo, and sudden interruptions. It is a continuous spiral towards doom, which, to Ravel, signified the end of an era. Soyeon Lee
Courtesy of International Music Foundation.
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