La valse

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            Ravel in the popular imagination will probably always be associated with the other great French composer from around the turn of the last century, Debussy.   Ravel, in fact, was the son of a Basque mother and a Swiss father, and this alone tells us much about the subtleties of his artistic imagination.  Moreover, his compositions are quite different from those of Debussy, the icon of so-called “impressionist” musical style.  Debussy’s fundamental approach to composition literally—but gently and graciously—turned the basics of European musical style upside down and led to most of the foundational concepts of twentieth-century art music.  Ravel, on the other hand, eschewed many of the more common technical features of Debussy’s style, and oriented himself clearly in the camp of the classicists who elegantly re-interpreted the genres, forms, and musical syntax of the past.   Only a cursory review of many of the titles of Ravel’s works will bear out his deep fascination and appreciation for the uses of the musical past for imaginative, original contributions to a musical future.  Like so many seminal intellects of romantic and post-romantic Europe, Ravel knew and appreciated the works of the American poet, Edgar Allen Poe—which fact may surprise most Americans these days, who have consigned Poe and his raven to the dusty closet of school-house poetry.  But, interestingly, Ravel considered him his “third” teacher after that of actual French musical models.  For Ravel, Poe’s stress on craftsmanship, as well as his ideas on the process of artistic conception and creation, was strongly influential.  Ravel also admired Poe’s thoughts on proportion, economy of means, beauty, and perfection.

            The genesis of La valse is founded some years before its completion in 1920.  It began life in 1906 as “Wien,” or Vienna, and was intended to be a more or less straightforward tribute to the immortal waltzes of the “Waltz King,” Johann Strauss, Jr.  Ravel described the early effort as  “. . . a kind of apotheosis of the Viennese waltz, with which is mingled in my mind the idea of the fantastic whirl of destiny.”   Well, that time was 1906, and the innocence, confidence, and general joie de vivre and sense of wellbeing that was life in the waning days of the Austro-Hungarian empire was about to end.  Little did Ravel, nor anyone else, sense the cataclysmic events of the looming Great War.  But, his allusion to the “fantastic whirl of destiny” was prescient.  The composition that resulted after the war was a quite different one from its earlier beginning as a simple tribute to Strauss.

            Subtitled a “choreographic poem,” it is actually an apotheosis to the waltz in the form of a tone poem.  It was turned down by the great Russian impresario, Diaghilev, for his Ballets Russes dance company as not being dance music, at all, but rather about dance music.  And there is great truth to his criticism.   But the central key to understanding this work is that it is a not so thinly-disguised reaction to the total destruction of the old, untroubled world of pre-war Vienna (and the larger world) seen through a refracted, almost hallucinatory experience of the waltz as symbol.  In the musical score, Ravel writes:

"Through whirling clouds can be glimpsed now and again waltzing couples. The mists gradually disperse, and . . . a huge ballroom is revealed, filled with a great crowd of whirling dancers. The stage grows gradually lighter. At the fortissimo . . . the lights in the chandeliers are turned full on. The scene is an imperial palace about 1855."

           What Ravel does not describe to us is the astonishing end to this composition, as the various sections of gracious and varied melodies fall apart and disintegrate in riotous self destruction.  As the end approaches, literally and figuratively, the music seems to stumble or hang like a defective phonograph.  It ends with a tumultuous frenzy of chaos of  “fantastic and fatal whirling.”  It then is clear what it is all about: the destruction or alteration of every rational aspect of European society by World War I as refracted by the ever-cool eye of Ravel, the elegant classicist.

--Wm. E. Runyan

© 2015 William E. Runyan