Writing sample by Aaron Grad.
© 2012 Aaron Grad. All rights reserved.

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La valse [1920]

MAURICE RAVEL
Born March 7, 1875 in Ciboure, France
Died December 28, 1937 in Paris

In 1906, Ravel began a piece entitled Wien (“Vienna”), intended as an homage to Johann Strauss II, the “Waltz King” who had died in 1899. He temporarily shelved the idea, but was thinking about it again when war broke out in 1914. Too old for combat duty, Ravel volunteered as a truck and ambulance driver. He witnessed gruesome carnage behind the front lines, and ended up hospitalized with dysentery. A number of his friends died (some of whom he memorialized in Le tombeau de Couperin) and in 1917 he lost his mother, with whom he was particularly close.

Still reeling from sickness and mourning, Ravel returned to his waltz concept in 1919 to fulfill a commission from the dance impresario Serge Diaghilev. He completed the orchestral score, recast as La valse, in 1920, and also arranged versions for solo piano and two pianos. Ravel played the two-piano version for Diaghilev, who rejected it, declaring, “it is not a ballet; it is a portrait of a ballet,” a comment Ravel never forgave. Others disagreed, including Ida Rubinstein, who danced it in 1929, and George Balanchine, whose 1951 choreography for the New York City Ballet remains active in the repertoire. Diaghilev’s problem with the score may have been less about ballet and more about aesthetics: his anointed composers, especially Stravinsky and the French newcomers known as “les Six,” favored irony, austerity and a complete break with the immediate past, while Ravel retained a sincere relationship to Romanticism in all its grandeur and excesses.

La valse is unapologetically Romantic with its sweeping breadth and echoes of high society, but it is far from an idealized vision. On the surface, it follows a basic scenario outlined by Ravel in the score: “Swirling clouds afford glimpses, through rifts, of waltzing couples. The clouds scatter little by little; one can distinguish an immense hall with a whirling crowd. The scene grows progressively brighter. The light of the chandeliers bursts forth at the fortissimo. An imperial court, about 1855.” On a deeper level, the thrust of La valse is more nuanced. The one undeniable constant is the waltz, pulsing its three beats through lovely melodies and grotesque disturbances. The kaleidoscopic chromatics and counter-voices, ostensibly the “swirling clouds” of Ravel’s program, mutate into drunken smears and expand into a violent climax. There is something heroic and also vaguely disturbing in how La valse grasps at the elusive hilarity of a bygone time, especially when voiced through the forced smile of a waltz.