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Composed: 1919

Length: c. 13 minutes

Orchestration: 3 flutes (3rd = piccolo), 3 oboes (3rd = English horn), 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, percussion (antique cymbals, bass drum, castanets, cymbals, orchestra bells, snare drum, tam-tam, tambourine, triangle), timpani, 2 harps, and strings

First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: October 10, 1924, Walter Henry Rothwell conducting

About this Piece

Although there are many composers who love the music of Johann Strauss but are ashamed to admit it, Brahms was pleased to acknowledge his envy of Vienna’s “Waltz King,” and so, apparently, was Maurice Ravel. Fourteen years before he composed La valse, he had told a French critic that he wanted to write “a grand waltz, a sort of homage to the memory of the great Strauss, not Richard, the other—Johann. You know how much I love those wonderful rhythms.” There are waltz rhythms in Ravel’s Mother Goose, and he wrote a string of what he called Noble and Sentimental Waltzes, which honored an earlier Viennese composer, Franz Schubert. 

But La valse was intended to be the waltz to end all waltzes. Before the First World War, Ravel had planned a work entitled Wien (Vienna), but it had to wait until 1919 to begin taking shape as a “choreographic poem” in fulfillment of a commission from Serge Diaghilev. When the impresario heard the music, however, he declared, “Ravel, it’s a masterpiece, but it isn’t a ballet. It’s a portrait of a ballet, a painting of a ballet…” 

The war had changed Ravel’s outlook profoundly, and “The Waltz” now had a demonic and explosive conclusion, in which the savagery of the scene is captured in some of Ravel’s most extraordinary orchestration. —Dennis Bade