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Composed: 1919-1920

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, timpani, percussion (bass drum, castanets, crotales, cymbals, glockenspiel, snare drum, tam-tam, tambourine, and triangle), 2 harps, and strings

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

About this Piece

Ravel as Impressionist was expressively more self-contained than that style’s inventor, Debussy, but in at least two compositions, he moved boldly in the direction of expressionism, where distortion became symbolic of reality. The first of these in the orchestral realm was La valse. (The second was the Concerto for Left Hand. In the piano solo literature, he had already taken some steps in Gaspard de la nuit’s Le gibet and Scarbo, and in Valses nobles et sentimentales.)

La valse occupies a special place in Ravel’s output in that it contains a chilling social commentary, specifically the portrayal in its final pages of the frenzied death throes of the remnants of 19th-century imperial society as symbolized by its dance obsession, the waltz. Ravel had planned the work as early as 1906 as an homage to Johann Strauss and at that time referred to it as Wien (Vienna). But 14 years and World War I came between its genesis and completion. Undoubtedly the catastrophic conflict greatly affected the character of the music, which may have been the reason Serge Diaghilev rejected the score after having commissioned it for his Ballets Russes. The change of title was an obvious necessity.

Ravel himself appended a descriptive note to the score, which reads: “At first the scene is limned by a kind of swirling mist through which one discerns, vaguely and intermittently, the waltzing couples. Little by little the vapors begin to dis¬perse, and the illumination grows brighter, revealing an immense ballroom filled with dancers. The blaze of the chandeliers comes to full splendor. An Imperial Ballet about 1855.”

The mists are created first by muted cellos and basses playing tremolos; they are joined by higher strings, harp, and timpani. Out of this, a figure tries to take shape in bassoons, next in bass clarinet and clarinets, then strings. Flutes and violins add their fragmented voices, until at last violas and bassoons emerge to make a defined melodic statement even through the continuing orchestral swirls, which now threaten to disperse. Finally the strings prevail and present the first theme in all its lush waltz glory. This is the signal for the dance to begin in earnest, and other melodies appear in profusion — e.g., a lilting one sung by an oboe, a buoyant one given by a trumpet, etc. Intriguing instrumental combinations vitalize the scene in a dazzling array of incomparable Ravelian orchestral colors. But this elegance is destined to be violated. The waltz becomes grotesquely distorted as rhythms and harmonies clash wildly and the orchestra begins a tumultuous eruption that proceeds in a chaotic instrumental orgy until, all energies spent, five crashing unisons in full orchestra bring the work to a shuddering close.

–Orrin Howard