Dance of Death or Delight? Ravel’s La valse

Dance of Death or Delight? Ravel’s La valse

On January 24, 26 and 27, Music Director Andrés Orozco-Estrada returns to Houston to lead the orchestra in a program featuring Ravel’s La valse. In this post, discover how this dazzling orchestral showpiece has inspired intense debate about its true meaning. Get tickets and more information here.

Music is a famously subjective art form; different listeners often find different meanings in exactly the same sounds. Traditions of interpretation may inform the way we hear pieces of music, but ultimately music itself is abstract. Even so, it is rare that a piece of music inspires reactions totally opposite to what its composer intended. Perhaps no work better illustrates this potential for paradox than Ravel’s La valse.

A Long-Awaited Masterpiece

Ravel in 1906, sporting a Belle Époque beard.

Ravel first conceived of the idea for La valse in 1906. Initially, the piece was to be called Wien (the German name for Vienna) in tribute to the Viennese waltzes of Johann Strauss II, which Ravel sincerely admired. Years later his student Manuel Rosenthal recalled that Ravel believed “that all composers really had the desire to succeed in writing a very good waltz,” saying that “Unfortunately it’s very difficult. Therefore I have tried to write a symphonic waltz as a tribute to the genius of Johann Strauss.”

He would not actually begin serious work on the piece until 1919, when he received a commission from Sergei Diaghilev for a new score for the Ballets russes. In between its inception and completion, the world was rocked by the First World War. Though Ravel’s health exempted him from military service, he experienced the horrors of the war first-hand by serving as an ambulance driver. Even more devastating than the carnage was the sudden death of his mother while he was away at the front. During the war Ravel did not compose, and with the exception of his exquisite Tombeau de Couperin (a suite of piano pieces begun before the war), his silence continued until he received the commission from Diaghilev.

Ravel himself described his vision of the opening of the ballet:

“Through whirling clouds, waltzing couples may be faintly distinguished. The clouds gradually scatter: one sees at letter ‘A’ [a rehearsal marking in the score] an immense hall peopled with a whiling crowd. The scene is gradually illuminated. The light of the chandeliers bursts forth at the fortissimo at letter ‘B.’ An imperial court, about 1855.”

The piece begins with a remarkable, murky sonority as fragments of waltz rhythms and melodies emerge:

It’s as if we are overhearing a waltz from another room—or another century. A melody begins haltingly in the bassoons and violas, gradually crescendoing and coming into focus as “the light of the chandeliers bursts forth.”

Ravel then presents a series of waltz themes in stunning orchestral colors. Ravel is less interested in creating an actual ballroom waltz à la Strauss than in seizing on Strauss’s most typical gestures and spinning them into a kaleidoscopic orchestral texture; many have described La valse as a Strauss waltz deconstructed. While some gestures may belong to Strauss, the harmonies, orchestration and rhythmic games are all Ravel’s. Ravel’s rich harmonic palate includes the colorful non-functional chords, spicy dissonances and even hints of polytonality that are all hallmarks of his mature style.

In the second half of the piece, the themes introduced in the first half cycle back, but are fragmented and recombined as the music becomes wilder and wilder. The careening dance approaches a climax and backs away repeatedly, at last building to a thrilling coda.

Hallucinatory Ecstasy or Dance of Death?

The initial reaction to this masterpiece was decidedly nonplussed. The composer Francis Poulenc was present when Ravel presented his new score to Diaghilev:

Sergei Diaghilev in 1916.

“Ravel arrived very simply, with his music under his arm, and Diaghilev said to him, in that nasal voice of his: ‘Well now, my dear Ravel, how lucky we are to be hearing La valse.’ And Ravel played La valse with Marcelle Meyer, not very well maybe, but anyway it was Ravel’s La valse. Now at that time I knew Diaghilev very well…and I saw the false teeth begin to move, then the monocle, I saw he was embarrassed, I saw he didn’t like it and was going to say ‘No.’ When Ravel had got to the end, Diaghilev said something which I think is very true. He said ‘Ravel, it’s a masterpiece…but it’s not a ballet…It’s the portrait of a ballet…It’s the painting of a ballet.’ […] I was twenty-two and, as you can imagine, absolutely flabbergasted. Ravel proceeded to give me a lesson in modesty which has lasted me all my life: he picked up his music quite quietly and, without worrying about what we all thought of it, calmly left the room.”

The ballet, needless to say, did not materialize, but La valse nevertheless quickly became a popular piece in the concert hall. From the beginning, however, listeners began to hear something more than dancers swirling about a ballroom in its music, especially in the wild ending. Even Ravel’s student Manuel Rosenthal discerned in it “a kind of anguish, a very dramatic feeling of death.”

In the aftermath of World War I, the waltz was increasingly seen as a relic of a bygone era—an era that the war had destroyed. Many heard the finale of the piece not merely as a brilliant development of waltz-motifs, but as the distortion and disintegration of the waltz itself: a symbol of a decadent civilization out of control, tearing itself apart. The fact that this was a Viennese waltz added a further layer to some interpretations: Ravel’s piece was perceived specifically as a critique of Austro-German militarism.

In 1922, the music historian Maurice Emmanuel decided to ask Ravel himself about the meaning of the work before writing program notes for a performance of the piece at the Paris Conservatoire. Ravel responded:

Ravel in 1925.

“I believe this work needs to be illuminated by footlights, as it has elicited so much strange commentary. While some discover an attempt at parody, indeed caricature, others categorically see a tragic allusion in it—the end of the Second Empire, the situation in Vienna after the war, etc.—

“This dance may seem tragic, like any other emotion—voluptuousness, joy—pushed to the extreme. But one should only see what the music expresses: an ascending progression of sonority, to which the stage comes along to add light and movement.”

In an interview with a Dutch newspaper that same year, he went even further:

“It doesn’t have anything to do with the present situation in Vienna, and it 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.) I changed the original title “Wien” to La valse, which is more in keeping with the aesthetic nature of the composition. It is a dancing, whirling, almost hallucinatory ecstasy, an increasingly passionate and exhausting whirlwind of dancers, who are overcome and exhilarated by nothing but ‘the waltz.’”

Ravel’s “passionate and exhausting” ecstasy seems more in line with the waltz as a vertical expression of a horizontal desire than with the collapse of Western civilization. The theory that Ravel secretly intended to convey a political message also seems unlikely. Ravel was a very private man, and although he did subscribe a few left-leaning newspapers, he generally kept his political views to himself and believed that art should be above politics. Even so, some biographers have speculated that Ravel may have subconsciously processed his feelings about the war and the death of his mother as he wrote La valse.

The Debate Continues

Of course, a work of art takes on a life of its own once its creator releases it into the world, and artists seldom have the final word in what their works mean. Whatever Ravel intended, darker interpretations of La valse have proved remarkably persistent over what is now nearly a century of the piece’s existence.

Contrary to Diaghilev’s judgement, La valse served as the score for two excellent ballets created in the 1950s: one by George Balanchine and the other by Frederick Ashton. The two ballets encapsulate the different interpretative traditions that surround La valse. Balanchine embraces the “dance of death” reading completely with a ballerina seduced and destroyed by a dark male figure:

In contrast, Ashton’s more classical, abstract version seems in line with what Ravel imagined. The opening in particular matches exactly with what Ravel himself wrote:

Perhaps more interesting than the question of which interpretation of La valse is “right” or “wrong” is the fact that the same music can sustain diametrically opposed interpretations at the same time. Ravel’s comment about emotions “pushed to the extreme” seems particularly perceptive; after all, both the ecstatic dream and the terrifying nightmare are fueled by the same hormone: adrenaline. However one interprets this masterpiece, Ravel’s La valse continues to fascinate listeners in a way that few other pieces can rival.

Don’t miss Ravel’s La valse on January 24, 26 and 27! Get tickets and more information here.

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