La valse

As early as 1906, when Ravel was at the very beginning of his artistic career, he was attracted by the idea of creating a tone poem in the form of a waltz. The first sketches of the work appeared at that time, but subsequently other plans delayed its composition for a long time. It was only during the war years that work on La Valse was resumed, and the final version was completed in 1920. At that time, it was titled Choreographic Poem for Orchestra and was intended for stage performance by Sergey Diaghilev’s famous ballet company. Unlike Valses nobles et sentimentales (the Noble and Sentimental Waltzes), which the composer himself considered ‘Schubertian’, La Valse is in the tradition of the ‘great Strauss’, but Ravel considered this to be not Richard Strauss, as one might expect, but the King of the Viennese Waltz, Johann Strauss. “I conceived the tone of the work as a kind of apotheosis of the Viennese waltz, which is involved in a fantastic and ever-growing fatal vortex,” the composer wrote in his “Short Autobiography”.  – I imagine it in the setting of an imperial palace, say, in the 1850s’.

Ravel originally intended to dub his work Vienna, but subsequently abandoned the idea. In the stage remarque to the score he wrote: Through whirling clouds, waltzing couples may be faintly distinguished. The clouds gradually scatter: one sees at letter A an immense hall peopled with a whirling crowd. The scene is gradually illuminated. The light of the chandeliers bursts forth at the fortissimo letter B. Set in an imperial court, about 1855 . One can assume that he is talking about the Viennese imperial court. But a number of contemporaries believe that it actually referred to Paris in the time of Napoleon III, on the eve of the catastrophe of 1870, and to Vienna on the eve of the demise of the Habsburg Empire in 1918. In any case, what we hear in the music of this work is not the mid-19th  century: those familiar with Ravel’s work find that the ‘hurricane of war’ has passed over La Valse, and the harrowing impressions of the war years have become almost defining for the conception of his music. The composer declares these assumptions idle speculation and ridicules them, but never gives an exact explanation of what he meant. “I conceived of this waltz as an apotheosis of the Viennese waltz, which in my work is mixed with a sense of a fatal and fantastic whirl” – this is all that the inquisitive people managed to conjure up as an answer.

La Valse was first performed in 1920 in Paris, in the Orchestre Lamoureux concert series. Although it was conceived as a choreographic work, today it is more often heard as a concert work. The work has also been given numerous transcriptions – two by the composer, for solo piano and for two pianos, transcriptions for four hands by Lucien Garban (1920), Glenn Gould (1975) and Andrey Kasparov (2008), and Sean Chen’s own piano arrangement, recorded in 2014 on a Steinway & Sons piano instrument. In 2005 Don Paterson made a transcription for brass band, which was recorded with the US Marine Corps Band conducted by Michael J. Colburn. In 2020, on the occasion of the 100th  birthday of  La Valse, Belgian composer Tim Muehlemann wrote a transcription for brass nonet for Philip Griffin and Friends, and in 2021 the Linos Piano Trio included a transcription of the waltz for piano trio in their album Stolen Music.


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