MAURICE RAVEL (1875–1937)
La valse (1920)
Maurice Ravel provides his own description of the iconic La valse: “Through whirling clouds, waltzing couples may be faintly distinguished. The clouds gradually scatter: one sees an immense hall filled with a swirling throng… The light of the chandeliers reaches its peak at the fortissimo. An imperial court, about 1855.… 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.’…[I]t is a fatal spinning around, the expression of vertigo and of the voluptuousness of the dance to the point of paroxysm.” The piece begins softly, and before long, the waltz has gathered a ferocious momentum and is now unstoppable. Orchestral sonorities change in wild profusion, and as the waltz progresses, the whirling dancers seem confused and stumbling. The scene begins to take on a sinister aspect, and the wild apotheosis ends in an explosive, shattering climax. As the music shows, Ravel’s homage-with-a-twist to “The Waltz King,” Johann Strauss, Jr., took on a different character than he had originally planned. It was intended to be “a kind of apotheosis of the Viennese Waltz,” but that was before the devastations of World War I, famine, and the deadly 1918 flu pandemic.