La Valse

After the war and the death of his mother, Ravel's health and morale were at a low ebb, and it was only when he spent some months in seclusion in a friend's house at Lapras in Ardèche in 1919-1920 that he began to recover his ability to work.

As early as 1906 Ravel had thought of writing a "poème symphonique" based on the waltz, and planned to give it the title Wien. With the encouragement of a commission from Diaghilev, Ravel returned to the idea in late 1919, with its new title La Valse.

Après Le Tombeau de Couperin, mon état de santé m'empêcha quelque temps d'écrire. Je ne me remis à la composition que pour écrire La Valse, poème chorégraphique, dont l'idée première était antérieure à la Rhapsodie espagnole. (Ravel, [1938])

J'ai conçu cette oeuvre comme un espèce d'apothéose de la valse viennoise, à laquelle se mêle, dans mon esprit, l'impression d'un tournoiement fantastique et fatal. (Ravel, [1938])

The work is dedicated to Misia Sert, at whose apartment in April 1920 it was first played through for Diaghilev (Stravinsky and Poulenc were also present); Diaghilev's reaction was cool ("Ravel, c'est un chef-d'oeuvre, mais ce n'est pas un ballet. C'est la peinture d'un ballet." Poulenc, [1963]); Ravel withdrew his work, and never worked with Diaghilev again. It was first performed as an orchestral piece in December 1920. Its first staging as a ballet took place in Antwerp on 2 October 1926 at the Vlaamse Opera, with choreography by Sonia Korty. It was subsequently presented as a ballet by Ida Rubinstein in 1929 at the Paris Opéra. (Nichols [2011] pp.281-282; see also "La création mondiale du ballet La Valse de Maurice Ravel à Anvers", by Erik Baeck and Hedwige Baeck-Schilders, in Cahiers Maurice Ravel, no 14 [2011], pp.43-51).

The score published in 1921 carries a description of the work's imagined setting: "Des nuées tourbillonnantes laissent entrevoir par éclaircies des couples de valseurs. Elles se dissipent peu à peu; on distingue un immense salle peuplée d'une foule tournoyante. La scène s'éclaire progressivement. La lumière des lustres éclate au fortissimo. Une cour impériale vers 1855." (Quoted in Marnat, [1986], p.472)

"[The scenario] ... sets the scene but that is as far as it goes. It does not begin to take into account what Ravel himself recognised as the 'fantastic and fatal' element in the score, the explosive catastrophe which ultimately sets La Valse apart as one the most frightening of all artistic products of World War I." ( Larner, [1996], p.174)

En composant La Valse je ne songeais pas à une danse de mort ni à une lutte entre la vie et la mort. ...J'ai changé le titre, Wien, en La Valse, qui correspond mieux à la nature esthétique de la composition. C'est une extase dansante, tournoyante, presque hallucinante, un tourbillon de plus en plus passionné et épuisant de danseuses, qui se laissent déborder et emporter uniquement par la valse. (Ravel interviewed in De Telegraaf, 30 sept. 1922, reprinted in Orenstein, [1989], p.345).

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