Ravel – La Valse
By Jeff Counts
Instrumentation: 3 flutes (3rd doubles piccolo), 3 oboes (3rd doubles English horn0, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, bass drum, cymbals, snare drum, tamtam, triangle, tambourine, glockenspiel, crotales, castanets, 2 harps, strings
Duration: 12 minutes.
THE COMPOSER – MAURICE RAVEL (1875-1937) – When Debussy died in 1918, Ravel found the throne of French music unguarded and the unobstructed path did not suit him. For years, the two men had been set up as rivals in Paris and the eventual factionalization of the artist community led to a cooling between them. But Ravel had never wanted the mantle for himself and when it became available, he demurred and moved away from the city.
THE MUSIC – For years, Ravel had entertained the idea of creating an homage work to Johann Strauss, Jr. entitled Wien (Vienna). When Serge Diaghilev approached him after World War I to write a new ballet, he thought he had finally found reason to see it through. Diaghilev’s name is synonymous with so many of the 20th century’s great orchestral scores that it is easy to forget he was not enamored of all of them. Ravel gave the impresario a two-piano sneak peek of Wien in the spring of 1920. Poulenc and Stravinsky were in attendance as well and Poulenc recalled the disastrous tension when Diaghilev referred to the music as “genius” but “not a ballet.” Ravel was highly offended and broke ties with Diaghilev on the spot. So enduring was the animosity between them that is believed Diaghilev actually challenged Ravel to a duel a few years later. Thankfully, that particular folly did not occur. La Valse (instead of Wien) premiered as an orchestral work later in 1920 and was produced as a ballet in 1928 by none other than Ida Rubenstein (yes, the same competitor of Diaghilev that had commissioned both Boléro and Stravinsky’s The Fairy’s Kiss – which led to the latter’s own permanent split with the Ballets Russes). The brooding mood of La Valse has been popularly attributed to Ravel’s supposed impressions of the Great War and its atrocities but he remained ever resistant to that interpretation.
THE WORLD – 1920 also saw the creation of the American Civil Liberties Union, the death of Explorer Robert Peary, the beginning of the Ottoman Empire’s dissolution, the very first “Ponzi” scheme and the canonization of Joan of Arc.
THE CONNECTION – La Valse has been programmed frequently by the Utah Symphony. The most recent Masterworks performance was in 2009 with Carlos Kalmar conducting.