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18. Ravel – “La Valse”

September 3, 2011

Another influence upon Ravel was the great tradition of Viennese Waltzes of the late 19th century, the most famous of all (or most “popularized”) being this one (the famous excerpt starts at 1:30):

Listen and Watch on Youtube: Johann Strauss II – “The Blue Danube” Waltz

Ravel’s work “La Valse” is kind of an homage to the great tradition of Viennese Waltzes, but it’s very different kind of work in that the waltz is not the form of the piece, but the subject of it. The waltz in this piece is more like a character, and we see it “journey” and develop throughout the work. There’s a lot to this piece – i’ll do the chronological analysis first, and then, far more interesting, i’ll give my commentary and analysis on what I think this piece is REALLY about.

Ravel’s own preface to the work, describing the setting:

“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.”

Listen and Watch on Youtube: Ravel – La Valse

0:00 It opens with a “formless void” kind of setting, full of mysterious, dark sounds of the orchestra (notably, exposed double basses, bassoon, and bass clarinet). There are pieces coming in an out of view, but it is disjoint, disorganized, and out of focus. There is some semblance of rhythmic feel though.

0:45 Starting to come together. The picture is still very hazy though, and there isn’t a clear sense of direction yet. Listen for the rising and then descending chromatic scale played by the flute – there are lots of “loose ends” still needing to be rounded up.

1:20 Now, it’s more cohesive. There is a steady pace, there is clear tonality, and some waltz melodies are able to hold themselves together. Listen to the cellos and bassoons playing in sort of duet, perhaps indicative of pairs of dancers in the waltz.

2:08 More cohesiveness – a glittering harp entrance brings in an elegant melody in the strings. Now the waltz is beginning to swing and spin.

2:41 The burst of the chandelier lights, as per Ravel’s written comments. Compare the before and after – there is a lot dimness and haze before (which Ravel could write better than anyone), and suddenly, a burst of light and clarity. Then it gets quiet again.

4:01 Exposed bass drum/timpani strike begins a faster/louder section, punctuated by rhythmic brass.

4:32 Back to a quieter section. A lot of alternating of quiet and louder sections in this piece. Also, notice that there is not really one main melody to this work – there are something like 7 or 8 different melodic ideas in this piece. I never tried to nail them all down though, and i’m not sure if doing so is that necessary.

5:52 Waltzing among the strings. Soon after, goes into higher register in the strings. This is perhaps the most “perfectly-formed” waltz incident in this piece.

6:42 Solo violins play waltz melody, with a lot of rhythmic liberty taken. Lots of little “gestures” in this passage.

7:24 Tense feeling. From around here onwards, it starts to feel increasingly unsettled.

8:01 After a dissonant buildup, the sound scurries away, and it briefly plunges back to the formlessness of the start, and works its way back into focus again.

8:43 The waltz is trying, but it doesn’t quite recover it’s earlier beauty and elegance. Notice the “interruption” at 8:46. It’s as if one pair of dancers bumped into another, and nasty glares were exchanged.

8:53 The waltz sings out again, but is unable to keep itself together elegantly, and it becomes noisier and uglier.

9:29 Interruptions again – this time, twice.

9:38 Now the different waltz ideas are starting to become more fragmented and overlap with one another. The feeling is as if the dancers – nicely choreographed before, and everyone knew when to come in – are now starting to clash, come in at the wrong times, and dance in each others’ space. Musically speaking, the rhythm and meter of the waltz are now becoming more irregular, and also the overall tempo is now starting to exceed the range of speed that would be appropriate for dancing to (in theory), and it will continue to get faster.

9:50 Buildup to a big climax – sounds like a dam bursts, and now water is pouring through uncontrollably, before it starts to calm down.

10:30 Waltz pushing along. Listen to the very long chromatic scale in the bassline – creeping up one note at a time while there is this mounting tension and increasing volume in the higher-pitched instruments. When it all reaches the top, it’s one of those moments when everything seems to stand still for a split second, right before it all explodes. And there is this sound of terror in the “explosion” – a bass drum is played along with a tam-tam, which is a large, brass gong, and then immediately following are the brass punctuated with a cymbal crash. As is typical of Ravel, he utilizes a very large, varied and important percussion section in this piece.

11:09 The whole orchestra, now sounding heavy, loud, and clumsy, trying to give the waltz one last hurrah.

11:37 Still trying, but really not coming together anymore. There’s now more irregularity than waltzing at this point. Note the fragmented phrases and lack of continuity – imagine what the great dance hall must look like at this point, if you even can!

12:14 Amid all the instability, the strings briefly interrupt everything.

12:21 Here, your ear wants the phrase to come to a cadence. Even without knowing the technical stuff of music, your ear just want the phrase to end a certain way, which is to return to the tonal center. But, it gets stuck, like a broken record just before it becomes…

12:26 Utter chaos. The instability has reached a point of no return. One image I get is that a bunch of scientists and engineers have lost all control of their great machine, which is now violently shaking, blaring loud warning sirens, and steam is pouring out uncontrollably from the top of the machine, and it’s all about to come crashing down. Earlier, the regularity of waltz was lost, and then tonality began to loosen and then fall apart, and finally, all rhythm and tonal center are now gone, and we are left with this madness. But again, with Ravel, this is extraordinarily carefully-crafted madness. Finally in the end, it comes to a crash.


So that’s the analysis, but what is this piece REALLY about?

To cut to the chase, I think this piece is social commentary about present-day European society. The original title of the work was actually Wien, which is German for Vienna – much more direct. Vienna was perhaps the center of European culture, and this piece is about what has happened to it during Ravel’s lifetime. Ravel was no stranger to conflict – during his lifetime, he saw several bloody revolutions and attempted revolutions, and ultimately, participated himself in World War I. The Waltz, to Ravel, was a symbol of old Europe and all its beauty, dignity, and civility. But, something got lost as time went on, and it all began to fall apart and descend into ugliness, instability, and chaos. What was lost could not be recovered, and perhaps there is a pessimism stated in this piece, that European culture had reached its apex, and was now in a downward spiral of self-destruction.

Fascinating, isn’t it?

Next: Suppe’s Light Calvary Overture

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One Comment
  1. Thank you soo much ! I have been studying this piece for awhile and your video guidelines have been really helpful.

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