Wang Val

Severance Hall
November 29 – Friday at 8:00 p.m. 

November 30 – Saturday at 8:00 p.m. 
December 1 – Sunday at 3:00 p.m.

La Valse [The Waltz]

Maurice Ravel  (1875-1937)
composed 1905-20

At a Glance

Ravel made some preliminary sketches for a “large waltz” as early as 1905.  He completed the final composition and titled it La Valse [“The Waltz”] in 1920.  It was first performed on December 12, 1920, in Paris, with Camille Chevillard leading the Lamoureux Orchestra.  

La Valse runs something over 10 minutes in performance.  Ravel scored it for piccolo, 3 flutes, 2 oboes, english horn, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion, 2 harps, and strings.

The Cleveland Orchestra first performed La Valse on April 19, 1923, with Nikolai Sokoloff conducting.  Since that time, it has been programmed frequently, most recently at Severance Hall in September 2018 conducted Franz Welser-Möst.

About the Music

The concert concludes with a vibrant musical homage to the Germanic waltz, written by a Frenchman.  

The waltz had swept across Europe in the closing decades of the 18th century, eventually finding its zenith in the Austrian capital of Vienna.  The word itself came from the German verb walzen, which was originally not much more specific than the English word “dance.”  Eventually, faster waltzing overtook the slower minuet in popularity, and the verb became a noun, first in English and then in German.  

Although he wrote dance music, Mozart never called any of his pieces a waltz.  Beethoven wrote a few, but still called them dances (tanzen).  In 1819, Carl Maria von Weber wrote a piano piece titled Invitation to the Dance.  Its popularity, first as a piano piece and then as orchestrated by Berlioz, set the pattern for what quickly became the typical Viennese waltz — not one dance, but a string of dance tunes written together as a group, often alternating slower and faster sections, with the various tunes and sections repeated and developed . . . almost like a short symphony.

The waltz carried forward on successive waves of renewed popularity throughout the 19th century, propelled by the artistry and showmanship of one particular family of composers, beginning with Johann Strauss Sr. (1804-1849).  His touring orchestra, along with that of his even more famous son, Johann Jr., spread the waltz craze throughout Europe (and even to American shores.)

French composer Maurice Ravel was greatly inspired by dance forms throughout his career — and, even in Paris, was thoroughly exposed to the structured elegance that the waltz represented throughout Europe’s Germanlands.  

Ravel began sketching what would become The Waltz [La Valse] in 1905, imagining that he would create a pleasant and uplifting tribute to the power of the 19th century’s greatest dance form as perfected by Johann Strauss Jr.  

At the time, Ravel planned to call the new work “Vienna.”  Different projects intervened, however, and Ravel found himself writing other music instead.  And when World War I came along, the French composer could not bring himself to continue writing “music of the enemy.”  (Ravel enlisted in the French Army to fight, but was turned down by the infantry and then the air services, before being assigned to the supply department, where he helped organize and drive trucks filled with petrol to the front lines.)

Ravel finally completed La Valse in 1920, writing into it a sense not just of the waltz at the height of its popularity, but a larger view of the great Germanic society that had created it and that had been smashed by the forces of World War I — death and destruction, diversity and democracy.  In the score, Ravel had the following text printed:  An Imperial court about 1855.  At first the scene is dimmed by a kind of swirling mist, through which one discerns, vaguely and intermittently, the waltzing couples.  Little by little the vapors disperse, the illumination grows brighter, revealing an immense ballroom filled with dancers; the blaze of the chandeliers comes to full splendor.”

The music begins softly, almost imperceptibly.  Slowly, a waltz forms.  Like the great Strauss waltzes, this “waltz” is really a set of several waltz-tunes, alternated and developed together.  The music builds and builds, with ever greater energy, but also with a sense of foreboding, of a distant storm on the horizon, of unwanted dissonances lurking deep in the music.  Dance now, for you cannot know what tomorrow shall bring.  But the dance goes on, and on.  At last there is a great climax, and then the three-quarter beat of the waltz shatters and is smashed, finished, suddenly over.  Exhilarating while it lasted, in history and in Ravel’s epic musical storytelling, the waltz was king and then . . . no longer.

Eric Sellen © 2019

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