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Ravel (1875-1937) - La Valse

At 14, Ravel entered the Paris Conservatoire, studying piano and composition (with Bériot and Fauré, respectively). In 16 years there, he developed a unique style, an unsettling combination of classically based idiom and unconventional harmony offensive to the ears of many academics (a sure sign of originality?). After serving in the Great War, his health went into decline, and for the last 17 years of his life he composed progressively less, but fortunately not less brilliantly. Clearly the War had a profound impact, as his music now had far greater depths beneath its glistening surface. In fact, there are striking similarities between Ravel's reaction to the passing of the old order and that of Elgar. 

Attracted to dance rhythms both ancient and modern, in 1907 he had planned a work in celebration of the Viennese Waltz. However, it was only after the War that, prompted by Diaghilev, he wrote La Valse, a work with one foot solidly planted in the old world, and the other shifting uncertainly in the quicksand of the new, an extraordinary and bizarre reflection of his turmoil. Ravel had an orchestral technique of unparalleled refinement, always aiming for crystalline clarity of texture, although you might not think so when you hear this work's murky beginning: it is like a mist, dissipating, gradually revealing a magnificent crowded ballroom (Ravel's own description). However, fret not, it is the scene which is obscured - the mist itself is clear in every detail! The music is at first a luxuriant retrospect, gracious and curvacious, probably very much as Ravel had originally intended. Imperceptibly, it becomes ever more propulsive and ever more violently unstable, until, in a final roof-threatening cataclysm, it crashes to a catastrophic (and alliterative!) conclusion. 

Rarely performed as ballet, it is far better as a concert work. Like a radio play, the absence of visual constraints frees the mind to imagine limitless terrors. The “Grand Ball” epitomises the civilised pleasure of the ruling classes. Not surprisingly, the nightmarish concept of the dance seizing control of its privileged participants and bundling them into oblivion has been used often, particularly in films. I recall especially the final scene of the film of The Masque of the Red Death, where the revellers in the castle, believing themselves safe from the plague without, celebrate with increasing abandon - only to find their dance is directed by the figure of Death, moving among them. For such scenarios, La Valse is surely the chilling archetype.

© Paul Serotsky
29, Carr Street, Kamo, Whangarei 0101, Northland, New Zealand


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