Ravel (1875-1937) - La Valse
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.
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.
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
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