La valse, poème chorégraphique pour orchestre (a choreographic poem for orchestra), is a work written by Maurice Ravel from February 1919 until 1920 (premiered in Paris on 12 December 1920). It was conceived as a ballet but is now more often heard as a concert work. The work has been described as a tribute to the waltz, and the composer George Benjamin, in his analysis of La valse, summarized the ethos of the work as follows:
"Whether or not it was intended as a metaphor for the predicament of European civilization in the aftermath of the Great War, its one-movement design plots the birth, decay and destruction of a musical genre: the waltz."
"While some discover an attempt at parody, indeed caricature, others categorically see a tragic allusion in it – the end of the Second Empire, the situation in Vienna after the war, etc.... This dance may seem tragic, like any other emotion... pushed to the extreme. But one should only see in it what the music expresses: an ascending progression of sonority, to which the stage comes along to add light and movement." 
and also commenting in 1922 that "It doesn't have anything to do with the present situation in Vienna, and it also doesn't have any symbolic meaning in that regard. In the course of La Valse, I did not envision a dance of death or a struggle between life and death. (The year of the choreographic argument, 1855, repudiates such an assumption.)" 
In his tribute to Ravel after the composer's death in 1937, Paul Landormy described the work as follows:
"....the most unexpected of the compositions of Ravel, revealing to us heretofore unexpected depths of Romanticism, power, vigor, and rapture in this musician whose expression is usually limited to the manifestations of an essentially classical genius".
Creation and meaning
The idea of La valse began first with the title "Vienne", then Wien (French and German for "Vienna", respectively) as early as 1906, where Ravel intended to orchestrate a piece in tribute to the waltz form and to Johann Strauss II. An earlier influence from another composer was the waltz from Emmanuel Chabrier's opera Le roi malgré lui. In Ravel's own compositional output, a precursor to La valse was his 1911 Valses nobles et sentimentales, which contains a motif that Ravel reused in the later work. After his service in the French Army, Ravel returned to his original idea of the symphonic poem Wien. Ravel described his own attraction to waltz rhythm as follows, to Jean Marnold, whilst writing La valse:
"You know my intense attraction to these wonderful rhythms and that I value the joie de vivre expressed in the dance much more deeply than Franckist puritanism."
Ravel completely reworked his idea of Wien into what became La valse, which was to have been written under commission from Sergei Diaghilev as a ballet. However, he never produced the ballet. After hearing a two-piano reduction performed by Ravel and Marcelle Meyer, Diaghilev said it was a "masterpiece" but rejected Ravel's work as "not a ballet. It's a portrait of ballet". Ravel, hurt by the comment, ended the relationship. Subsequently, it became a popular concert work and when the two men met again during 1925, Ravel refused to shake Diaghilev's hand. Diaghilev challenged Ravel to a duel, but friends persuaded Diaghilev to recant. The men never met again. The ballet was premiered in Antwerp in October 1926 by the Royal Flemish Opera Ballet, and there were later productions by the Ballets Ida Rubinstein in 1928 and 1931 with choreography by Nijinska. The music was also used for ballets of the same title by George Balanchine, who had made dances for Diaghilev, in 1951 and by Frederick Ashton in 1958.
Ravel described La valse with the following preface to the score:
- "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."
The beginning starts quietly (the mist), with the rumbling of the double basses with the celli and harps subsequently joining. Silently and gradually, instruments play fragmented melodies, gradually building into a subdued tune on bassoons and violas. Eventually, the harps signal the beginning culmination of instruments into the graceful melody. Led by the violins, the orchestra erupts into the work's principal waltz theme.
A series of waltzes follows, each with its own character, alternating loud and soft sequences.
- The variations by oboe, violins and flutes, mild, slightly timid but nevertheless sweet and elegant.
- The eruption of the heavy brass and timpani begins the next ebullient and pompous melody. The tune is sung by the violins as cymbals crash and the brass blare unashamedly.
- Afterwards, the violas lead a tender tune, accompanied by luxuriant humming in the cellos and clarinets. It disappears and once again returns to the sweet variations and extravagant brass.
- Enter a rather restless episode with dramatic violins, accompanied with precocious (yet seemingly wayward) woodwinds. Castanets and pizzicato add to the character of a rather erratic piece. It ends meekly and clumsily in the bassoons.
- The piece relapses into previous melodies, before a poignant and sweet tune begins in the violins. Glissando is a characteristic feature. The gentle violins are accompanied by ornate, chromatic swayings in the cellos and glissando in the harps. The tune is once again repeated by the woodwinds. As it ends, it begins to unleash some kind of climax, when it is suddenly cut off by a sweet flute.
- The flute plays a rather playful, repetitious melody, accompanied by the glockenspiel and triangle. In between, the violins seem to yearn, whilst the harps play and (bizarrely) the horns trill. Once more, as it nears its conclusion, it tries to build up into a climax, but descends once more into the 'mist' of the beginning.
So begins the piece's second half. Every melody from the first section is re-introduced, although differently, in the second section. Ravel has altered each waltz theme piece with unexpected modulations and instrumentation (for example, where flutes would normally play, they are replaced by trumpets). As the Waltz begins to whirl and whirl unstoppably, Ravel intends us to see what is truly happening in this waltz rather symbolically.
Once more, Ravel breaks the momentum. A macabre sequence begins, gradually building into a disconcerting repetition. The orchestra reaches a danse macabre coda, and the work ends with the final measure as the only one in the score not in waltz-time.
The orchestration is for piccolo (also 3rd flute), 2 flutes, 2 oboes, cor anglais, 2 clarinets in A, bass clarinet in A, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns in F, 3 trumpets in C, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, bass drum, snare drum, cymbals, triangle, tambourine, tam-tam, crotales, glockenspiel, castanets, 2 harps and strings.
Apart from the two-piano reduction mentioned above, which was first publicly performed by Ravel and Alfredo Casella, Ravel also transcribed this work for one piano. The solo piano transcription is infrequently performed due to its difficulty. The pianist Glenn Gould, who rarely played Ravel's music, made his own arrangement of it in 1975.
Frederick Ashton also created a La Valse ballet in 1958 for the Royal Ballet. Notably, at the premiere Francis Poulenc complimented Ashton on what he thought was the first successful interpretation of Ravel's intentions for the music.
- Benjamin, George (July 1994), "Last Dance". The Musical Times, 135 (1817): 432–435.
- Ravel, letter to Maurice Emmanuel, 14th October 1922 , in Arbie Orenstein (ed.): A Ravel Reader: Correspondence, Articles, Interviews (NY: Columbia UP, 1990), 229.
- "The French Music Festival: An Interview with Ravel", in De Telegraaf, 30.9.22, in Arbie Orenstein (ed.): A Ravel Reader: Correspondence, Articles, Interviews (NY: Columbia UP, 1990), 423.
- Landormy, Paul (translated by Willis Wager) (1939). "Maurice Ravel". The Musical Quarterly, XXV (4): 430–441. doi:10.1093/mq/XXV.4.430. Retrieved 2007-08-05.
- Delage, Roger (translated by Frayda Lindemann) (1975). "Ravel and Chabrier". The Musical Quarterly, 61 (4): 546–552. doi:10.1093/mq/lxi.4.546. Retrieved 2007-08-05.
- Calvocoressi, M.V. (January 1941). "Ravel's Letters to Calvocoressi With Notes and Comments". The Musical Quarterly,. XXVII (1): 1–19. doi:10.1093/mq/XXVII.1.1. Retrieved 2008-02-22.
- Reel, James. "La valse, poème choréographique for piano or 2 pianos". Allmusic. Retrieved 21 December 2012.
- Orenstein,Arbie. Ravel: Man and Musician, Dover, New York, 1991, p. 78, ISBN 0-486-26633-8
- Schonberg, Harold C. (1981). The Lives of the Great Composers (revised ed.). New York, London: W.W. Norton. p. 486. ISBN 0-393-01302-2. OCLC 6278261.
- Deborah Mawer, The Ballets of Maurice Ravel: Creation and Interpretation (Ashgate, 2006), 157ff
- David Vaughan (1999). Frederick Ashton and his Ballets. London, Dance Books Ltd. Pages 288–290.
- Orensten, Arbie; Ravel: Man and Musician (New York: Columbia University Press, 1968)
- Mawer, Deborah: "The Ballets of Maurice Ravel: Creation and Interpretation" (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2006)
- Program notes from the Chicago Symphony Orchestra
- Recording of La valse in transcription for two pianos by Neal and Nancy O'Doan in MP3 format
- Performance of La valse in transcription for solo piano by Jean-Frédéric Neuburger from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in MP3 format