Fantastical whirling waltzing in the Salle Gaveau: Maurice Ravel’s ‘La Valse’

Revue de Concert, Le Figaro, Monday December 13, 1920[1]


Paris, be alert: Maurice Ravel has officially returned to our musical scene. His wartime compositional hiatus is fully ended, and he has succeeded in surpassing last year’s Le Tombeau de Couperin with a new work at once stranger and more invigorating.[2] La Valse, poeme choreographie entranced every person within the Salle Gaveau last night. The Orchestre de Concerts Lamoreux, conducted by M. Camille Chevillard, offered a rousing performance.[3] Although La Valse was but one of seven works on last night’s program, alongside Mozart’s Symphonie No. 4 in G minor and Debussy’s Prélude a l’apres-midi d’un faune, Ravel’s new work received such warm reception that it was rendered the favorite by far.[4] The hall echoed with thunderous applause, punctuated by shouts of excitement the instant that Chevillard’s baton lowered. I added my voice to this din, praising Ravel’s daring artistry and the Orchestre’s captivating execution. Even so, I could not help but feel a pang of sadness – this premiere was blatantly incomplete.

The hall was filled last night, against all odds; I myself had struggled to forego many of the evening’s quality musical offerings. Had I sought peace and beauty, I should have thought to venture to the Chatelet to hear the beautiful Mme. Claire Croiza and the virtuosic M. Fernard Pollain in concert with the Orchestre de Colonne. Had I sought international flair, I should have instead attended the Concerts Pasdeloup’s ‘Grand festival de musique russe’ at the Opéra to hear Rimsky-Korsakov’s Shéhérazade and Stravinsky’s l’Oiseau de feu. Had I sought Baroque sanctity, I should have selected l’Orchestre de Paris’ performance of Bach, Handel, and Gluck works at the Salle de Agriculteurs.[5] Comedy, too, could have provided a much-needed change of pace, and I might have instead enjoyed levity at the Comédie-Française’s triple act.[6] Without doubt, any of these would have made a fine concert selection. I, however, was driven yesterday not by aesthetic yearning, but by curiosity. The controversy surrounding La Valse had proved too great an allure to resist.

Indeed, I had been shocked to discover that La Valse would be given an orchestral premiere at all. Anticipatory previews of the work’s Parisian premiere had long touted La Valse as a collaboration with the great Sergei Diaghilev. The impresario of the Ballet Russes had commissioned the work himself; thinking of their previous collaborative success in Le Tombeau de Couperin, I eagerly awaited the product of two master craftsmen.[7] However, rumors surrounding Ravel’s falling-out with Diaghilev have now permeated the musical community for months. When Ravel played his finished work for Diaghilev, the impresario rejected it, calling the work a “masterpiece … but not a ballet. It’s a portrait of a ballet … a painting of a ballet.”[8] Diaghilev’s criticism generated such a drastic response from Ravel – a complete breach of contact – that many critics, myself included, wondered whether Ravel’s pride was permanently wounded. I cannot fault Ravel for feeling betrayed; how conceited of Diaghilev to reject the product of his own invitation after Ravel’s year of painstaking work! Ravel’s pride appears to be not only in tact, however, but strong: he chose no substitute dance company to save the piece, but rather insisted that the work can stand alone without choreography. I arrived last night eager to see if Ravel’s decision was apt.

The evening’s performance made clear that Diaghilev’s decision was foolish. Ravel’s La Valse is no mere portrayal of a ballet, but rather the full embodiment of one. In fact, although tranquil at first, everything about this work parallels the Ballet Russes’ exotic aesthetics.[9] The piece is certainly a waltz, but it surreptitiously transforms as it progresses, becoming much less a waltz than a frenzied bacchanal. Beginning with somber phrases in the contrabasses, orchestral layers gradually joined, synthesized by periodic waltz fragments. These fragments built upon one another, opening at last into a clear and dazzling waltz.[10] Almost immediately, however, the dynamics changed drastically, leaving only the pianist at the forefront while the orchestra played lightly underneath. The contrast was almost comical, and certainly unexpected – from that moment onward, I knew Ravel had abandoned all notion of a lulling, peaceful waltz.[11] New motives followed, building upon each other with intentional rhythmic variations so nuanced that even the talented Lamoureux orchestra struggled to articulate them.[12]

As exquisite as this musical evolution was to hear, the work’s clarity became blurred, and the dancers’ absence became more pronounced. Nowhere was this more prominent than in the piece’s exceptionally notable ending. The graceful waltz motives became long and uncontrolled, and the music grew ever more wild and lively. Even as previous motives re-entered, as if to assert control once more, the winding waltz persisted in its frenzy.[13] The experience left me breathless: I had been swept up, but I had also been spun round and turned upside down, becoming disoriented. The concert hall seemed too still for such frenzy, too our of context without the dance to tell a story.

I enjoyed La Valse as a work of complex beauty, but not as the story that it may have been intended to portray. Without Diaghilev’s Ballet Russes, the waltz’s communicative intent is too nebulous. Of course, Ravel might well have intended to portray no more than a dance gone rogue – but without the dancing itself, the possibilities of interpretation are endless. Ravel’s original ballet scenario, printed in our program bulletins at the Salle Gaveau, is too spartan to served intentionally as the only interpretive guideline:

Through whirling clouds, waltzing couples may be faintly distinguished. The clouds gradually scatter: one sees an immense hall filled with a swirling throng. The stage is gradually illuminated. The light of the chandeliers reaches its peak at the fortissimo.  An imperial court, about 1855.[14]

Ravel himself has so far defined only what this work is not: it is not a life-and-death struggle, nor a post-war depiction. Without any visible cues in a work intended to be danced, the only plain conclusion is the work’s building to a hallucinatory ecstasy, overcome and exhilarated by nothing but the waltz itself.[15] Because Diaghilev has denied us the visual component of this work, we can only speculate at any hidden meanings behind the dichotomy of controlled and frenetic.[16]

La Valse is an exquisite musical piece, but it requires the dance it has been denied. I must say that I disagree with Ravel – the work cannot stand alone. Without a true embodiment of the frenzied ending, Ravel’s genius cannot fully be communicated to the audience. Paris adores Ravel’s newest work, but seeks the artistic synthesis that Diaghilev has denied Ravel. However, as I left the Salle Gaveau yesterday, I felt reassured that Ravel’s career, far from being nearly finished, is only just beginning; I imagine that many audience members from last evening will soon demand to see the work choreographed. I can only hope that a ballet company half as talented as the Ballet Russes might be found to do true justice to La Valse.


– Andre Benoit[17]

[1] This fictional concert review, based on factual research, is intended to have been published the morning after the premiere of Ravel’s La Valse, which occurred on Sunday, December 12, 1920. See Le Figaro, column Courrier Musical Aujourd’hui, Dec. 12 1920, 4.

[2] Ravel enlisted in the army in 1915, interrupting his musical work until the fall of 1917. At that time, he finished Le Tombeau de Couperin, then fell ill; while recovering, he resumed his composing with La Valse. See Arbie Orenstein, A Ravel Reader: Correspondence, Articles, Interviews, New York (Columbia University Press, 1990), 32.

[3] See Le Figaro, column Courrier Musical Aujourd’hui, Dec. 12 1920, 4.

[4] Ibid.

[5] All of these performances, as well as additional performances, are listed in the December 12, 1920 edition of Le Figaro. See Le Figaro, column Courrier Musical Aujourd’hui, Dec. 12 1920, 4.

[6] See Le Temps, Dec. 12 1920, 3.

[7] Diaghilev’s Ballet Russes company was known for showcasing modern musical trends in their collaborative work, and for playing off of exotic folklore. See Nancy Von Norman Baer, Paris Modern: The Swedish Ballet, 1920-1925, Seattle (University of Washington Press, 1996), 68.

[8] See Arbie Orenstein, Ravel: Man and Musician, New York (Columbia University Press, 1975), 78.

[9] Nancy Von Norman Baer, 68.

[10] This brief analysis is based largely off of the ideas of scholar Michael Puri. See Michael J. Puri, Ravel the Decadent: Memory, Sublimation, and Desire, Oxford (Oxford University Press, 2011), 168-184.

[11] Antoine Banés wrote in Le Figaro on December 13, “Cet alamgame forme un salmigondis des plus-cocasses, ou le burin d’un maître-ouvrier ne cesse un instant de s’affirmer. C’est une plaisanterie fort drôle…” In English, this translates to “This amalgamation is a form hodgepodge-comical, or the chisel of a master-worker who keeps a moment to assert himself. It is a very funny joke.” Translated by K. Overdahl. See Antoine Banés, Le Figaro, Column Les Concerts, Dec. 13 1920, 4.

[12] In a letter to Ernest Ansermet, dated October 20, 1921, Ravel wrote, “Your understanding of La Valse is perfect. I could never get that rhythmic suppleness in Paris.” See Arbie Orenstein, A Ravel Reader: Correspondence, Articles, Interviews, 212.

[13] See Michael J. Puri, 177.

[14] See Arbie Orenstein, Ravel: Man and Musician, 511.

[15] La Valse was composed and finished before Ravel’s visit to Vienna – he did not intend it to sound identical to a Viennese waltz. It does not have anything to do with the post-war situation in Vienna, according to Ravel, and he did not envision a dance of death or a struggle between life and death. The work is a dancing, whirling, almost hallucinatory ecstasy, an increasingly passionate and exhausting whirlwind of dancers, who are overcome and exhilarated by nothing but ‘the waltz.’ Some people have seen in this piece the expression of a tragic affair; some have said that it represented the end of the Second Empire, others said that it was postwar Vienna. Ravel stated, “Certainly, La Valse is tragic, but in the Greek sense: it is a fatal spinning around, the expression of vertigo and of the voluptuousness of the dance to the point of paroxysm.” See Michael J. Puri, 180, and Arbie Orenstein, Ravel: Man and Musician, 80.

[16] In his letter to Ansermet, in preparation for La Valse’s Vienna premiere, Ravel requested, “Don’t forget to have the programs mention that this ‘choreographic poem’ is written for the stage. I believe it is necessary, judging from the surprise which the concluding frenzy has evoked from some listeners and from the fantastic comments of music critics.” See Arbie Orenstein, A Ravel Reader: Correspondence, Articles, Interviews, 212.

[17] This is a fictional pen name; any similarities to historical characters is purely coincidental.