Ravel’s Waltzes – Noble, Sentimental, Always Enchanting

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As the waltz began shed­ding its ländler folk-dance roots and emerg­ing into the glid­ing, twirling dance we know today, it also acquired the rep­u­ta­tion of being shock­ing erotic. Cou­ples danced closely together, clasped in each other’s arms, “each move­ment mak­ing lit­tle lust­ful pres­sures,” sniffed one onlooker. But as the Nine­teenth Cen­tury pro­gressed, pro­hi­bi­tions against the waltz gave way to a waltz craze, fueled by the entic­ing three-quarter-time music that swept all of Europe into its lilt­ing rhythm.

The title Valses Nobles et Sen­ti­men­tales suf­fi­ciently indi­cates my inten­tion of writ­ing a cycle of waltzes after the exam­ple of Schu­bert,” said Ravel, though most lis­ten­ers today are more likely to think of Johann Strauss, Jr. What­ever the actual inspi­ra­tion, Ravel’s cycle of eight waltzes was orig­i­nally writ­ten for piano, and had its pre­mier in 1911 at a con­cert put on by the Soci­eté Musi­cales Indépen­dante. None of the pieces were attrib­uted to com­posers and the audi­ence voted on each work’s author­ship. Ravel later remem­bered his work being “per­formed to the accom­pa­ni­ment of hoots and cat-calls.” Though Debussy com­mented, “It is the prod­uct of the finest ear that has ever existed.”

A year later Ravel orches­trated it — superbly. The bril­liant instru­men­ta­tion gives each waltz a unique tim­bre, so that even in the eighth waltz (labeled “Epi­logue” in the score) when mate­r­ial from the ear­lier waltzes returns, it takes on a dif­fer­ent hue. The first waltz begins with a series of brac­ing chords, like the first sips of a per­fectly chilled mar­tini on a swel­ter­ing after­noon, astrin­gent and filled with deli­cious promise. From exu­ber­ance to inti­macy, from child­like glee to wispy melan­choly, each rav­ish­ingly beau­ti­ful waltz has its own sharply etched char­ac­ter defined within a mea­sure or two, though Ravel said “the sev­enth waltz seems to me to be the most char­ac­ter­is­tic.” With the excep­tion of the third waltz that segues into the fourth with­out a break, the waltzes are sep­a­rated by a slight pause.

Through­out Ravel’s fabled crafts­man­ship is fully in evi­dence. Each waltz is a per­fect minia­ture, its melody, rhythm and har­mony set out in a such a way that the lis­tener can­not con­ceive of a sin­gle note being dif­fer­ent than it is. The piece as a whole is enchant­i­ngly summed up by a quo­ta­tion Ravel put at the head of the score, from Henrí de Régnier’s Les Ren­con­tres de Mon­sieur de Bréot: “…the plea­sure, delight­ful and always new, of a use­less vocation.”

A slightly dif­fer­ent ver­sion of these notes appeared in the 2010 Lucerne Fes­ti­val Sum­mer pro­gram book.