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.