“We are dancing on the edge of a volcano,” Ravel wrote in his notes on La Valse, quoting the Comte de Salvandy. His words are an apt description of both his music and Balanchine’s neo-romantic choreography: couples waltzing in a cavernous ballroom where a woman in white is at once horrified and fascinated by the uninvited figure of death who ultimately claims her life.
Since La Valse was already in the composer’s mind at least a dozen years before the Great War broke out, whether or not the shadow of death that hangs over it can be directly attributed to the war is uncertain. However, Richard Buckle has linked it to the mood of futility in Europe in 1914, likening its Gothic theme to Edgar Allen Poe’s “Masque of the Red Death”. According to James Burnett in Ravel: His Life and Times, the music conveys “some indefinable though unmistakable sense of a danse macabre or totentanz…a frenetic energy about it which carries more than a hint of doom.”
Ravel was intrigued by the disintegration of the waltz form, and envisioned La Valse set in the Imperial Court of Vienna in 1855 (its original title was “Wien”). He called La Valse “a choreographic poem…a sort of apotheosis of the Viennese waltz…the mad whirl of some fantastic and fateful carousel.” The orchestral timbres are reminiscent of Rimsky-Korsakov’s. As Lincoln Kirstein wrote, “… the big themes shatter, rhythms dissolve, a persistent beat grows tenuous, and as a succession of feverish motifs dissolve, the climax becomes chaos.”
Valses Nobles et Sentimentales, which comprise the first part of the ballet, drew on a variety of sources. Ravel had intended to write a sequence of waltzes that followed the example of Schubert’s Valse Nobles (Op. 77) and Valses Sentimentales (Op. 50). Like Schubert, Ravel wrote his waltzes for piano solo; they were orchestrated a year later. Emmanuel Chabrier’s Trois Valses Romantiques was another inspiration for Ravel. (In 1932 Balanchine had used Chabrier’s music for Cotillion, a thematic predecessor of La Valse, with its flirtations, underlying hints of doom, and demonic circle of dancers at the end.) An aimless cleverness, signaling cultural decadence seeps into these pieces, whose epigraph, according to Ravel, was: “The delightful and always novel pleasure of a useless occupation.” While each of the waltzes is different in mood and style, all convey a feeling of restlessness. Towards the end of Valses Nobles et Sentimentales a climactic musical phrase presages the ominous events to come.
Diaghilev, who had commissioned La Valse for his Ballets Russes, rejected it as “un-theatrical.” When doing opera ballets for the Metropolitan Opera in 1934, Balanchine choreographed a waltz to music from Die Fledermaus that turned out to be a sketch for the enlarged setting of La Valse 17 years later. In 1951, when he decided to make a ballet using the work he found it too short, and preceded it with Valses Nobles et Sentimentales.
Maurice Ravel (1875-1937) was born in the French Basque town of Ciboure. His family moved to Parisand encouraged him to take piano lessons. At fourteen he was admitted to the Paris Conservatory, where he studied with Fauré, who became his principal teacher of composition. His ballet scores include Pavane pour une Infante Dèfunte, Jeux D’eau, Boléro, Daphnis and Chloe, Ma Mère L’Oye, and L’enfant et les Sortileges, a ballet-opera.