Ravel began to work on La Valse in 1906. Originally called Wien and written as a tribute to Johann Strauss, Jr., Ravel laid the piece aside until after World War I, at which time he was commissioned to write a ballet, and used as its basis the sketches from Wien. In the process, the piece assumed an almost entirely different character, variously described as a “ferocious fantasy,” “terrifying tone poem,” “musical nightmare” — and to Ravel’s dismay, was pronounced unsuitable for dancing. Despite its dark side, however, it is a brilliant piece. Ravel said, “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.”

“We are dancing on the edge of a volcano,” Ravel writes in his own notes on La Valse. Balanchine, in his choreography for a later ballet production of the piece, envisions “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.” Critic Lincoln Kirstein writes of the conclusion, “… the big themes shatter, rhythms dissolve, a persistent beat grows tenuous, and as a succession of feverish motifs dissolve, the climax becomes chaos.”

Ravel’s La Valse, performed at the Concord Community Music School on December 13th, 2014