Run, don’t walk, to your computer to listen to this wonderful feature on Ravel’s La Valse on BBC iPlayer until Friday this week. Called “Dancing the Apocalypse” it’s about as good as the BBC gets at really getting to grips with a major piece of music. Bravo to host Tom Service, and the excellent gang of commentators. I’m conducting my first La Valse later this year, and the show had me racing back to my score to start studying.
Tom Service explores the dark universe of Ravel’s 12 minute masterpiece, La Valse, one the most powerful and puzzling pieces in the whole orchestral repertoire. It’s a work that is a portrait of a whole genre of music – The Waltz – its birth, life, and death. Ravel composed it in 1919 and 1920, after his devastating experiences serving in the First World War and the death of his mother, the human being he was closest to in his whole life. He initially planned the work in 1906 as a tribute to the waltzes of Johann Strauss, and the seductive, sensual structures of the dance form, a piece of music that would embody the whirling pleasure of dancers in Imperial balls in Vienna in the nineteenth century.
After the war, Ravel’s sumptuous tribute curdled into something much darker. Instead of celebrating the waltz, La Valse destroys it. At the end of the piece, Ravel murders the waltz-form he loved so much, finishing it off with a cacophony of rhythmic violence and crunching harmonic dissonance. This isn’t just a musical process: the music sounds like the end of Empire, a revelation of the skull beneath the skin, the moment when pleasure turns to pain. How can you interpret La Valse as anything else but a picture of a culture, a society, in inexorable decline?
But the composer himself resisted all of these attempts at interpretation. Ravel was notoriously secretive about all aspects of his life, from his compositional process to his private life, and refused to sanction any reading of La Valse that said anything more controversial than the piece is about the waltz.
With contributions from conductor Eliahu Inbal, composer George Benjamin, Ravel biographer Roger Nichols, Deborah Mawer of Lancaster University, and French musicologist David Lamaze, who claims to have discovered a musical code in La valse.
You can listen to a full performance of La Valse on Breakfast on Sunday morning at 8.45am