Thursday, October 14, 2010

La Valse program notes

The final piece on the October 24th concert will be La Valse by Ravel. This is the program note written by Saad Daniari, violist in the GDYO.

La Valse

Maurice Ravel

Born March 7, 1875 in Ciboure, France

Died December 28, 1937 in Paris, France

La Valse, one of Maurice Ravel’s most intricate and elaborate compositions, is a musical work whose interpretation has undergone endless discussion. As early as 1906, Ravel had aspired to create a piece of music in order to celebrate the waltz. He planned to title this piece Wien (Vienna) and molded it as a tribute to a prominent Viennese composer. In one of his letters, Ravel said:

It’s not subtle what I’m undertaking at present: a grand waltz, a kind of homage to the memory of the great Strauss, not Richard, the other one, Johann. You know of my profound empathy with these admirable rhythms, and that I rate the joie de vivre expressed by the dance more deeply than Franckist Puritanism.

A precursor to the eventual work was Valses nobles et sentimentales, which utilized many of the motifs and musical ornamentations heard in La Valse. Ravel began to combine elements of both Valses nobles as well as sketches of Wien in order to produce a symphonic work that, to his dismay, would baffle and perplex a majority of the musical community. It would be titled La Valse: a French perspective of the Viennese waltz.

Perhaps the most distinctive aspect of Ravel’s work is that it exists in several versions. The piece originated as a piano solo; however, it was arranged for two pianos and a symphony orchestra as well. The symphonic version was developed under commission by Sergei Diaghilev, an influential patron of the arts. When Ravel presented the piece to Diaghilev, the Russian impresario was taken aback by the immense creative liberties that Ravel had incorporated into his score. In response to hearing the composition, he said “…this is not a ballet; this is a portrait of a ballet, a painting of a ballet.” Ravel was deeply offended by Diaghilev’s criticism of La Valse and refused to work with him in any future endeavors. The altercation that occurred regarding the work ultimately marked the end of their friendship. While Ravel secured an orchestral performance of his piece in 1920, it didn’t premier as a ballet for another nine years.

Laced with atmospheric details and ethereal undertones, Ravel’s continually debated composition can best be described as un poème chorégraphique (a choreographic poem) – an orchestral work designed for a ballet, yet also standing as a self-sufficient piece of music, as it offers many of the artistic characteristics evident in a tone poem. La Valse opens with a nearly silent mist of sound generated through the rumbling of the double basses, eventually joined by the cellos and the harps. In a very gradual progression, various instruments enter, culminating into the eruption of a waltz melody. As the piece continues, it evolves into a more macabre dance. The division of each string section into three separate parts truly exemplifies the intricacy of the work.

In his analysis of La Valse, the composer George Benjamin stated:

Whether or not it was intended as a metaphor for the predicament of European civilization in the aftermath of the Great War, its one-movement design plots the birth, decay and destruction of a musical genre: the waltz.

La Valse is one of the most challenging pieces of music ever composed for a symphony orchestra. Maurice Ravel combined cultural influences from France and Vienna in order to create an extraordinary and unconventional composition. For any orchestra, to perform the work is an extremely virtuosic feat.

Ravel scored La Valse for three flutes and piccolo, three oboes and english horn, two clarinets and bass clarinet, two bassoons and contrabassoon, four horns, three trumpets, three trombones and tuba, timpani, bass drum, cymbals, triangle, snare drum, castanets, tam-tam, antique cymbals, celesta, two harps, and strings.

-Saad Daniari, viola

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