|Battle of the Somme, July 1916|
World War I can be seen as even more disastrous considering the decades of relative peace and prosperity that preceded it. (I stress the word “relative.”) For Europe, the late nineteenth century was a time of outward tranquility and economic growth that fostered scientific and artistic innovation (think Darwin, Monet, and Strauss). Then came World War I, the war that achieved little beyond causing a second world war and the deaths of another 60 million people. They called World War I the “war to end war.” Marching morons, indeed.
tone poem depicting European civilization deteriorating into barbarism. Ravel denied this interpretation by stating, "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."
Ravel completed La Valse shortly after World War I, and it's easy to see how the war might explain Ravel's "ascending progression of sonority." In describing the decay and destruction of the Viennese waltz, Ravel composed a piece of music that many hear as a metaphor for what happened in Europe from 1850 to 1918.
Follow the time indicators listed below and hear how some people might make the connection. Listen to how the waltz slowly emerges as an elegant symbol of European society and then journeys through several episodes of its evolution before deteriorating into confusion and despair. The piece grows increasingly grotesque as music that is graceful, gentle, and elegant turns violent and unstable at the end. Even though Ravel said he did not intend to describe what had happened in Europe during World War I, it's easy to hear how some people might hear it that way.
Myung-Whun Chung conducting the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France
0:00 – The Mist
The music begins with a rumbling in the basses as an elegant Viennese waltz slowly emerges from the fog.
2:05 – Viennese Waltz
An elegant waltz, played in its purest form, is introduced by the violins and eventually taken over by the full orchestra. The waltz then evolves through several episodes of its development, from graceful, sweet, and gentle to joyful and grandiose
2:49 – Episode 1
4:01 – Episode 2
4:32 – Episode 3
5:02 – Episode 4
5:52 – Episode 5
7:33 – Episode 6
8:03 – The Mist
We return to the fog from the beginning (a rebirth of the waltz) that takes us toward …
8: 20 – Confusion, Part 1
A variety of instruments playing fragments of the Viennese waltz. Each fragment is played with unexpected modulations and instrumentation.
9:50 – Confusion, Part 2
The waltz begins to whirl out of control.
10:09 – Despair, Part 1
The waltz turns gloomy and gradually builds toward …
11:09 – Despair, Part 2
A Danse Macabre
12:15 – Coda
The waltz dies as the music changes from triple time (waltz time) to duple time (march time).