Dancing The Apocalypse

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.


2009032820100731Tom Service is obsessed with Ravel's orchestral piece La Valse.

It's little wonder: the twelve-minute masterpiece is one of the most original and enigmatic works in all music.

In the course of those twelve minutes Ravel presents a charming waltz in the Viennese style of Johann Strauss and then begins first to dismantle it, and finally to take an orchestral sledgehammer to the musical form.

With La Valse, Ravel opened a new door in music and closed it right after him.

But what prompted this violent and exhilarating music? Ravel refused to be drawn on the subject but others have seen in the work a perfect picture of an out of control Europe dancing inexorably, terrifyingly to World War 2.

Tom talks to conductor Eliahu Inbal, composer George Benjamin, Ravel biographer Roger Nichols and to David Lamaze who claims to have discovered in La Valse a hidden clue to Ravel's intent.

Tom Service looks at the dark beauty of Ravel's masterpiece La valse.