Ravel "intended La Valse as an apotheosis of the Viennese waltz…" At the top of the score he wrote: "Through whirling clouds, waltzing couples may be faintly distinguished. The clouds gradually scatter: one sees…an immense hall peopled with a whirling crowd. The scene is gradually illuminated. The light of the chandeliers bursts forth at [a] fortissimo. An imperial court about 1855."
The time was a period of extravagance when Vienna was supreme, and the waltz ruled in dance-mad Europe. The first half includes several waltz tunes, played in phrases, fragments, and bits of rhythm. The music is charming, elegant, and Viennese in a French sort of way, but just a little bizarre. We really are peering through clouds from an unearthly distance. Everything is driven by the waltz rhythm. After a huge climax, the chandeliers go out, and there begins what Ravel called "fatalistic whirling." The waltz themes break down and tumble on top of each other. Things come apart. Everything is madness, as the music gathers in fury. Dancers spin and fall, and the ceiling comes plunging down in one mighty and final crash. La Valse has been interpreted as the collapse of Viennese society, the breakdown of Europe, a satire on the Viennese waltz, Ravel's grief over his mother's death, and premonitions of a nightmarish future. There are even links to the ball in Edgar Allan Poe's Masque of the Red Death. Some identify its change in mood to its being composed in two very different times: the first section conceived for Wien, the second the result of the madness of World War I. ~ Roger Hecht