The Danube is not blue, as Karl Isador Beck calls it in the lines which suggested to Strauss the fetching, mendacious title to his waltz.
On television not long ago, a fellow leered out at me, a violin propped under his chin. The cameras pulled back on grand buildings and lawns, all bathed in lurid blue light. The print onscreen announced we were about to hear the Blue Danube Waltz by Johann Strauss II. The creator of this catastrophe was André Rieu, who’s made it his business to conduct an orchestra that plays nothing but The Waltz.
Arnold Schoenberg. I had to hand it to the twelve-tone guy, he knew what he was doing with the waltz. I remember, too, one New Year’s day, getting caught up watching the Vienna Philharmonic’s frothy extravaganza, complete with elegantly costumed dancers gliding into elegantly appointed rooms.
After several rounds of listening to those Strauss CDs, I’ll confess I’d had enough. I set the CDs back on the shelf, and there they’ve stayed, unplayed ever since. I didn’t think about the waltz again until a friend took me to the opera Der Rosenkavalier, by Richard Strauss. I found myself entranced anew by the waltzes within the opera. I was dismayed to realize they were associated with the odious lecher Baron Ochs and, not only that, were considered anachronisms even at the time the opera premiered, in 1911.
The waltz, on its appearance in England in the early 1800s, was considered scandalous. Even Lord Byron, not exactly a bystander when it came to outré behavior, complained on seeing
No matter what Lord Byron may have thought, many composers have tried their hand at the waltz: Chopin, Brahms, Ravel, Prokofiev—even Shostakovich.
I’ve been thinking about Ravel of late. Nothing to do with waltzes, but rather his suite, Le Tombeau de Couperin. Composers John Metcalf and Judd Greenstein have each written a Tombeau, both of which are lovely. I thought it only proper to go back and listen to Ravel's.
I hadn’t got to it, when, in the way one thing leads to another, I stumbled upon David Nice. Among his many talents, Nice writes for the BBC Music Magazine. I’d long ago subscribed to it and enjoyed my monthly CDs, but, as happens with me and magazines, I got so far behind in my reading I gave it up. After being reminded of it through Nice, I decided to subscribe again.
The first issue I received included a stellar review of Ravel’s complete solo piano works, recorded by Steven Osborne. The serendipity of this simply required me to send off for the CD. I’ve played Le Tombeau de Couperin a few times, with considerable enjoyment. I haven’t been able to focus on it the way I'd like to, though, for I've been stopped in my tracks by Ravel’s La Valse.
Ravel started writing what became La Valse in 1906, as a tribute to the waltzes of Johann Strauss, Jr. He didn’t complete it until after the conclusion of World War I. Ravel’s description of the final work was this:
The scene continues to clear. The glow of the chandeliers shines to a full splendor [B].
An Imperial Court ball, circa 1855.La Valse begins on an ominous rumbling of notes that offers little clue of what’s to come. The rumbling slowly gives way to a delicate melodic line. As the lower register takes on a waltzing pulse, the upper register takes flight, only to come crashing down in a set of full-throated chords. Ravel continually subverts our expectations: just when we’re sweetly sailing along on a lilting line, he pulls back, then again rains down huge chords. Each time, though we recognize its tune, the waltz undergoes a metamorphosis, gains speed, loses it again, stops short, picks up again, spins out, demonic, Faustian, then thunders down with a final chord and five last notes.
While I hear in the music what Ravel describes, composer George Benjamin may have got it right:
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.Now, here we are, almost a hundred years further on. To me, Ravel’s La Valse is as enthralling today as it must have been back then, yet I can’t help but hope more waltzes are yet to come. I’d hate to think we’re left with nothing but the corpse of the Blue Danube Waltz embalmed in Rieu’s lurid blue light. After all, anachronistic though some think it may be, there’s something in that simple one-two-three, one-two-three that makes the heart take flight.
***Ravel originally wrote La Valse for orchestra, but also transcribed it for solo piano and two pianos. I didn't find a solo piano version I liked well enough to include here, but below you'll find the two piano version in a knock-out performance by Martha Argerich and Nelson Friere. There is something particularly magical, to my mind, about the solo piano transcription. For that try Steven Osborne or Louis Lortie. (More versed musical friends may have other recommendations, and I hope they will share them here.)
To hear Ravel's La Valse, arranged for two pianos, click here.
To hear Ravel's La Valse for solo piano, arranged by the pianist, Sean Chen, click here. (Thanks to George Wallace, circa Nico Muhly, for identifying this to me.)
Credits: The score excerpt at the head of the post is from Ravel's solo piano transcription of La Valse, the whole of which can be found at the IMSLP/Petrucci Music Library. The image of the dancers is a still from a video of the Vienna Philharmonic's 2011 New Year's concert. The image of Lord Byron in Albanian dress can be found here. The illustration of the ball at Versailles can be found here. I could find no attribution for the Ravel reproduction at the end of the post.
The quotation at the head of the post is from Claudio Magris' book, Danube. If the title of the post has a familiar ring, that's because it's based on lyrics from the song Ladies Who Lunch by Stephen Sondheim. (Not a waltz, though there is, of course, the utterly addictive Do I Hear a Waltz?, for which Sondheim wrote the lyrics.) The Byron quotation is from Byron's Poetical Works, Volume 1. The Benjamin quotation is from Classical TV's program notes for La Valse. The Ravel quotation is from the score of Ravel's two piano transcription of La Valse, also at the IMSLP/Petrucci Music Library.
To learn about John Metcalf's Le Tombeau de Boulez, click here. To hear Judd Greenstein's Le Tombeau de Ravel, click here.