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Maurice Ravel

Maurice Ravel could be slightly obsessive in the way he allowed certain musical interests to reappear throughout his compositions. Two such interests were dance and the past, and in Valses nobles et sentimentales one can hear how Ravel was able to effectively fuse these two curiosities together. While Le Tombeau de Couperin was inspired by the eighteenth century, the Valses was oriented toward the nineteenth century. Written out of homage to Schubert's piano piece of the same name, the composer declared that the work's title, "indicates clearly enough my intention of composing a chain of waltzes following the example of Schubert. The virtuoso element that was the basis of Gaspard de la nuit is here replaced by a writing of greater clarity, which has the effect of sharpening the harmony as well as the outline of the music." Ravel achieved his goal of clarity, as the waltzes were written using intense precision, sophistication, and technical flawlessness.

Valses nobles et sentimentales contains eight waltzes presented in the following order: Modéré, Assez lent, Modéré, Assez animé, Presque lent, Assez vif, Moins vif, and the Epilogue. Originally written for solo piano, the waltzes stimulate but do not disturb, while displaying different aspects of Ravel's imagination including pride, tenderness, and sentiment. The work was dedicated to Louis Aubert and it was he who gave the first performance on May 9, 1911, at a concert held by the Société Musicale Indépendante, where Schubert's piece of the same name was also premiered. As a little game, the composers' names were withheld, leaving the audience to guess who had written each piece. Audience suggestions included Eric Satie, Zoltán Kodály, and even a correct answer from Debussy, whose ears could not be fooled by the identifiable quality he appreciated. Even though several of Ravel's friends confessed their dislike, others claimed to be strongly drawn to the piece. Tristan Klingsor commented that he was one among several who, "were immediately seduced by the music, and yet he had taken a lot of risks, at least for the period....He had taken the use of unresolved dissonances to its furthest point. What we now find very piquant was extremely daring at the time. The first bars of the Valses seemed quite extraordinary. Then, since there was nothing there that was not well thought-out, the ear quickly grew to enjoy these pseudo-'wrong notes,' and a glance at the score revealed that they had a proper harmonic justification."

As with Ma mère l'oye Ravel allowed only himself to alter Valses nobles et sentimentales through orchestration. He adapted the waltzes for the ballet Adélaïde ou Le langage des fleurs, for a performance by the troupe of Natasha Trouhanova, and it was premiered as an orchestral work on April 22, 1912, at the Théâtre du Châtelet. Some say that the ironic overtones of the Valses foreshadow the superb choreographic poem La Valse while confirming to audiences that dissonance was indeed an essential element of his musical style.

-- Meredith Gailey