Given the day, it may be appropriate to conclude with Maurice Ravel’s La valse (1920). In his Fin-de-siècle Vienna: Politics and Culture, Carl Schorske writes:
At the close of World War I, Maurice Ravel recorded in La valse the violent death of the nineteenth-century world. The waltz, long the symbol of gay Vienna, became in the composer’s hands a frantic danse macabre. Ravel wrote: “I feel this work a kind of apotheosis of the Viennese waltz, linked in my mind with the impression of a fantastic whirl of destiny.” His grotesque memorial serves as a symbolic introduction to a problem of history: the relationship of politics and the psyche in fin-de-siècle Vienna.
Although Ravel celebrates the destruction of the world of the waltz, he does not initially present that world as unified. The work opens rather with an adumbration of the individual parts, which will compose the whole: fragments of waltz themes, scattered over a brooding stillness. Gradually the parts find each other — the martial fanfare, the vigorous trot, the sweet obligato. the sweeping major melody. Each element is drawn, its own momentum magnetized, into the wider whole. Each unfolds its individuality as it joins its partners in the dance. The pace accelerates; almost imperceptibly the sweeping rhythm passes over into the compulsive, then into the frenzied. The concentric elements become eccentric, disengaged from the whole, thus transforming harmony into cacophony. The driving pace continues to build when suddenly caesuras appear in the rhythm; the auditor virtually stops to stare in horror at the void created when a major element for a moment falls silent, ceases to act. Partial paralysis of each element weakens the movement, and yet the whole is moving, relentlessly driving as only compulsive three-quarter time can. Through to the very end, when the waltz crashes in a cataclysm of sound, each theme continues to breathe its individuality, eccentric and distorted now, in the chaos of totality.
Below, a performance of La valse by the Orchestre National de France. Leonard Bernstein conducts.