Friday, September 23, 2011

Leonard Bernstein Directs Maurice Ravel's 'La Valse'

Here is a short clip from the National Orchestra of France's performance of Maurice Ravel's "La Valse," under the powerful and emotional direction of Leonard Bernstein, at Le Théâtre des Champs-Elysées, in Paris, France (1975).

In some people's minds, certainly true of my generation, the only reference they have on the French composer Maurice Ravel [1875-1937] is the musical piece Boléro (1928), the one-movement orchestral piece made popular by the 1979 Hollywood film "10." The full orchestral piece runs to an average 15 minutes, although Ravel preferred a slower tempo, of around 17 minutes.

In the film's soundtrack where Bolero is performed, for about four minutes, the drum tempo and wind instruments rhythmically guide the sexual exploits of a couple. It was played extensively in the 1980s so much so that I tired and often dreaded of hearing it. Ravel didn't like the piece much. Even so, it achieved a certain popularity, and remains one of the most widely played orchestral numbers, probably because audiences expect it and demand it.

I raise this point to make another point. You can never tell what people will like later on. Music (re)discovered later on might become more appealing when the tenor of the times change and there is a sufficient distance between its creator and audience. It's interesting to note here that Ravel's Bolero might have been influenced by George Gershwin, whom he met in New York in 1928, and as the story goes remarked in a self-deprecating fashion: "You might lose your spontaneity and, instead of composing first-rate Gershwin, end up with second rate Ravel."

Well, Ravel's "La Valse" is first-rate and composed before that meeting between the American and Frenchman. A tribute to a lost age in the aftermath of the First World War, also called The Great War, it resonates with me now that I have past my 40s and into my 50s, and memory becomes more important. It was first performed by the Lamoureux Orchestra under the direction of Camille Chevillard in  Paris on December 12, 1920. The music's interpretation is clear:
The music has been widely interpreted as a salute to a vanished world, an evocation of the elegance and refinement of an Imperial era. It plays off the carefree rhythms of the Viennese waltz with a menacing, discordant undertone: echoes, perhaps, of the brutal disturbances of World War I.
The Great War is almost a century behind us. Other wars, no less brutal and destructive, have taken place in Europe and elsewhere. The music's appeal is the same. With each war, we lose something. Yet, the music helps us remember of what it was and what it could be. Leonard Bernstein is caught up in the memory of the music. Beauty has a universal language.

Maurice Ravel [1875-1937]:  Taken in 1907 in a rare photo of Ravel sporting facial hair. In the preface to the score of La Valse, the ballet, Ravel writes: "Through whirling clouds, waltzing couples may be faintly distinguished. The clouds gradually scatter: one sees at letter A an immense hall peopled with a whirling crowd. The scene is gradually illuminated. The light of the chandeliers bursts forth at the fortissimo letter B. Set in an imperial court, about 1855."
Photo Credit: Pierre Petit (1832-1909).
Source: Wikipedia

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