Ravel’s Provoking Waltzes and the Poppy Puppets

Fire. © Charles Thibo

I must have been five or six years old when my mother showed me how to make a little flamenco dancer in a flaming red dress out of poppy blossoms. A half-opened bud would form the dress  and the scarf, a closed one would become the head. Quite often when I see poppies on a path I think of that little trick. Could I still do it? Should I show it to my child? Actually I feel sorry for the poppies-to-become-a-puppet. Nature already gave them a certain fragility…

A few weeks ago, when I saw those puppies in our garden, I thought of Maurice Ravel, his Spanish heritage and his “Valses nobles et sentimentales”, a passionate and fascinating piece of fiery music. The funny thing is – these waltzes have nothing to do with Spain and Ravel’s Basque origine. Ravel liked to explore ancient musical forms – we have seen this on a post about “Le tombeau de Couperin” – and this is just another example of Ravel’s fascination for the past.

A hommage to Schubert?

“The intention was to write a suite of waltzes like Schubert did”, Ravel noted in a personal memo. Schubert had written a set of “Valses nobles” and of “Valses sentimentales”. But noble and sentimantal at the same time? They couldn’t possibly be both at the same time. And the waltzes have little or nothing to do with Schubert. Considering the taste of the public at the beginning of the 20th century, this piece, composed in 1911, was to be considered experimental, avant-gardistic, daring – and a potential disaster by critics and the audience.

Ravel himself was apprehensive. Before the premiere he performed the set of eight waltzes in front of selected friends of the Société Musicale Indépendante, a more progressive group of French composers than the Société Nationale de Musique, founded by Hector Berlioz and headed by Vincent d’Indy at that time. “He wanted to know how I would react”, Tristan Klingsor, a friend and fellow-composer recalls. “We were seduced at once, but he had risked a lot.”

Klingsor goes on by saying that Ravel “had pushed to the extreme the use of unresolved appoggiatura*”, a musical ornament that consists of an added note in a melody that is resolved, delaying the appearance of the principal note. The result of unresolved appoggiatura is a dissonant moment in an otherwise harmonic line – a technique that Schubert has used quite often. But that is where the parallels to Schubert stop. Ravel wrote waltzes, no doubt, but if you listen to the fabulous recording by the London Symphony Orchestra, you will quickly see that this music has an overall modern texture and that the orchestration is far from anything Schubert would have written.

The pleasure of the useless

At the premiere, the sponsoring Société Musicale Indépendante distributed to the audience a quiz. The composers’ names of the pieces to be performed that evening had been omitted from the programme and the audience was asked to guess their identity. While music critics left the concert hall startled and choose not to write about the performance, the audience advanced as potential candidates Eric Satie and Zoltan Kodaly, even Vincent d’Indy, but very few named Ravel.

People felt provoked and when a month later the true names were revealed, Ravel had to face strong criticism ranging from “amateurish” to a “succession of dissonances”. Ravel was not impressed and countered his adversaries by writing an article about “the delicious and always renewed pleasure to something useless.” The pleasure of the useless – Ravel was one cool guy!

© Charles Thibo

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de Chareli

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