Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Recomposition after Ravel, Valses nobles et sentimentales

The "recomposition" in Ravel's Valses nobles et sentimentales is of a different kind and the nostalgia of a different, and far more intense, order. For Ravel never actually quotes a Schubert waltz; he borrows only the title, which in itself suggests nostalgia removed to the point of losing contact with concrete memories. Those memories, in any case, are complex, since they are of the whole era of the waltz, not merely its first flowering in the early nineteenth century. In Ravel's waltzes, one hears more traces of Strauss and Waldteufel than of Schubert.

We are left then to speculate on an appropriate place where the A Major Waltz might have appeared. The eight waltzes are (with form scheme and principal key):

I. Modéré–très franc
ABA; G major

II. Assez lent–avec une expression intense
ABA; G minor

III. Modéré
ABCA; G major

IV. Assez animé
AB; C/Ab major

V. Presque lent–dans un sentiment intime
AA'BA; E major

VI. Vif
AA'A''A; C major

*VII. Moins vif
introABA; A major
* No. VII is the longest piece in the set and approaches the dimensions of a Strauss waltz: unlike the other waltzes, A and B have internal strains here.

VIII. Épilogue–Lent
ABB'coda; G major

Clearly, the keys suggest that the first three waltzes belong together in a symmetrical moderate-slow-moderate design, as do the next three (fast-slow-fast). Number six also begins a gradual winding down of the tempo toward the end of the set: Vif-Moins vif-Lent, the ultimate tonal goal being a return to the G major of the first "set" (this return only happens well into the last waltz–there is a clear tonal transition from the penultimate to the final waltz that we cannot see in the list of key centers).

Rather than extend the duration of the set, I imagine which waltzes might be replaced. The two "trios" seem the obvious candidates (nos. 2 and 5). I rule out number 2, however, because the strong affective contrast in moving from the first waltz, which has the brusque frankness of a deutscher, to the deeply introspective minor-mode trio, would be mostly lost with the A Major Waltz, which if anything strives toward the relaxed elegance one sometimes finds in slow waltzes later in the century (especially in the waltzes of Waldteufel but also in the polka-mazurkas of Strauss). Similarly, replacing number five with the A Major Waltz would provoke an unpleasant contrast between its simple harmonies and the tonal vagaries of the previous waltz, which roll by the ear at a breathtaking pace.

Thus it would seem that the best affective fit would be with number three, a graceful moderate-tempo waltz that is the only movement in the Valses nobles et sentimentales to come anywhere near invoking the ländler:

Since it would be stylistically incompatible as it stands, I have imagined the first few bars of how Ravel might have rewritten the A Major Waltz to fit his vision of the hommage: as he himself put it, "the virtuosity which forms the basis of Gaspard de le nuit gives way to a markedly clearer kind of writing, which crystallizes the harmony and sharpens the profile of the music" (quoted in Nichols and Mawer 260).

Nichols, Roger, and Deborah Mawer. "Appendix: Early Reception of Ravel's Music." In Deborah Mawer, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Ravel, 100. Cambridge/New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000.