The piece that became La Valse was to have been a waltz portrait of unalloyed affection. As early as 1906, Ravel planned a tribute to Johann Strauss to be called Wien. For many reasons he kept getting distracted from the project, and the experience of the 1914-18 war made it impossible for him to retrieve the spirit of the original idea. To be sure, he declined to join a National League for the Defense of French Music, one of whose purposes was to ban music by living German and Austrian composers; nonetheless, early in the war he had written to his friend Cipa Godewski: “And now, if you wish, Vive la France! but above all down with Germany and Austria! or at least what those two nations stand for at the present time.” When, late in 1919, he began work on the score, the world had become a different place. Waltzing Vienna was no longer to be seen in quite the same way, and so La Valse became a bitter and ferocious fantasy, a terrifying tone poem that helped define a new language of musical nightmare.
Ravel completed La Valse on commission from Serge Diaghilev. But when Ravel played it for him, the ballet impresario saw no dance possibilities in it. The composer was offended, and this split counted for more than the memory of the success of Daphnis et Chloé in 1912. Ravel and Diaghilev never collaborated again. Still, Ravel published the score as a poème chorégraphique, and there is a prefatory note with a hint of a scenario: “Swirling clouds afford glimpses, through rifts, of waltzing couples. The clouds scatter little by little; one can distinguish an immense hall with a whirling crowd. The scene grows progressively brighter. The light of the chandeliers bursts forth at the fortissimo. An imperial court, about 1855.” Ravel indicates specific musical cues for the scattering of the clouds (the slow tune in thirds for divided violas and bassoons) and for the full lighting of the chandeliers.
La Valse, then, first made its mark as a concert piece. But beginning with Bronislava Nijinska, who set it for Ida Rubinstein in 1929, a number of choreographers have found it inspiring, and George Balanchine in 1951 used Ravel’s Valses nobles et sentimentales and La Valse as a sequence