No clearer example can be found of Ravel’s determination to avoid repeating himself than his Valses nobles et sentimentales
, following on the atmospherics (themselves differentiated) of Gaspard
and Ma mère l’oye
for piano duet. Here the style, as he said, ‘is simpler and clearer, in which the harmony is harder and the lines of the music are made to show up’. The epigraph at the head of the score, ‘the delightful and ever novel pleasure of a pointless occupation’, suggests that the notes provide their own rationale; but the Henri de Régnier novel from which the quotation comes deals with a young man’s amorous adventures, so, as often with Ravel, there is a tension between strict form and unbounded emotion. In coaching the work, he insisted on the cross rhythms being brought out, and Vlado Perlemuter remembered: ‘I had never seen his eyes so bright—he was so determined on being understood.’ After the seven waltzes, the Epilogue recalls various themes, and here for the first and only time the music is enveloped in a nostalgic haze. Louis Aubert gave the first performance on 9 May 1911 in a concert where the composers’ names were withheld until the end and the audience was asked to guess them. Some guessed Ravel, some Satie and Kodály, and some condemned the Valses
as unmusical and cacophonous. Certainly they represented a new Ravel.
from notes by Roger Nichols © 2011