Noble and Sentimental Waltzing with Ravel and Schubert:

Maurice Ravel’s Valses nobles et sentimentales (1911)

Franz Schubert’s Valses nobles and Valses sentimentales

by Dr. Richard Dowling

MAURICE RAVEL was convinced that composers should learn their craft like painters—by imitating good models. He did not merely pay lip service to this notion, but throughout his career diligently studied the scores of Mozart, Debussy, Richard Strauss, Chopin, Liszt, Saint-Saëns, and the Russian composers, particularly Mussorgsky. In explaining his own compositions, Ravel attempted to make them appear as simple as possible: this passage is pure Saint-Saëns, he would say, or this harmony was used by Chopin. Indeed, the titles Jeux d’eau, Valses nobles et sentimentales, or La Valse, indicate the spiritual origin of the music. In the case of VNS, the extraordinary and unusual Valses nobles, Op. 77 and Valses sentimentales, Op. 50 of Franz Schubert are Ravel’s model. These waltzes were composed between 1823-1825, and it is their lilting and distinctive Viennese rhythm, rubato, balanced phrases, straightforward form, gliding middle voices, melodic suspensions, and unexpected harmonic subtleties that attracted Ravel. In a short autobiographical sketch, Ravel commented about his VNS:

“The title VNS sufficiently indicates my intention of composing a series of waltzes in imitation of Schubert. [Here we have] a markedly clearer kind of writing, which crystallizes the harmony and sharpens the profile of the music. The VNS were first performed amid protestations and boos at a concert of the Société Musicale Indépendante, in which the names of the composers were not revealed. The audience voted on the probable authorship of each piece. The authorship of my piece was recognized by a slight majority. The seventh waltz seems to me the most characteristic.”

At the beginning of the score, Ravel added a quotation from Henri de Régnier’s novel of 1904, Les Rencontres de Monsieur de Bréot: “...le plaisir délicieux et toujours nouveau d’une occupation inutile” (the delightful and always novel pleasure of a useless occupation). This short description holds the key to understanding the VNS. This coy recognition of uselessness, or “art for art’s sake,” typifies the attitude of many artists in the years just before World War I. Obviously, Ravel wrote these waltzes with an easy-going, pleasure-loving sophistication in mind. It is a part of the musical and intellectual dandyism that Ravel was known for. As always with his music, the highly-polished surface that is so easy to listen to reveals a complex and highly-organized musical structure underneath. It was always Ravel’s intention to be “complex, but not complicated” and to value “technical perfection,” balanced by a Mozartean charm and sincerity. Ravel’s art strove neither for passion nor for truth, but rather for the “contemplation of the Beautiful” (E. A. Poe), through the satisfaction of the mind by means of the ear’s pleasure. The VNS is a work that comprises seven distinct waltzes followed by an eighth in the form of an epilogue in which a resume of thematic motifs of the previous waltzes return in short, impressionistic quotations, as though they were being remembered in a dream. The music fades quietly into silence and is marked “en se perdant” (losing itself).

Regarding listening to a new work for the first time, I would like to quote directly from Ravel:

“On the initial performance of a new musical composition, the first impression of the public is generally one of reaction to the more superficial elements of its music, that is to say, to its external manifestations rather than to its inner content. The listener is impressed by some unimportant peculiarity in the medium of expression, and yet the idiom of expression, even if considered in its completeness, is only the means and not the end in itself, and often it is not until years after, when the means of expression have finally surrendered all their secrets, that the real inner emotion of the music becomes apparent to the listener.”

On May 9, 1911 the SMI, an organization devoted to presenting new music, held an anonymous concert, where as Ravel has described, the audience was supposed to guess who composed each piece. Ravel’s VNS was fourth on the program. Throughout the recital, Ravel kept a straight face as many of his admirers jeered at what they assumed was a hoax of dissonances and wrong notes. When the voting results were made public, it became clear that the sophisticated, avant-garde audience was unable to distinguish Debussy from Léo Sachs, or Ravel from Lucien Wurmser. Although a slight majority correctly identified Ravel as the author of VNS, many credited the work to Erik Satie or Zoltan Kodaly, surprisingly. The French composer, pianist, and conductor Louis Aubert (1877-1968) was a fellow student at the Conservatoire in Paris and a lifelong friend of Ravel. It was he who premiered the VNS at the SMI, and it to him that the Valses are dedicated. Ravel said that his VNS is “one of my most difficult works to interpret.”

In the early months of 1912, Ravel arranged an orchestral transcription of VNS for performance as a ballet. Ravel wrote his own scenario, or argument, and attended the numerous rehearsals. The Russian ballerina, Natasha Trouhanova commissioned VNS in its ballet version. It was called “Adélaïde, ou le langage des fleurs” (Adelaide, or the language of flowers). It was orchestrated in two weeks in March 1912 and the ballet was performed in April 22, 1912 at the Théatre du Chatelet with Ravel conducting the Lamoreux Orchestra. Mme. Trouhanova danced the part of Adelaide. The premiere was an outstanding event, as four ballets were conducted by their respective composers, Vincent d’Indy, Florent Schmitt, Paul Dukas, and Ravel.

According to Ravel’s written conception, the scene takes place in Paris, about 1820, at the home of the courtesan Adelaide, a salon furnished in the style of the period. At the rear of the stage, a window looks out onto a garden. On each side, vases full of flowers are placed on small round tables. The story concerns the fickle Adelaide and her rival suitors, Lorédan and the Duke. The various emotions of love, hope, and rejection are symbolized by the flowers which the dancers exchange throughout the ballet.


I. A soirée at Adelaide’s home. Couples are dancing. Others, seated or walking, are conversing tenderly. Adelaide comes and goes among her guests, inhaling the fragrance of a tuberose (symbolizing voluptuousness).

II. Lorédan enters, sullen and melancholy. He offers Adelaide a buttercup. An exchange of flowers expresses Adelaide’s fickleness and Lorédan’s love.

III. She picks the buttercup to pieces, one petal at a time and sees that Lorédan’s love is sincere. Lorédan plucks the petals of a daisy to reveal that he is not loved. Adelaide wishes to renew the test. Once again he tries; this time the reply is favorable.

IV. The two lovers dance while revealing their affection. But Adelaide sees the Duke enter and stops, confused.

V. The Duke gives her a bouquet of sunflowers (symbolizing vain wealth), then a jewel case containing a diamond necklace, which she puts on.

VI. Describes Lorédan’s despair and his ardent pursuit of Adelaide. She repulses him coquettishly.

VII. The Duke begs Adelaide to grant him this last waltz. She refuses, and proceeds to fetch Lorédan, who has remained aside in a tragic pose. He hesitates at first, and is then won over by her tender persistence.

VIII. The guests retire. The Duke hopes that he will be asked to stay. Adelaide offers him an acacia branch (representing platonic love). The Duke leaves, indicating his displeasure. Lorédan advances, sad almost to the point of death. Adelaide offers him a poppy (symbolizing an invitation to forget her), but he refuses and runs out making gestures of eternal farewell. Adelaide goes to the rear window and opens it widely. She deeply inhales the scent of the tuberose. Scaling the balcony, Lorédan appears, wild-eyed, his hair disheveled. He rushes toward Adelaide, falls at her feet, and takes out a pistol which he places next to his temple, threatening suicide. Smiling, she draws a red rose from her bosom (symbolizing her true love) and falls into Loredan’s arms.

There are no direct quotations from Schubert’s sets of VN and VS evident in Ravel’s work. However, there are numerous similarities in binary structure, tonic-dominant harmonic polarity, sudden exotic modulations, 4 and 8-bar phrase lengths, and reliance on the traditional compositional approach of treble melody supported by bass, triple time accompaniment. Ravel set out to create a new, revolutionary “modern” sound within the framework of 18th and 19th-century parameters. These achievements can be found in his radically expanded harmonic vocabulary, which includes unresolved 7th, 9th, 11th, and 13th chords, better known as “jazz” harmony (Waltz I), parallel seventh chords and augmented triads (Waltz II & VII), bi-tonality (Waltz VII Trio), adoption of modal scale influences from old church modes (Waltz II, III & VI), substitution of tri-tone harmonic progressions for traditional circle of fifths presentation (Waltz I & VI), and sonorities based on the intervals of the second and fourth. It is an artful, sophisticated device of Ravel’s to remain aware always of the gravitational pull of the tonal center, and yet place it in question in every measure, every chord, and almost in every note. But with Ravel these innovations are always related to basic tonality, the legitimacy of which is never for a moment questioned or disturbed, so that the listener is cunningly and artfully persuaded to accept as simple that which is in point of fact, very complex.


Although Ravel occasionally analyzed his music on a chord by chord basis, he was also well aware of larger structural prolongations, as is evident from his analysis of the following passage from the middle section of Waltz VII. Here this fragment is based upon a single chord: D Minor seventh in first inversion, which was already used by Beethoven, without preparation, at the beginning of the Op. 31 No. 3 sonata, over which Ravel superimposes a different key, a half-step lower, as an extended appoggiatura, thus creating a bi-tonal effect that is at once familiar and avant-garde. The effect is of a quiet, extended tension that shimmers in impressionist light.

Introductory Background Information

on Maurice Ravel and the Valses nobles et sentimentales

Born March 1875 in St. Jean-de-Luz, near Biarritz in southwest France. Raised in Paris. Attended the Paris Conservatoire and studied with Gabriel Fauré and André Gédalge. He won the Prix de Rome for composition. Famous compositions: Boléro, Daphnis et Chloe, La Valse, and Pavane for a dead princess. Died in Paris in 1937 after an unsuccessful brain operation.

Debussy and Ravel known as French “impressionist” composers.

Valses nobles et sentimentales was composed in 1911 for solo piano, and exists in an orchestral transcription and ballet version by Ravel. They are comprised of eight different waltzes, including an epilogue.

Stylistically, VNS represent a more concentrated and economical harmony with less emphasis on virtuosic display. No “extra” notes are present.

(c) 1994 Richard Dowling, D.M.A.