In a break from the norm, Beethoven has lost his place at the top of the classical music world’s most played works (according to our statistics for the year). Exit the Eroica and the Fifth and Ninth Symphonies, each of which have topped the table in previous years: these hits have been supplanted by a work from Maurice Ravel – which, in case you were wondering, is not the dreaded Bolero!

It's official: in 2022, the work that's been most heard in major concert halls across the world is none other than La Valse. Will this coronation be ephemeral, or the start of a lasting reign? Let’s try to explain the success of La Valse, in six steps.

1 The standard-bearer of a Ravel revival

Even before our statistics appeared, avid watchers of the music scene had already taken notice: for some years, Ravel and his works have been infused with new life (our colleagues at Classica, for example, put the composer on the front page of their monthly magazine last November).

In 2018, under the direction of the indefatigable Manuel Cornejo, the composer's entire correspondence, writings and interviews were assembled into an impressive publication of nearly 1,800 pages, laden with previously unpublished documents. Recently, his scores have benefited from the eagle eye of the Ravel Edition, an ambitious enterprise which published its first volume in 2018 (Bolero), the second in 2019 (the Piano Concerto in G major) and the latest in 2022. This was devoted to La Valse, and this new edition of the work was inaugurated in great ceremony in the opening concert of the Orchestre National de France’s 2022-23 season.

Performers have been following suit and renewing the understanding of Ravel’s musical language. In recent years, the Orchestre des Champs-Élysées (with Louis Langrée) and Les Siècles (with François-Xavier Roth) have multiplied the number of available interpretations of Ravel on period instruments. The cream of French pianists (David Kadouch, Cédric Tiberghien, Bertrand Chamayou) have been joining the trend with the concertos. Add the recent renaissance of the Ravel Festival (under the direction of the aforementioned Chamayou), and you have all the ingredients for a significant resurgence of the composer’s works. It's no accident that in addition to La Valse, the Piano Concerto in G finds itself at the top of our concerto category.

2 A symbol of the renewal of concert programmes

For some years now, the form of classical concerts has been evolving, with the process probably accelerated by the pandemic as restrictions have sometimes forced organisers to shorten events by eliminating intervals. Should we now bury the good old standard overture-concerto-symphony formula, which has become as routine as a starter-main-dessert menu? We would be wary of doing so, but it is clear that new formats are increasing in number, sometimes juxtaposing works without interruption or creating musical paths away from the beaten track. From the London Symphony Orchestra to Les Siècles to the Orchestre symphonique de Montréal, there is no shortage of examples. It was problematic to include La Valse in the old style menu (it’s too long and too spectacular to be an overture, too short to take the place of a second half symphony), while its expressive richness makes it an ideal fit for lovers of adventurous programming.

3 A homage to the Viennese tradition

The success of La Valse has spread considerably beyond the borders of France, undoubtedly because Ravel’s work marks a return to the source of classical and romantic music: Vienna. The composer even considered entitling his score Wien, eventually changing his mind in the course of the 1919-20 winter, the aftermath of the First World War being hardly propitious to the slightest hint of germanophilia.

Nonetheless, this large ballet for orchestra is certainly “a kind of apotheosis of the Viennese waltz”, as Ravel himself described it, placing it “in the setting of an imperial palace, around 1855”. The waltz’s international popularity persists to this day (just look at the audiences at the Vienna New Year Concerts), which has enhanced and continues to enhance the appeal of Ravel’s score to orchestras and audiences across the world.

4 A prototype for modern music

However, to describe La Valse as a mere homage to the Viennese Waltz would be unfairly reductive. Ravel wanted to give his score “the impression of fantastical and fatal whirling” – we're not the first to find in the piece an oppressive and macabre character, next to which the Symphonie fantastique feels like a walk in the park. Ravel’s writing is replete with audacious strokes, from the infrasounds of the double basses at the very beginning, to the battering of the conclusion (in four time!) by way of numerous ultra-modern effects (brutal glissandi, crossed chromatics, unexpected juxtapositions of timbre, superposition of contradictory rhythms).

When one listens to the work in this way, one realises that this is a work that can safely be associated in a concert programme with those of Luciano Berio, Pierre Boulez or John Adams, and that it can still fascinate today’s composers, from George Benjamin to Benjamin Attahir (who incidentally created a transcription of La Valse for piano and ensemble in 2022).

5 An apotheosis for the symphony orchestra

I’ll permit myself a personal recollection: ten years or so ago, I had the good fortune to play La Valse in concert with the Orchestre Français de Jeunes, in the great hall of the Konzerthaus Berlin. The memory of the performance still gives me goosebumps, as, I believe, it did to a fair number of my fellow players at the time.

La Valse is a difficult and dangerous work, but one that’s an unbelievable joy to play in an orchestra. Every desk has music to spoil it (which isn’t so common), and the ensemble progression, from the initial nothingness to the final tumult, produces an effect on the musicians that is only equalled by a small number of the great scores of the early part of the 20th century (Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring and Bartók’s Miraculous Mandarin are the obvious examples). Given this, it's hardly surprising that symphony orchestras want to make it a key part of their programmes. Looking across the podium, conductors are just as thrilled by the work’s spectacular nature, which makes it relatively easy to score a big hit with audiences.

6 A warhorse for virtuoso pianists

It must be admitted that if we had only considered its orchestral version, La Valse would have slipped into second place in our table, behind Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. But there's the rub – Ravel also created two transcriptions for pianists (one solo, one for two pianos) and it would have been unfair to leave these out of the arithmetic. La Valse has become a warhorse for a raft of virtuoso pianists, who have not hesitated to adopt and adapt the work by adding (with variable success) their own personal touches. In this way, the waltz continues spinning in the great concert halls as much as in the smallest festivals.

Add in the fact that the work has been used, as Ravel originally intended, to accompany several dance performances, and considering also that all the versions of the work have only recently entered the public domain (in France, at least, on 29th September 2022), it’s a strong bet that the new found status of La Valse will continue its dance into the coming years.

Translated from French by David Karlin