Ravel’s ‘La Valse’ – A Tritone-lover’s Paradise

Orchestra Toronto is in the nearing the end of rehearsals for its 4th concert of this season (the last for me though), which includes Ravel’s La Valse. What a great piece of music from the same guy who brought us ‘Boléro’. This piece, sometimes characterized as the birth, life and death of a waltz, is as much fun to play as it is to listen to. There are so many tuba-ego spots where I can totally shine. But it also a surprising challenge to play well.

Why is a waltz a challenge to play, you ask?  One word:  tritones.  Nearly each tuba lick includes ‘the devil’s interval’ – sometimes many.  Take a look at this PRIME example:

Shall we count them? I see 8, without double-counting notes at 90:  C to F#, F# to C, etc.  Though I am double counting just before 93 because of the octave difference and enharmonic writing (Db == C#).

And really, the last E goes to another Bb not shown in the clip.  That lead into 93 is a beauty, eh?

All of the tritones make it hard to tune these arpeggios (that go by kinda quick too).  I remember a friend of mine complaining about a part he was practicing for quintet and not being able to “hear” the notes in order to accurately play them.  I was convinced at the time that it’s all about muscle memory – just “remember” where the interval sits on your embouchure and you’re golden.  I think today that it’s a mix of both.

I need to practice these intervals and licks at home to know what they should sound like in isolation.  This is also training my lips to know where the notes are – especially that starting high F#.  The note that comes before it, before these rests, is a D just below the staff, which itself was involved in a tritone with Ab.

With all these tritones, your ear can easily lose its centre of pitch.  One’s sense of tonality gets thrown a little bit.  And for me, this meant that my part wasn’t very easy to sight read.  The last few lines of the part aren’t much better either:

A little before 98, Ravel recalls the tuba’s first entrance and we’re also about to cadence for D major.  But then – halt – a tritone!  The high E bar before 98 to the Bb of 98.  And then all hell breaks loose, relatively speaking:

  • more tritones on E-Bb
  • triplets on the second beat
  • intervals of a 7th
  • written A#’s – yeah, just Bb’s, but they don’t help the frantic feeling that comes in sight reading

Things finally settle down at 100 with good old Bb/A#.

And by 101, if you’re not pushing the orchestra a little bit, then you’re not doing your job as a tubist.  I learned a long time ago, with Nick Atkinson conducting the UofO wind ensemble, that tubas need to play a “little ahead” of the beat.  I don’t know if I fully understand the science behind it, but it take a reasonable effort to get wind moving and a buzz going on a tuba.  Some people say the sound is slower, so you need to be on top of the beat otherwise the audience will think you’re behind.  In a situation like this this ending, if you drag on tuba, it’ll pull the whole orchestra back and the intensity of “pressez jusqu’à la fin” will fall flat.  Those last two bars HAVE TO MOVE!  After countless Bb’s, we’re finally playing the D major cadence the listener has been craving.  But the listener doesn’t get off easy:  the Bb and G# deliver the last punches before the waltz collapses, exhausted.

Before I wrap this post up, there are a few more spots in ‘La Valse’ that I need to cover.

The four bars before 68 are our chance to be a little cute when the trumpet(s) have the lead.  And look!  Perfect 5ths!  Alleluia!

Between 68 and 69 (teehee) is my favourite part.  Double-forte and nearly incoherent rumbles from the tuba.  But that’s the catch:  making this rumble meaningful.  Both blurts are interrupting attempts by the violins and harp to be tender and musical.  Picture it – a ballroom in Paris in the 20’s.  The place is packed with people having a great time dancing, socializing and drinking (and probably doing opium too).  ‘La Valse’ tells the story of this ballroom and roves from scene to scene, clique to clique.  A beautiful and poised mademoiselle is enjoying time with her girlfriends when her boyfriend suddenly re-appears after a long absence, stinking drunk.  She attempts to ignore him and he butts back in, spilling her drink in his inebriation.  He’s not malicious or jealous – a fun drunk perhaps.  But she’s gotten tired of it, while quietly putting up with it.

Translating that back into the part, you’ll see a number of accidentals in the middle of a Gb major key signature — his stumbling.  The slur over the run — the slur of his speech.  And it’s double-forte — he’s too drunk to realize that he’s like a bull in a china shop, interrupting civilized socializing between friends.  Boob!

Finally at 73, it’s the climax for the trombones and tuba supports them with nice rounded but HUGE sound on octave G’s.

Almos done – here’s the next section:

This part is just plain old fun (as is the one later that starts on D).  Bombastic!  I’m playing this on my C tuba, and so I’ve chosen to play the B natural in bar 4 with valves 1 and 3, instead of the usual valve 2.  That makes the slur to the D easier because the two are in the same harmonic partial that starts with open E.  For the speed of the slur, I won’t have to worry about slurring between two partials (B on 2nd valve belongs to the partial on open C).  Of course, we can’t go without a tritone for very long:  Db to G going into 37.  The A to Db is a little odd too:  an augmented 5th.  The wide range of dynamics are fun here too.

Finally.  The most important note for the tuba:

That C# at 85.  Arguably, this point is the climax of the piece, if you don’t count the ending. The tempo is super slow and so you get time to enjoy that triple-forte C#.  Though the temptation is to hold it longer than needed.  You get that satisfaction when you get to the long C.  Ravel freely uses accent articulations throughout this piece but avoids it here.  This indicates to me that the tuba must be big and loud (aim for ‘big’, and ‘loud’ will follow), but not as hard-hitting as other accented notes.  So a little roundness amidst the fff.

That about does it.  Ravel’s ‘La Valse’ ain’t your ordinary waltz – nothing like the staples from Strauss and Tchaikovsky – which makes me even more excited to perform it.  Now back to practicing.

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