By Bill Cope
on Fri, Apr 11, 2014 at 8:47 AM
I probably shouldn’t call this a contest because there are no prizes at the end and it’s unlikely I’ll even read your entries, so how could there be a winner?
Anyway, I’m starting something new here, and no matter what you want to call it, the goal is to identify the one piece of music that best reflects the 20th century. Sounds like fun, huh?
I’ll kick it off by telling you about that one piece I’ve chosen—which I’ll get to in a minute—and then you respond by telling me I’m wrong and that the piece you’ve chosen is a far better reflection of the 20th century than my choice.
(Incidentally, if you’re not sure which century the 20th was, it’s the one we just got out of... like, what?... 14 years ago? You may think it unnecessary to add that bit of explanation, but remember, there are... living among us at this very minute!... people who can not find the United States on a map of North America and who can’t name even one of their congressional representatives or one member of the U.S. Supreme Court. I’d prefer to think those people aren’t apt to be reading my blog—or reading anything else, as far as that goes. But in the spirit of inclusiveness, I don’t want to leave them out just because they don’t understand the one, extremely simple rule of this contest—or whatever this is—even though it makes me shudder to imagine what someone like that would submit as the most representational item of music from perhaps the most turbulent period in mankind’s entire history.)
Moving on: I won’t tell you which musical genres you must choose from. Your selection might be classically-minded music like mine, or it could be a jazz piece, ranging anywhere in that broad, broad genre from Scott Joplin’s early-century rags to Kenny G’s late-century simperings. It could be a blues; a rock song; a show tune; a folk ditty; some (ugh!) country and western droppings; a selection from the klezmer tradition; something operatic; something from the world of dance; something from the heart of Africa; from the steppes of central Eurasia; from the sitar pluckers of India; something from all that unclassifiable stuff like Jacques Brel, Randy Newman, Yoko Ono, Leonard Cohen... anything from anywhere you choose.
I will offer no suggestions other than my own choice, nor will I set any limits on your choices. For instance, I won’t tell you you can’t submit “Cat Scratch Fever” as the one piece of music most reflective of the 20th century just because you are a dim-witted gun nut who idolizes Ted Nugent. But be aware, if you do that, I will tell all my friends about it and we will laugh at you for years to come.
So then, are we ready to rumble?... or whatever participants do in whatever this is? OK then, my choice for the one piece of music that best reflects the 20th century is... (ratatatatat)... "La valse," by Maurice Ravel.
I’ll present you with one rendition of that marvelous composition in a minute, but first, a few words of background.
Ravel (1875-1937) was French with a Basque mother, born only 12 miles from the border with Spain. His music was arguably the most multicultural to be found in the early years of the century. He is considered an impressionist, but I’ve always thought of his musical style as Claude Debussy with balls, if that helps.
Today, he is best known for "Bolero," that elegant and stately march into sexual ecstasy—that’s the way I hear it, even if Blake Edwards and I are the only ones—and it was only because I bought a recording of "Bolero" in my youth that I stumbled upon "La valse," that being the other side of the album.
(Note to young people: “Albums” are what we used to call records. “Records” are what we used to call round, flat things upon which music was imprinted. And when thinking of “round, flat things with music on them,” I warn you not to confuse “records” with “CDs.” If you have any lingering doubts as to what I’m talking about, ask your parents. Or you grandparents, as the case may be.)
So I fell in love with "La valse" at an early age—perhaps 18. It struck me even then as being the perfect reflection of something, even if I didn’t know at the time what that something is. Beginning with an ominous rumble in the bass notes, it clarifies into a sweet and poignant waltz, as good as anything Johann Strauss ever wrote.
But it doesn’t stay sweet and poignant. Bit by bit, it comes apart, fragmenting like a crystal under tremendous pressure, until by the end, dissonance and unsteadiness have swept the traditional musical conventions away and leave in their place a breathless fantasia of discord and cacophony.
Ravel composed "La Valse" in 1919, two years after leaving the French army in which he served throughout Word War I. I am certainly not the first who hears the end of the older, statelier European order in the music, and the rise of chaos and violence out of the rubble—the chaos and violence that defined the 20th century more completey than any other feature.
Ravel, however, denied that is what he intended with this piece. He wrote it to be performed as a ballet, and insisted it was merely his way of setting the long-serving waltz into a modern frame. Plus, it’s silly to imagine something written in 1919 could foretell the advent of blitzkrieg and the Third Reich.
I hate to argue with the composer, but Ravel left the war—like so many other artists and dreamers of his generation—emotionally shattered and deeply disillusioned with everything those genteel 19th century Europeans thought to be true. He wrote "La valse" coming out of the trauma and depression of that experience, coupled with the almost simultaneous deaths of his mother and his old mentor-friend. Debussy.
Of course he could not see in 1919 that the Europe of the preceding centuries was dead forever, and that the world would soon be turned upside down by the fascist scourge, or that less than a decade after his own death, half of that world would be controlled by a single-minded collectivism that would regard anything as flamboyant and expressive as "La Valse" as degenerate.
But I didn’t say the creator of the music had to be aware it would define the era, did I? I didn’t stipulate that the one piece of music that best reflects the 20th century had to be composed to that purpose. All I said was the music should represent best how you regard and remember that century, no matter why it was created. So if your most vivid feeling about that 100-year stretch is... say, “My Baby Does the Hanky-Panky, “ or “All My Exes Live In Texas,” who am I to argue?
"La Valse" was originally written for full orchestra, but the rendition I’ve chosen was transcribed by Ravel, himself, for two pianos. I picked this one in large part for the fire and fury and incredible virtuosity these two pianists put into their playing. It is, in the same sense that the 20th century was, “kick ass.”
For today’s title, I want to acknowledge Mr. Cornell Woolrich, writing under the pseudonym William Irish in 1947 when he published the novel Waltz Into Darkness.