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Seismic Change At 'Downton Abbey,' As Heard In 'The Waltz'

The cast of Season 3 of the worldwide smash series <em>Downton Abbey</em>.
Carnival Film & Television Limited 2012 for MASTERPIECE/PBS
The cast of Season 3 of the worldwide smash series Downton Abbey.

Like millions of other American fans, I spent yesterday evening glued to PBS and the Season 3 premiere of the worldwide hit series Downton Abbey, chronicling the lives of aristocrats and servants on a fabulous British estate in the early 20th century. But while I was watching, it wasn't just the surging Downton theme music that I heard. The season opener reminded me of one of the great pieces of classical music.

As much as Downton Abbey is a soapy rehash of the classic tension between life downstairs and upstairs, it's also a depiction of the end of a very particular era — and with it, the dissolution of a very particular way of life. In the first episode of Season 3, Lord Grantham glumly remarks to Martha Levinson (played by new cast member Shirley MacLaine), "Sometimes I feel like a creature in the wild whose natural habitat is gradually being destroyed."

You might think that classical music, with all of its Downton-ish formal trappings, would still belong firmly in Lord Grantham's grasp. But one of the most piercing depictions of that crumbling Edwardian universe comes from classical music. More precisely, it is in a piece that premiered in 1920, exactly the same year in which Season 3 opens: Maurice Ravel's orchestral masterwork La Valse, "The Waltz."

World War I led to more than 37 million deaths; as Downton Abbey fans have already seen in Season 2, the Great War also rocked the very foundation of the Crowley family's universe. (As Lady Edith points out to her father in this season's opener, the family knows nearly no young men still alive.)

The Great War also shattered Ravel's life. Ravel had first started conceptualizing a symphonic poem shaped around the waltz in 1906, with the idea of making it a tribute to Johann Strauss II, the "Waltz King." But by the time the French composer finally began fleshing out his idea fully, in 1919, the world he wished to celebrate had vanished — and Ravel, too, had been transformed. Haunted by what he had seen on the war's front lines as a truck and ambulance driver for a French artillery regiment, he could no longer create a charming waltz unshaded by grim reality.

What unspools is something quite different than what Ravel had originally intended. The piece opens with the gorgeous dance one might well expect, given its name. With his extraordinary gifts for color and texture, Ravel fairly paints a grand Viennese ballroom filled with the most elegant couples imaginable, all dressed to impress. But about halfway through the piece, the glittering dance makes an unmistakable whirl towards disaster. You can still hear the pretty melody and the familiar one-two-three rhythm struggle to sustain themselves, but ultimately they are swallowed by unyielding chaos. Is this to be the future for those who belong to Downton? One can't shake the feeling that Downton series creator Julian Fellowes will find a way to bring happiness (however short-lived, and however schemingly gained) to his characters — but as La Valse shows, Ravel's postwar reality is that of Downton, too.

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Anastasia Tsioulcas is a reporter on NPR's Arts desk. She is intensely interested in the arts at the intersection of culture, politics, economics and identity, and primarily reports on music. Recently, she has extensively covered gender issues and #MeToo in the music industry, including backstage tumult and alleged secret deals in the wake of sexual misconduct allegations against megastar singer Plácido Domingo; gender inequity issues at the Grammy Awards and the myriad accusations of sexual misconduct against singer R. Kelly.
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