Valley of the Bells

In classical music, there’s a good chance that you’ll hear the opening music return at the end. It might be: A) literally repeated note for note or B) altered in some way (but let’s keep this second type under the “repetition” umbrella, too, for simplicity’s sake).

TIME OUT for a delicious food analogy:

Opening and closing music = outer donut      Middle music = custard filling

Okay, so why do composers repeat the opening music?

Well for one thing, I think music sounds differently each time it comes back, even if it’s repeated note for note. It’s like when
you go on vacation. You start out at home, go someplace else for a while, and then return home. I don’t know about you, but home always feels different by the time I get back (sometimes in a good way and sometimes in a not so good way if I really enjoyed the vacation).

When it comes to the second type of repetition, Ravel’s “Valley of the Bells” is a beautiful example. The ending music is actually significantly different from the opening, though it’s still essentially a repetition. So what is it about the vast middle section that makes the final return of the bells so much darker? And how is it that such methodical, serious middle music follows such purity in the first place? Of course, there’s no “right” answer. But here’s one way to imagine it:

The distant sound of bells comes out of nowhere, interrupting the silence of the valley as a man stands on a solitary hilltop above. As their song multiplies and echoes through the crisp mountain air, he feels both a deep connection to and insurmountable distance from their innocence and purity.
(0:30) Suddenly, a memory is triggered. It slowly drags him down into reflections on his impending fate:

       (1:03)  He faces it head-on with noble and resigned feelings—the darkness may 
      be imminent and innocence unattainable but they cannot and will not control 
      how he acts in the face of it. Even so, he struggles with it as he finds his
      thoughts returning to blissful memories of days past—the days before the
      darkness came.
      (4:18)  Now all that’s left is resignation, without hope.


(5:09)  As he once more becomes aware of his surroundings, the bells are still ringing. But now their golden purity is farther away than ever—his heart is
heavy with what he knows.

Do you hear something different?

[“La Vallée des Cloches” is part of a larger set of pieces called “Miroirs,” so if you liked this one you should check out the rest!]

1 thought on “Valley of the Bells”

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