We should always remember that sensitiveness and emotion constitute the real content of a work of art….the unexpected surprise and astonishment are an essential part and characteristic of beauty. Maurice Ravel
There has long been a tendency to regard Debussy and Maurice Ravel (1875-1937) as the two great representative Impressionist composers. However, although they were colleagues and indeed admired each other’s works, they had substantially different ideas about music. Many of Debussy’s unorthodox harmonic techniques were incorporated into Ravel’s music; and vice-versa, some of Ravel’s compositions such as Jeux d’eau (1901) disclosed to Debussy many colorist sound possibilities. But the two approached musical composition very differently. Debussy’s atmosphere, sensual harmonies and freer forms often evoke the paintings of Monet, Sisley or Renoir while Ravel suggests bold colors with a more orderly expression and strength like in the paintings of Cezanne or even Matisse and Picasso.
Ravel’s background, musical education, and sharp intellect helped him in creating works equally as superb in craftsmanship as Debussy’s are superior for freedom of form. Ravel also expressed strong sympathies for imagined exotic worlds and was a genius orchestrator and craftsman. A bold experimenter of form and harmony within meticulously structured musical forms with a melodic line always sharply defined.
Through his mother, Ravel had a sympathetic link to the Iberian Peninsula, which may account for his preoccupation with Spanish motifs. Also Ravel loved the dance more than any other musical form (Ravel was accustomed to improvise at the piano for the dancing of Isadora Duncan). He drew upon both ancient and modern dances, infusing into them his personal manner of expression. Many of his compositions display humor-- at times lugubrious, at times sarcastic.
A supreme ironist and symbolist - outwardly the acme of Gallic elegance and reserve, but when his inner turbulence clouded and distorted an innate sense of poise and equilibrium, his nostalgia and recurrent dream of a paradisal childhood turned to nightmare. However, such was Ravel’s genius that he could invariably achieve his aim of “technical perfection” and show, even his most violently charged moments, what Debussy once called “ the most refined ear that has ever existed.”
Throughout the music of Ravel one finds a clear melodic line or thread. He told the English composer Ralph Vaughan Williams once that “an implied melodic outline is in all vital music.” A characteristic trait of Ravel’s melodic writing is how he mixes tonality and modality and how he sought rhythmic subtleties within traditional meters.
Although Ravel was a brilliant orchestrator the privileged instrument was the piano, not only because he was a pianist and composed at the piano (Ravel was horrified when he learned that his composition student worked in silence, wondering how he could possibly hear new sounds), but because almost all of his innovations first appear in his piano music. Ravel’s refined piano music is inspired from the clarity and elegance of Scarlatti, Couperin and the French clavecinistes, Mozart, Chabrier and Saint-Saëns as well as from the color and virtuosity of Liszt.
Indeed the great pianist Walter Gieseking noted that in his opinion, Scarbo and Alborada del Gracioso were among the most difficult piano works ever written. “The right expression is so important, because these intricate pianistic acrobatics are never deprived of musical sense of artistic value…it is always real music which one may call refined, concentrated, perhaps even, too sophisticated, but it is written primarily to create beautiful, enchanting piano sonorities, and if this music is technically very complex, it is nevertheless based on musically perfect logical conceptions.”
Gaspard de la Nuit (1908)
Ravel’s Gaspard de la Nuit is arguably one of the greatest piano works of the twentieth century. Inspired by three Fantaisies à la manière de Rembrandt et de Callot (Aloysius Bertrand), its lavish pianistic resources and unfaltering precision confirm Ravel’s musical genius.
Ondine’s seductive and menacing entreaty surfaces from beneath insistently eddying and cascading water, while in Le Gibet (The Gallows) possible death becomes a macabre actuality as a corpse swings from a gallows , reddened by sunset and unalert to the hum of surrounding insect life.
Scarbo is surely music’s most horrendous goblin, pirouetting and scuttling in nightmare fashion, his weird form elongated and then extinguished by a trick of moonlight. His final wincing grimace crowns and concludes a triptych where fantasy and reality are chillingly entwined.
In regards to this work Ravel wrote: “This collection of piano pieces marks a fairly considerable change in my harmonic evolution, disconcerting some musicians accustomed to my style heretofore.” Indeed the first performance by pianist Ricardo Vines caused some critical consternation and puzzlement.*
As the title implies, Ravel does not intend to draw out actual descriptions but only to suggest, as in the reflections of a mirror, magical sounds from the instrument. They are inspired by an external image or impression “mirrored” in sound.
The first piece Noctuelles (Night Moths) evokes fluttering night moths hovering about a light and was inspired on a verse by the poet-dedicatee Léon-Paul Fargue : “ les noctuelles d'un hangar partent d'un vol cravater d'autres pouters.” (the night moths in a shed fly off to tie themselves around other beams).
Ravel describes the second piece which was one of his favorites: “ One of the most typical of my musical evolution is the second of the collection Oiseaux Tristes (Sad Birds). In it I evoke birds lost in the torpor of a very dark forest during the hottest summer hours.” Indeed, their presence is eerily created with a fantasy and freedom that seems virtually improvised. A characteristic about this piece that especially pleased Ravel in light of his critics.
Une Barque sur L'Océan (A Boat on the Ocean), dedicated to the painter Paul Sordes, is a marine-scape of infinite variety, where Ravel captures the sea's powerful ebb and flow, and the sparkle sunlight on foam-crested waves with uncanny skill and poetic power. It blazes with orchestral coloring and atmosphere.
Alborada del gracioso is a morning serenade which derives its name from the French abe and the Italian alba. Gracioso is a jester in the Spanish comedies of Vega and Calderón. This Jester’s Serenade depicts a medieval troubadour’s song with which a knight parted from his lady at break of day. The pianistic imitations of flamenco guitars are audaciously combined with mock, lovelorn recitatives concluding with a sardonic burst of laughter as the lover’s idyll ends savagely. Ravel orchestrated this work, which is widely known as well.
Finally the last piece of the set La Vallée des Cloches (The Valley of the Bells), suggests a quiet tirelessly extended rapture concluding the collection with a melancholy landscape, the distant bells sounding like an interior reverie, an ineffable memory, a regret, a hurt....
* “ On the initial performance of a new musical composition, the first impression of the public is generally one of reaction to the more superficial elements of its music, that is to say to its external rather than to its inner content. The listener is impressed by some unimportant peculiarity in the medium of expression, and yet the idiom of expression, even if considered in its completeness, is only the means and not the end itself, and often it is not until years after, when the means of expression have finally surrendered all of its secrets, that the real inner emotion of the music becomes apparent to the listener.”
Much of Ravel’s treatment of rhythm is inspired by the dance form. In addition to the lilting Viennese waltz, Ravel also uses the graceful minuet and the colorful rhythms of Spanish (Habanera, Bolero) and Basque music as well as the Baroque dances.
Minuet sur le nom d’Haydn (1909) - Ravel joined other tributes from Debussy, Dukas, Hahn and others in commemorating the centenary of Haydn’s death. In this free adaptation Ravel uses the letters H-A-Y-D-N, which turns out to be the notes B-A-D-D-G in an extended version of the German musical alphabet, to create an agreeable eighteenth-century pastiche while spicing the music’s gentle archaism with ornaments and dissonances.
Pavane pour une Infante Défunte (1899) - The early influence of Chabrier is detectable and the nostalgic evocation of some remoter past, suggested by the grave formality and poignancy of its melodic line transport the listener to another time and place, namely sixteenth century Spain. The orchestral transcription made by Ravel of the Pavane is slightly richer and more orientally fragrant and I draw on that one in this performance.
Pièce en forme d’Habanera (1907) - This song was commissioned in 1907 by A.L. Hettich, a professor of voice at the Conservatoire in order to create some new vocal etudes for the students. Among the many composers who responded there was Fauré, Ibert, Roussel, and Honneger. This Vocalise-Etude by Ravel reveals his Basque roots as well as his feel for color and sensuality. The composition later achieved popularity in a violin transcription and in fact has been adapted to many other instruments such as cello, flute, and saxophone. This piano transcription was made by Maurice Dumesnil in 1955.
La Valse (1919-20) arr. Himy. La Valse: Poème choréographique gestated in Ravel’s mind for fourteen years. In a letter written in early 1906, he spoke of plans to write a waltz that would be a sort of hommage to Johann Strauss: “You know my deep sympathy for these wonderful rhythms, and that I value the joie de vivre expressed by the dance...” By 1914 the work had evolved into Wien: Poème Symphonique described by Ravel as “a kind of apotheosis of the Viennese waltz, which leaves in my mind the impression of a dizzy whirling, fantastic and fateful. I see this waltz on a background of an imperial palace, about 1855. ”
La Valse was composed at the request of Diaghilev, the great impresario-choreographer. A preliminary hearing of the work took place in the home of Misia Sert (to whom the work is dedicated) in the presence of Diaghilev, Poulenc and Stravinsky. According to Poulenc’s account who was present, following the piano performance by Marcelle Meyer and Ravel, Diaghilev called the work a “ masterpiece… but it’s not a ballet. It’s a portrait of a ballet…. a painting of a ballet…” Stravinsky remained silent. Ravel calmly took his score and left. The incident marked a rupture between Ravel and Diaghilev, but the work went on to be performed in the concert halls with considerable popularity.
Although La Valse evokes the elegance and lilting of the Viennese waltz, the concluding passages erupt with tension bordering on the point of emotional shattering. The chaos and destruction of World War I and his mother’s death, both contribute to the almost grotesque transformations and “ fantastic and fatal whirling ”. Indeed the waltz throughout is in three, but at the very last measure it caves in with 1-2-3-4! …as if to suggest all have stumbled and perished. What was once is no longer.
In this transcription for solo piano from orchestra, Ravel simply wrote out the simple harmonic foundation of the piece on two conventional staves and occasionally added but not fully notated, in very small print and on a third stave, most of the coloristic elements which give the piece its flavor; much of the time, indeed there is simply no way in which one can incorporate the third-stave elements and be obedient to the material on the primary staves. Consequently, I had to sort of “re-compose” and figure out the most efficient way to preserve that essential flavor and at same time come up with a playable rendition!
Ravel’s influence was profound and wide-reaching His unique contribution to the piano literature and impact on piano technique, harmony, color, rhythm, and orchestral timbre were all enormous. His musical influence can be seen in Austria, England, Hungary, Italy, and Spain. And of course in France many of the composers whose development took place in the 1930s (Ibert, Poulenc, among many others) were obviously influenced as well.
Ravel’s artistic process was a constant, unfaltering search for purity, clarity, truth and beauty of expression.
“Everyone has his shortcomings ; mine is to act with complete conscience.”
I have always been attracted to the French repertoire and when I lived in Paris on the Left Bank during the 1990s, I was lucky enough to be able to be close to many of my cultural idols. Paris is a city of charm, mystery, inexhaustible history, tradition and inevitably a huge source of inspiration. Just walking the numerous streets you could be easily confronted at any moment as you look up by a plaque honoring the memory of Liszt, Chopin, Albeniz, Debussy, Wagner, Picasso, Monet, Balzac, Proust, Hugo or Baudelaire among so many others.
So indeed it was magical moment when I was able to visit “ Le Belvedere ” a most charming house in Monfort L’Amaury, a small town not far from Paris which offered Ravel the perfect retreat where he could find the calm and tranquility that he needed to find the equilibrium in his work. He moved here on April 16, 1921 where he would spend the last sixteen years of his life, often hunched over his Erard grand piano. I tried it out playing the Alborada del gracioso and Ondine wondering if Ravel had played over the same keys. It had an undeniable soul. Here he wrote some of his major works including Bolero, Tzigane and the two Piano Concerti.
Nearby is the lovely forest of Rambouillet which according to many of his closest friends was a favorite wandering spot for Ravel…“he knew every path, every sound, every tree, every smell, every bird call…” And indeed it would often be upon the return of his countless promenades that Ravel would work at his best, with a fresh memory full of new ideas to notate. His home is full of surprises and Ravel stocked it with a delightful collection of mechanical toys (i.e. a wooden toy singing nightingale with flapping wings), which he loved to wind up and operate for his friends. His home was his safe haven for his work and fantasy worlds which reflects the surety and perfection of a master of boundless imagination, and without a doubt his music has maintained to this day its freshness.