Canadian pianist André Laplante is a firmly established virtuoso of the great romantic repertoire. He garnered international attention after winning prizes at the Geneva and Sydney International Piano [...]
They spoke about it
The other Impressionist, the Neoclassicist, the Colorist, the Melodist, the Harmonist, the Miniaturist, the Modernist. These are all familiar tags with which to label composer Maurice Ravel (1875-1937).
He delighted in pointing out what he considered to be new in his own works, but nowhere do we get the perception that the composer was at all self-conscious of his position in modernity. Unlike many major composers living 25 years either side of the twentieth century, Ravel did not act as an apologist for his music (nor did he have his own Boswell). His opinions on art and music were recorded not by himself but by friends, fellow composers, and students — mostly in the form of one or two sentence quotations from the master or other reminiscences.
Assessing Ravel’s place in the history of twentieth century music remains problematic, in spite of, or maybe because of the many labels used to describe it. Ravel carefully studied the works of other composers as a chief means of perfecting his own craft. The French composers of the previous generation, the Russians (especially Mussourgsky), Mendelssohn, J.S. Bach, Liszt, and Mozart were among the most important models. It can safely be stated that Mozart, above all, held a special importance for Ravel the artist.
Roland-Manuel, author of four books on Ravel and a close friend and student stated simply that, “… he loved Mozart with all his heart and soul.” “Heart and soul” implies more than an appreciation and application of the formal imitations usually associated with Neoclassicism. It is impossible to listen to Ravel’s more classically-modeled works and hear only borrowed forms. There is, in his music, a deeper connection with the music of Mozart — a spiritual connection facilitated by Ravel’s acute sensitivity. Ravel admitted that he kept the score of Mozart’s Quintet for Clarinet and Strings close at hand during the composition of the slow movement of his Piano Concerto in G major. On the surface, the slow movements from these two works do not share one shred of similarity. Rather, the poetry of the quintet reverberates in the concerto, leaving the listener with a sense of the same mood.
When Erik Satie, that figure of not inconsiderable influence in the artistic development of both Debussy and Ravel, quipped slyly that he preferred his music “without sauerkraut,” he summed up with wilting sarcasm the problem facing French composers of the day. However, it is improbable that any composer in the artistic milieu of turn of the century Paris could truly remain unaffected by the kinetic force of Romanticism.
Not surprisingly, Liszt’s music was also highly valued by Ravel. He thought Liszt was the decisive influence on many of the important composers of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Even as Ravel’s music exhibits a formal balance stemming from Classicism, his approach to the piano stems from Romanticism, especially in the area of virtuosity and utilization of the instrument for it’s luminous qualities. On both of these latter points, the composer extended the frontiers of his predecessors.
From the standpoint of sheer virtuosity, Ravel’s music made unprecedented demands on the pianists of his day (Balakirev’s Islamey notwithstanding). Several generations of pianists have now grappled with the difficulties of Miroirs and Gaspard de la nuit. For a majority of them in the age of music competitions, these works form (along with Bartok’s and Prokofiev’s) the core of twentieth century repertoire, placing them at perhaps an artificial distance from nineteenth-century works.
As our own century draws to a close, Ravel’s music ought to be performed in a less “contemporary” way, acknowledging that Ravel’s significance, in fact, may actually be in his reconciliation of Romantic expressive norms with the currents of twentieth-century Impressionism and Neoclassicism.
The Sérénade grotesque was written during Ravel’s student days. Ricardo Viñes, the pianist who premiered more of the composers works than any other, recalled a meeting with the composer shortly after they met in 1892. “We didn’t go out all day but enjoyed ourselves, almost all the time at the piano, trying out new chords and playing over our ideas.”
The spirit of Ravel’s experimentation pervades the Serenade, in terms of form, “new chords” and Spanish rhythms. The grotesque mood, which is sustained throughout, may be attributed to the composer’s interest at the time in the writings of Edgar Allan Poe. Ravel even showed his own illustrations of two Poe stories to Viñes during one of their early meetings.
Pastiche: In the manner of Chabrier, Borodine
Ravel reserved a special fondness for the music of Emmanuel Chabrier (1841-1894). For him, Chabrier was “… the most profoundly personal, the most French of our composers.”
À la manière de Chabrier and À la manière de Borodine are the composer’s contribution to the then popular genre, pastiche. Borodine clips along, a rapid waltz in the key of D flat and Chabrier is a concert paraphrase of Siebel’s “Flower Song” from Gounod’s Faust. Both have a more overt style of expression than the other piano works but are nevertheless distinctly Ravel’s, especially at the dancing climax of Borodine.
Ravel’s menuets, which he composed in all phases of his career, provide an interesting view of his development as a composer.
The Menuet antique, his first published work, shows the young composer already “at home” with his own harmonic sensibility (albeit on the “ground floor”).
Menuet sur le nom de Haydn
The Menuet sur le nom de Haydn, written almost fifteen years later, was one of a series of short works by different composers dedicated to Haydn’s memory. In this Menuet, Ravel carves out the musical notes in the name of Haydn, playing with them in order and in retrograde and inversion. It exhibits all the qualities of Ravel, the master of miniature forms — crystalline melodies, contrast, and a sense that the expression is complete. Melody and harmony are perfectly wedded and seem to look forward to the Valses nobles et sentimentales, produced two years later.
Jeux d’eau solidified Ravel’s reputation as a leader in the avant garde. Although comparisons are certainly apt between it and Liszt’s Les jeux d’eau à la Villa d’Este, Ravel’s work employs a method of sound continuum which moves beyond Liszt’s. Where Liszt relies almost entirely on tremolo to sustain harmonies, Ravel sustains his harmonies in a variety of ways. He invents a kind of tremolo of his own, a broken chord based on the interval of a second which he spreads out over a span of several octaves. This figure not only sustains the harmony but helps to deliniate the form and presence of a new theme.
From a purely harmonic aspect, Jeux d’eau is most certainly in the key of E major. It features chords with added sixths, sevenths and ninths. At times tonal moorings seem to loosen almost completely (the high treble passage before the dynamic climax, for instance). From both harmonic and pianistic aspects, the work was truly original when Ravel released it and anticipated many of the audacious qualities that would later be expanded upon in Gaspard de la nuit and Miroirs. Included next to the title on the first page is a line from the poet Henri de Regnier, a delightful “performance suggestion” about a river god who laughs because the water tickles him.
The tiny Prélude was written in 1913 as a sightreading exercise for the Paris Conservatoire. It must have been difficult for the sightreading candidates to resist being lulled into reverie by it’s atmosphere of nostalgia, perhaps missing some of the harmonic surprises in the process!
Pavane pour une infante défunte
The Pavane pour une infante défunte (Pavane for a Dead Princess) dates from 1899 and exists, as do many of the composer’s piano works, in a version for orchestra. The work shows Ravel’s interest in old dances (the Pavane was a 16th-century Italian court dance in slow triple meter).
The composer referred to the melodic style rather self-deprecatingly as showing the “excessive influence of Chabrier.” However, knowing his high regard for Chabrier, the rather mournful tone of the Pavane may not have been entirely displeasing to him. It was to pianist Charles Oulmont that Ravel issued the famous proscription of performances in which the tempo dragged: “I wrote a Pavane for a dead princess but not a dead Pavane for a princess.”
Miroirs: Suite for piano
Miroirs is Ravel’s first great suite for piano. It is difficult to explain the significance of the title and the composer offered none. Possibilities range from the titles themselves, reflected in music, or perhaps something more personal. André Laplante has suggested that “mirror” refers perhaps to tritone relations in each piece.
The form of each is quite simple in concept, being clearly in three parts (ABA). Ravel exhibits a firm control over what Arnold Schönberg called “the absolute unity of musical space,” illustrated by a recurring two-note motive (a descending interval of a third) heard throughout the course of the suite.
Two-note motives are Ravel’s musical nom de plume. In the Sonatine, the motive appears as the interval of a fourth, both ascending and descending. Like Miroirs, Gaspard de la nuit also features the motive as a descending interval of a third. Ravel delights in a variety of settings for his motive, changing the context to meet the expressive need. Ravel commented that Miroirs “… marked a rather significant change in my harmonic evolution…” Certainly the harmonies are striking, showing the composer taking the next step in an already secure sensibility. In many ways, Miroirs, along with Gaspard de la nuit, is the impressionistic counterpart to the more classically-hewn Sonatine, Valses nobles et sentimentales, and Le Tombeau de Couperin.
The skittering figurations of Noctuelles (Night Moths) give the impression of a type of continuous cadenza. The harmony is obscure, being “on” the key of D-flat rather than “in” it (to borrow a phrase from Stravinsky). Cadences occur in new ways, winking playfully from the upper register of the instrument, briefly illuminating a distant relative to the overall tonality. A middle section provides the surest possible contrast to these banterings, the two-note motive languishing over a pedal point.
Ravel provided a rare “program” to the second piece of the suite, Oiseaux triste (Sad Birds). “In this work, I evoke birds lost in the torpor of a somber forest, during the most torrid hours of summertime.” Like his other piano works which feature the tolling of bells, Oiseaux tristes begins with a solitary call which is left to repeat hypnotically through a good portion of the piece.
The two-note motive emerges after a while, this time as part of the first section rather than the second. As in Noctuelles contrast is again achieved through tempo change (or rather a radical shortening of note values). Again, like Noctuelles, the writing in the fast section and its reprise toward the end of the piece sounds very much like a cadenza.
Une barque sur l’océan
Une barque sur l’océan (A Boat on the Ocean) is the longest piece in the set, more sustained throughout, each section more episodic — almost challenging Ravel’s artistic dictum, “complex but never complicated.” The motive appears immediately, awash in a continuous arpeggio. The work is full of invention, both in terms of the arpeggio figurations and the harmonic progressions.
In the middle section, Ravel again reinvents the tremolo as a means of sustaining the sound in the upper register. Pianistically, it requires not only fine gradation of touch but careful balancing of sonorities, letting each climax build to a peak.
Alborada del gracioso
Alborada del gracioso (Morning Song of the Jester) is famous among pianists for its hangnail-causing double-note glissandi and fiendishly difficult repeated notes (called for again by the composer in Scarbo). Alborada is Spanish for “dawn” and refers to music performed during those hours, especially at festive occasions such as weddings.
Manuel de Falla accounts for Ravel’s Spanish music saying, “Ravel’s was a Spain he felt in an idealized way through his mother. She was a lady of exquisite conversation. She spoke fluent Spanish, which I enjoyed so much when she evoked the years of her youth, spent in Madrid…” Indeed, Ravel idealized his mother (her death in 1917 was the devastating tragedy of his life). Arbie Orenstein points out that, “Maurice Ravel’s attachment to his mother was undoubtedly the deepest emotional tie in his entire life.
Among his earliest memories were the Spanish folk melodies sung to him by his mother…” It is not surprising, then, that the Spanish character of Alborada is wholly genuine, crackling with a percussive, insistant rhythm in the outer sections and reflective as a lone guitar in the middle section.
La Vallée des cloches
La Vallée des cloches (The Valley of the Bells) closes the suite. As in Oiseaux tristes, there is a hypnotic tolling (bells rather than birds, of course). As the tolling persists, the composer adds a perfect musical “clockwork,” again showing his limitless ability to find ways to sustain sound on the piano. The motive is present throughout, and is transformed almost as if by magic to a tranquil reminiscence of Westminster chimes.
In this atmosphere of ineffable calm that Ravel makes the most profoundly musical utterances of the suite. A new theme, marked largement chanté emerges. It is the longest-breathed melody in Miroirs and is nothing less than a precious gift from the composer who stated, “We should always remember that sensitiveness and emotion constitute the real content of a work of art.”
© John Anthony Cheek