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8.550254 - RAVEL: Gaspard de la nuit / Sonatine / La Tombeau de Couperin
Maurice Ravel (1875 - 1937)
Sonatine (1903 - 1905)
By ancestry Maurice Ravel was partly Swiss, through his father, and, through his mother, Basque. In upbringing, however, he was completely French and Parisian at that. Nevertheless from his father, an engineer by profession, he inherited an admiration of mechanical precision, while from his mother he acquired his leaning towards things Spanish, shown, above all, in his short opera L'heure espagnole, Rapsodie espagnole, his piano piece Alborada dei gracioso, and, perhaps, towards the end of his active life, in his composition for Shalyapin, >Don Quichotte à Dulcinée. In a passing preoccupation with Spain he was not, of course, alone among French composers, who, in earlier times, with less immediately genetic or cultural justification, had sought inspiration in the traditional rhythms and melodies of their exotic neighbour.
Ravel's early musical ambitions were encouraged by his father and from 1889 until 1895 he studied at the Conservatoire in Paris, returning in 1897 to enter Gabriel Fauré's composition class. By the turn of the century he had begun to achieve some success, at least among the more progressive and discerning, and had the sympathy of his teacher Fauré. He still failed, however, to satisfy the more academic demands of the Conservatoire or to win the prizes necessary for promotion. His repeated failure to win the Prix de Rome was to become something of a cause célèbre when in 1905, now an established composer, he again failed to meet the requirements of the competition. The resulting fracas led to the resignation of the director of the Conservatoire, the conservative Théodore Dubois, who, born in 1837, had been a pupil of Faurés implacable opponent, the former director, Ambroise Thomas.
In the following years Ravel continued to win friends and enemies. Some critics remained remarkably hostile, but his achievement was undeniable and his alleged debt to Debussy open to question, at the very least. A commission from Dyagilev resulted in the ballet score Daphnis et Chloé, mounted in Paris in 1912, an evocation of a very French and contemporary view of the ancient world, and there were songs and piano music both of which notably extended the available repertoire and explored new ground. The war, in which he served as a transport driver, and the death of his mother in 1916, both prevented for the moment further composition. After 1918 he slowly regained his former creative urge, with the completion of his choreographic poem, La valse, in 1920, and work on his opera L'enfant et les sortilèges, with a libretto by Colette, completed in 1925.
By 1928, the year of his American tour, it was apparent that Ravel's reputation at home and abroad was very considerable. Even then, however, there were signs of the illness that was to afflict him increasingly during the closing years of his life, leading to his death after an unsuccessful brain operation in 1937.
The Menuet antique of 1895 and the Pavane pour une infante défunte of 1899 both represent Ravel's interest in the forms and texture of music of an earlier period. The Spanish princess is mourned fortuitously in the second of the two pieces, the title an afterthought for music of exquisite nostalgia. Both works were orchestrated and both later served as scores for ballet.
Ravel's Sonatine, completed in 1905, again explores in its three movements traditional forms in a harmonic and melodic idiom characteristic of the composer. It was followed three years later by a very different work, Gaspard de la nuit, a set of three evocative pieces based on the prose poems of Aloysius Bertrand and written in the virtuoso piano idiom of the earlier Miroirs and Jeux d'eau. The Gothic literary source on which Ravel drew, Bertrand's Fantaisie à la manière de Rembrandt et de Callot, is quoted in the score. The first, Ondine, recalls the legend of the water-spirit, who here begs a mortal to be her husband, but rejected disappears in a flurry of water, streaming white down the window-pane. Le gibet is a lurid picture of the gibbet and the hanged man, as the bell tolls from the walls of the distant town and the setting sun paints the gallows red. The third piece, Scarbo, prefaced by a quotation from Hoffmann, depicts the mischievous spirit Scarbo, laughing, unseen, in the shadow of the fireside corner, spinning round the room like a spindle on a witch's distaff, and disappearing, faint as the wax of a candle-end.
Le tombeau de Couperin was written during the war and completed in 1917. Each of the six movements is dedicated to a victim of the war and makes general use of forms current in the time of Francois Couperin. The opening Prelude is followed by a Fugue, Ravel's earlier Conservatoire failure in the study of fugue now forgotten. The Italian Forlana had been adopted by the French before the time of Couperin, who made his own contribution to the dance, here with something of the poignancy of the Pavane. A lively Rigaudon leads to a gentler Minuet and a final Toccata. Le tombeau de Couperin marks a final return to a preoccupation with the archaic, translated into a language that is poignant as it is ironic.
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