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8.553008 - RAVEL: Piano Works, Vol. 2

Maurice Ravel (1875-1937)
Piano Works, Vol. 2

Valses nobles et sentimentales
Gaspard de la nuit
(Trois poèmes pour piano d'après Aloysius Bertrand)

Le Tombeau de Couperin
La valse

From his father, a Swiss engineer, Ravel inherited a delight in precision and incidentally in mechanical toys, while from his Basque mother he acquired a familiarity with something of Spanish culture. Born in the village of Ciboure in the Basque region of France in 1875, he spent his childhood and adolescence in Paris, starting piano lessons at the age of seven and from the age of fourteen studying piano in the preparatory piano class of the Conservatoire. He left the Conservatoire in 1895, after failing to win the necessary prizes, but resumed studies there three years later under Gabriel Fauré. His repeated failure to win the Prix de Rome, even when well established as a composer, disqualified in his fifth attempt in 1905, resulted in a scandal that led to changes in that august institution, of which Fauré then became director.

Ravel's career continued successfully in the years before 1914 with a series of works of originality, including important additions to the piano repertoire, to the repertoire of French song and, with commissions from Diaghilev, to ballet. During the war he enlisted in 1915 as a driver and the war years left relatively little time and will for composition, particularly with the death of his mother in 1917. By 1920, however, he had begun to recover his spirits and resumed work, with a series of compositions, including an orchestration of La valse, rejected by Diaghilev, causing a rupture in their relations, and a number of engagements as a pianist and conductor in concerts of his own works at home and abroad. All this was brought to an end by his protracted final illness, attributed to a taxi accident in 1932, which led to his eventual death in 1937.

The Valses nobles et sentimentales were avowedly written in imitation of Schubert, with the seventh waltz, according to Ravel, the most characteristic. Completed in 1911, the waltzes were performed at a concert of the Société Musicale Indépendante by Louis Aubert, to whom they are dedicated, but without any attribution in the programme, the audience being left to show its discrimination by guessing which composers had contributed to the recital. The waltzes were variously attributed to Satie, Kodály or Ravel, although some suspected a hoax and refused to take the work seriously. At the head of the score is a quotation from Henri de Régnier, from his novel Les rencontres de Monsieur de Bréot: 'le plaisir délicieux et toujours nouveau d'une occupation inutile' (the delightful and always novel pleasure of a useless occupation). The work was orchestrated in 1912 as a ballet, Adélaïde, ou le langage des fleurs, for the Russian dancer Natasha Trouhanova and was staged in April that year at the Théâtre du Châtelet. The first waltz is cynically cheerful, followed by a more intimate waltz, slower and to be played with intense expression. There are harmonic surprises in the third of the set, which is followed by a waltz of rhythmic contrast. The gentle fifth of the set leads to a lively sixth and a longer seventh, before the final Epilogue, a summary and recollection of much that has passed.

Ravel was introduced to the poems of Aloysius Bertrand by the pianist Ricardo Viñes, who gave the first performance of Ravel's Gaspard de la nuit in January 1909. Each of the three pieces is preceded, in the score, by the relevant prose-poem of Bertrand. Before 'Ondine' four lines are quoted from Charles Brugnot:

… Je croyais entendre
Une vague harmonie enchanter mon sommeil,
Et près de moi s'épandre un murmure pareil
Aux chants entrecoupés d'une voix triste et tendre.

(I thought I heard a vague harmony casting a spell on my sleep, and near me was the murmur of a sad and tender voice, breaking into the songs).

Ondine is the mermaid, in love with a mortal: it is she that is heard in the drops of water against the window-panes and lit by the light of the moon: each wave is a water spirit, swimming in the current that leads to her watery palace at the bottom of the lake. She begs the mortal to take her ring on his finger and to go with her, as king of the lakes, but he tells her he loves a mortal. She cries and then, with a burst of laughter, disappears in streams of water down the blue window-panes. The music, in a demanding enough texture, said by Ravel to rival in difficulty Balakirev's Islamey, captures the mood of the poem, evoking the movement of the water and the story that lies hidden in it.

A quotation from Faust precedes 'Le Gibet': 'Que vois-je remuer autour de ce gibet?' (What do I see stir around this gibbet?). Bertrand's reply amplifies this: is it a night-bird that he hears or a sound from the dead man hanging there, is it a cricket in the moss at the foot of the gibbet, is it a fly buzzing at the ears of the corpse, is it a snail seizing a hair from his bald head, or a spider weaving muslin as a cravat for the hanged man? It is the bell that sounds from the town-walls on the horizon and the corpse of a hanged man that glows red in the setting sun. The bell is heard tolling as the music begins, showing a haunted landscape.

Bertrand's poem 'Scarbo' is preceded by lines from the Contes nocturnes of Hoffmann, known to contemporaries as 'Gespenster Hoffmann', Ghost Hoffmann: He looked under the bed, in the fire-place, in the bahut; - no-one. He could not understand how it had entered or how it had escaped. Bertrand goes on to speculate on the elusive spirit: how many times have I heard and seen Scarbo, when the moon shines in the sky like a silver coin on a banner of azure! He has heard his laugh in the corner of the room, his nails scratching at the bed-curtains. He thought him gone, but the dwarf grew between the moon and him like the bell-tower of a Gothic cathedral, a golden bell swinging on his pointed bonnet. Soon, though, his body grew pale and translucent, like the wax of a candle and suddenly he was no more. The music reflects the activity of the elusive goblin, now here, now there, and then extinguished, like a light.

Ravel wrote his Le Tombeau de Couperin between 1914 and 1917. It serves, in its form as a dance suite, as a tribute to François Couperin, the great French composer of the early eighteenth century, and, more generally, as he claimed, to the French music of that period, but also as a tribute, in the dedication of each piece, to friends who fell in the war. It was first performed in Paris in April 1919 by the pianist Marguerite Long, to the memory of whose husband, Captain Joseph de Marliave, the final Toccata is dedicated. The work opens with an E minor Prélude and Fugue. These are followed by a Forlane that bears a more directly discernible relationship with the work of Couperin. The lively Rigaudon, with its hand-crossing in true claveciniste style, is followed by an elegant and evocative Menuet with a musette trio section. The work ends with a rapid Toccata. Le Tombeau de Couperin formed the basis of a ballet and orchestral suite, transcribed in 1919.

Ravel wrote earlier versions of his choreographic poem La valse for piano and for two pianos. It was completed in 1920, but the idea of an 'apotheosis of the Viennese waltz' had long been with him. It proved unacceptable to Diaghilev as a ballet, and his rejection of the work ended the relationship with Ravel. La valse in some senses celebrates a vanished era, in a way that, as elsewhere in his work, has echoes of Edgar Allan Poe, and is, as Diaghilev perceived, 'the portrait of a dance'. Ravel explained the narrative evoked: Through swirling clouds, waltzing couples can be made out: the clouds gradually disperse, revealing a great hall, with a whirling crowd of dancers: the scene is gradually illuminated, with the chandeliers bursting into light, revealing an Imperial court of about 1855.

Keith Anderson

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