About this Recording
8.555798 - RAVEL: Piano Favourites
English  French 

Maurice Ravel (1875-1937)

Piano Favourites

Maurice Ravel was born at Ciboure, in the Basses Pyrénées, on 7th March 1875, the year of the first performance of Bizet’s Carmen, the eldest child of Pierre Joseph Ravel and his wife Marie. His father was an engineer with extremely cultured tastes and a not inconsiderable talent at the piano (he had won a prize at the Geneva Conservatory). Just two months after Maurice’s birth the family moved to Paris and when he displayed early signs of musical talent, his parents actively encouraged him. Maurice entered the Paris Conservatoire in 1889, when he was fourteen, leaving six years later, but returning again in 1898 to study with the 53-year-old Gabriel Fauré. The early 1900s were marked by four vain attempts to win the coveted Prix de Rome, the ultimate prize for composition, which failure caused him repeatedly to be excluded from the classes of Fauré. By the middle of the first decade of the century, however, Ravel was quickly establishing himself as a composer of importance. His circle of friends and colleagues was also expanding: he worked with Dyagilev and Stravinsky, and with the Ballets Russes, which gave the première of his ballet Daphnis et Chloé. He travelled throughout Europe for concerts of his music and in 1927, the year in which Lindbergh first flew alone across the Atlantic, Ravel sailed for the United States and Canada for an eight-month concert tour. In 1933 the first signs of a rare brain disease which affected Ravel’s co-ordination became apparent. He gradually lost the ability to write or play and by the end of 1937 his brother and some close friends decided to risk an operation to restore Ravel’s life to some sort of normality. The operation was performed on 19th December and initial signs were encouraging, but after a relapse Ravel died on 28th December 1937, aged 62.

Pavane pour une infante défunte (Pavane for a dead Infanta) was written in 1899 and orchestrated by the composer in 1910. The descriptive title does not refer to a deceased Spanish princess, but more broadly to the type of pavane a young princess might have danced at the Spanish Court. It was dedicated to the Princesse Edmond de Polignac, born Winnaretta Singer, of the American sewing-machine family, whose salon was one of the most prestigious in Paris. It was first performed by the Catalan pianist Ricardo Viñes, who had entered the Paris Conservatoire at the same time as Ravel and became one of Ravel’s closest friends and most important interpreters of his music. He also gave the first performances of Jeux d’eau, Miroirs and Gaspard de la nuit.

Henriette Faure was another influential exponent of Ravel’s piano music, having studied with the composer in 1922; indeed, she gave the first piano recital consisting solely of works by Ravel on 18th January 1923 in the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées in Paris. She later went on to record a number of Ravel’s works including the little Prélude of 1913, which was written as a sight-reading exercise for a women’s competition at the Conservatoire. It was later dedicated to the winner, Jeanne Leleu, the young pianist who had taken part in the first performance of Ma mère l’oye three years previously.

Henriette Faure also recorded Jeux d’eau, written in 1901 and dedicated to Ravel’s mentor Gabriel Fauré. In her tribute to her teacher, Mon maître Maurice Ravel (Paris, 1978), she recalls an occasion when she had played Jeux d’eau to the composer:

"After I had played the piece, Ravel said only one thing: ‘Your fountains are sad ones. Anyone would think you hadn’t read the epigraph by Henri de Régnier’ (‘The river god laughing at the water as it tickles him’). So I began again, this time at a livelier speed and, in the Ravelian manner, hurrying the hemidemisemiquavers leading up to some of the themes, giving a little air to the curves of the melodic lines and the gaps between them, lifting my hand abruptly to give a cleaner ending to tied notes and above all thinking happy thoughts, so as to turn what I had previously thought was a meditation into a sparkling divertimento. Ravel said, ‘That’s more like it, but you could even so be a little dreamier at the end … as long as …’ and I cheekily finished his sentence with ‘you don’t slow down’. He might have been cross at being mimicked like that but in fact he laughed quite openly."

A further notable interpreter of Ravel’s piano music was Louis Aubert. He gave the first performance of Valses nobles et sentimentales in 1911, and had, as a boy, also given the first performance of the Pie Jesu treble solo in Fauré’s Requiem in 1888. The set of eight Valses nobles et sentimentales ("after the example of Schubert") was first programmed at a concert for the Société Musicale Indépendante without a composer’s name being given. After the performance members of the audience, unsettled by the modernity of some of the writing, were invited to put forward names: Kodály and Satie, but not Ravel, were suggested.

The neo-classical suite Le Tombeau de Couperin was written between the years 1914 and 1917 and was intended not so much as a tribute to the composer François Couperin, as to eighteenth-century French music in general; it uses Baroque dances and stylistic devices to recall the music of that period, music transformed by Ravel’s own very distinctive palette. Four movements were later orchestrated.

The Menuet sur le nom de Haydn, using the notes B-A-D-D-G, was composed in 1909 and first published in 1911 and again uses a neo-classical idiom to create a calm, refined atmosphere.

The Sonatine, composed between the years 1903 and 1905, consists of three short but exquisite movements. It was dedicated to Mimi Godebska, the young daughter of Cipa and Ida, two more from the close-knit circle of Ravel’s friends and the music certainly has a breath of childlike innocence about it.

The five movements that make up Miroirs were composed in 1905. At around that time Ravel and a number of his most intimate friends formed themselves into a group known as Les Apaches. Each of the five movements was dedicated to a different member of the group: Noctuelles went to the writer Léon-Paul Fargue, perhaps Ravel’s closest confidant; Oiseaux tristes was inscribed to his lifelong companion, the pianist Ricardo Viñes (here Ravel’s impish sense of humour was apparent, suggesting that it was amusing to dedicate to a pianist a piece that was not in the least pianistic); Une Barque sur l’océan was given to Paul Sordes; the brilliantly virtuosic Alborada del Gracioso was assigned to the writer and critic M. D. Calvocoressi, one of Ravel’s earliest champions; and to the composer Maurice Delage, one of Ravel’s few composition pupils, the last movement La Vallée des cloches.

The sinister colours of Gaspard de la nuit were created in 1908 based on prose poems by Aloysius Bertrand. A more recent pianist whose name is inextricably linked with the music of Ravel is Vlado Perlemuter, who studied at the Paris Conservatoire and later was Professor of Piano there. In the late 1920s he studied with Ravel and recalled that when he was working on the frantic Scarbo, the composer said: "I wanted to produce a caricature of Romanticism", adding under his breath, "Maybe I got carried away!".

Jeremy Backhouse

Close the window