About this Recording
8.572888 - RAVEL, M.: Orchestral Works, Vol. 2 - Valses nobles et sentimentales / Gaspard de la nuit (Lyon National Orchestra, Slatkin)
English  French 

Maurice Ravel (1875–1937)
Orchestral Works • 2


Maurice Ravel was born in 1875 in the small coastal village of Ciboure in the Basque region of France. His father, from the Jura, was an engineer and his mother a Basque, from Ciboure. Maurice Ravel spent his childhood and adolescence principally in Paris, where his parents moved soon after his birth. He started piano lessons at the age of seven and from the age of fourteen studied the piano in the preparatory piano class of the Conservatoire. In 1891 he entered Charles de Bériot’s class, but in the following years he failed to win the necessary prizes in harmony. Finally, in 1895, he left the Conservatoire, after failing to win the prizes necessary for promotion, but resumed studies there three years later under Gabriel Fauré. His repeated failure to win the important Prix de Rome, even when well enough established as a composer, disqualified at his fifth attempt in 1905, resulted in a scandal that led to changes in the Conservatoire, of which Fauré 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 body of French song and, with commissions for ballets. During the war he enlisted in 1915 as a motor mechanic and the war years left relatively little time or 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 his choreographic poem La valse, rejected by the Russian impresario Dyagilev and the cause of a rupture in their relations. He undertook a number of engagements as a pianist and conductor in concerts of his own works, in France 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.

Originally for piano, Ravel’s 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 (Adelaide, or the language of flowers), 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 waltz leads to a lively sixth and a longer seventh, before the final Epilogue, a summary and recollection of much that has passed.

The three piano pieces that constitute Gaspard de la nuit are recorded here in an orchestration of 1990 by the Romanian-born composer Marius Constant. Ravel was introduced to the poems of Aloysius Bertrand by the pianist Ricardo Viñes, who gave the first performance of 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 faint harmony casting a spell upon my sleep, and, close by, a murmur drifting by, like the halting song of a sad and gentle voice.)

There follows Aloysius Bertrand’s prose-poem:

Ecoute!—Ecoute!—C’est moi, c’est Ondine qui frôle de ces gouttes d’eau les losanges sonores de ta fenêtre illuminée par les mornes rayons de la lune; et voici, en robe de moire, la dame châtelaine qui contemple à son balcon la belle nuit étoilée et le beau lac endormi.

(Listen!—Listen!—It is I, it is Ondine who brushes with these drops of water the sonorous diamond-shaped panes of your window, lit by the bleak rays of the moon; and here, in a robe of watered silk, is the lady of the castle, who contemplates from her balcony the beauties of the starry night and slumbering lake.)

The poem continues, evoking the water-spirits, and ending with the mortal’s rejection of Ondine’s desire to take him to her palace as king of the lakes. 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. The original piano piece was dedicated to the pianist Harold Bauer.

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:

Ah! ce que j’entends, serait-ce la bise nocturne qui glapit, ou le pendu qui pousse un soupir sur sa fourche patibulaire? Serait-ce quelque grillon qui chante tapi dans la mousse et le lierre stérile dont par pitié se chausse le bois? Serait-ce quelque mouche en chasse sonnant du cor autour de ces oreilles sourdes à la fanfare des hallalis? Seraitce quelque escarbot qui cueille en son vol inégal un cheveu sanglant à son crâne chauve? Ou bien serait-ce quelque araignée qui brode une demiaune de mousseline pour cravate à ce col étranglé? C’est la cloche qui tinte aux murs d’une ville, sous l’horizon, et la carcasse d’un pendu que rougit le soleil couchant.

(Ah! Could it be the cry of the north wind at night that I hear, or a sigh from the dead man hanging from the gallows? Could it be the chirp of a cricket hidden in the moss and barren ivy that out of pity clothe the foot of the scaffold? Could it be a fly out hunting, blowing his horn by those deaf ears to sound the mort? Could it be a beetle plucking a bloodied hair from that shaven head as it crawls along its uneven path? Or could it be a spider spinning a length of muslin as a tie for that strangled neck? It’s the bell that tolls on the city walls, below the horizon, and the corpse of a hanged man reddened by the setting sun.)

The bell is heard tolling as the music begins, showing a haunted landscape. Le gibet is dedicated to the critic Jean Marnold.

Bertrand’s poem Scarbo is preceded by lines from the French translation, Contes nocturnes, of Nachtstücke (Night Pieces) by ETA Hoffmann, known to contemporaries as ‘Gespenster Hoffmann’, Ghost Hoffmann.

Il regarda sous le lit, dans la cheminée, dans le bahut;—personne. Il ne put comprendre par où il s’était introduit, par où il s’était évadé.

(He looked under the bed, in the fire-place, in the chest;—no-one. He could not understand how it had got in, or how it had escaped.)

Bertrand gives more detail about his elusive spirit:

Oh! que de fois je l’ai entendu et vu, Scarbo, lorsqu’à minuit la lune brille dans le ciel comme un écu d’argent sur une bannière d’azur semée d’abeilles d’or! Que de fois j’ai entendu bourdonner son rire dans l’ombre de mon alcôve, et grincer son ongle sur la soie des courtines de mon lit! Que de fois je l’ai vu descendre du plancher, pirouetter sur un pied et rouler par la chambre comme le fuseau tombé de la quenouille d’une sorcière! Le croyais-je alors évanoui? Le nain grandissait entre la lune et moi comme le clocher d’une cathédrale gothique, un grelot d’or en branle à son bonnet pointu! Mais bientôt son corps bleuissait, diaphane comme la cire d’une bougie, son visage blêmissait comme la cire d’un lumignon,—et soudain il s’éteignait.

(Oh, how often I’ve seen and heard him, Scarbo, when at midnight the moon gleams in the sky like a silver escutcheon on an azure banner, spangled with golden bees! How often I’ve heard his drone-like laugh in the shadows of my bedchamber, the sound of his nails scratching on the silk hangings of my bed! How often I’ve seen him leap from the ceiling, pirouette on one leg and roll around the room like a spindle fallen from a witch’s spinning wheel! And just when I thought he’d disappeared, the goblin would rise up between me and the moon like the tower of a Gothic cathedral, a little golden bell swinging on his pointed hat! Soon, though, his body would turn bluish, translucent as candle wax, his face as pale as the wax of a candle-end—and suddenly he would vanish from sight.)

The music, dedicated to the pianist and conductor Rudolph Ganz, reflects the activity of the elusive goblin, now here, now there, and then extinguished, like a light.

Ravel wrote his piano 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. In the same year Ravel arranged four of the six pieces as an orchestral suite. The orchestral work opens with a Prélude, followed by a Forlane that bears a more directly discernible relationship with the work of Couperin. An elegant and evocative Menuet with a musette trio section is followed in the orchestral suite by the final lively Rigaudon. The orchestral suite was first performed in 1920 and served as a score for the Ballet suédois in November of the same year.

La valse, a poème chorégraphique, was written in response to a commission from Sergey Dyagilev, who rejected the work, declaring it a masterpiece but not a ballet, rather a portrait of a ballet. Completed in 1920, it was given a concert performance in 1920 and first staged as a ballet in Antwerp in 1926¹, in spite of Ravel’s initial reservations, and in Paris in 1929 by Ida Rubinstein’s company, with choreography by Nijinsky’s sister and designs by Benois. Ravel dedicated the work to Misia Sert, an influential patroness of the arts, at whose house Dyagilev had first heard and rejected it. Coming as it does after the final dissolution of the Habsburg Empire, La valse seems to suggest a vanished world, the mysterious evocation of an epoch that was gone, a masque in the imagination of an Edgar Allan Poe. The words that head the score conjure up the picture:

Des nuées tourbillonnantes laissent entrevoir, par éclaircies, des couples de valseurs. Elles se dissipent peu à peu: on distingue une immense salle peuplée d’une foule tournoyante. La scène s’éclaire progressivement. La lumière des lustres éclate…Une Cour impériale, vers 1855.

(Breaks in the swirling clouds allow glimpses of couples waltzing. The clouds dissolve, little by little; a great room is seen, full of people dancing. It gradually grows brighter. The light of the chandeliers shines out…An imperial court in around 1855.)

Keith Anderson

¹ qv. Roger Nichols: Ravel, Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 2011, p 281

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