About this Recording
8.573124 - RAVEL, M.: Orchestral Works, Vol. 3 - Orchestrations (Lyon National Orchestra, Slatkin)
English  French 

Maurice Ravel (1875–1937)


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 Diaghilev 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.

Ravel’s particular skill in orchestration was evident from the earlier years of his career, coupled with the relative speed and precision with which he worked. His command of orchestral colour was evident both in his own compositions for orchestra and in the orchestrations he undertook of works by other composers. His orchestration of Chabrier’s Menuet pompeux, a piano piece, the ninth in a set of ten, Dix pièces pittoresques, by Chabrier, completed in 1881, was, as were a number of other such arrangements, commissioned by the Russian ballet impresario Sergei Diaghilev, with whom relations had not always run smoothly. The ballet, staged first in Spain as Las Meninas, with Massine’s choreography based on the Velasquez painting of that title, was mounted in London in 1919 under the title Les jardins d’Aranjuez (The Gardens of Aranjuez) and used Fauré’s Pavane, and Ravel’s orchestration of his Alborada del gracioso and of the Chabrier piece, although the ballet was of less importance than other works on the programme. The Menuet pompeux has kept its place in French orchestral repertoire since its first concert performance in 1936, when Ravel’s health had deteriorated so that he could barely respond to the applause of the audience.

Ravel’s name has often been associated with that of his compatriot Claude Debussy, a composer twelve years his senior. The two men were very different in character and in their music. Ravel had been one of the young supporters of Debussy and it was only later that their personal relationship cooled. There were rival supporters and rival claims of prior influence, and while Ravel retained his admiration of Debussy as a composer, he was well aware of the different paths that they pursued, not least in his discreet support for Debussy’s first wife, deserted by Debussy in 1904 for his subsequent second wife, Emma Bardac. Debussy died in 1918 and in 1921 a number of important works by Debussy passed into the hands of the newly established publisher, Jean Jobert, after the death of Debussy’s original publisher, Eugène Fromont. Jobert asked Ravel to orchestrate two piano pieces, Sarabande, originally published in 1901 as the second of three pieces, Pour le piano, and Danse, published originally in 1891 under the title Tarentelle styrienne. Marked Avec une élégance grave et lente, the Sarabande, in its orchestrated version, suggests still more the world of Pelléas et Mélisande, while the Danse takes on a new life in the imagination of its colourful scoring.

The four orchestrations of pieces from Schumann’s Carnaval, a colourful and varied procession of commedia dell’arte figures in Fokine’s ballet, were part of a commission from Nijinsky, whose marriage had brought his dismissal from Diaghilev’s company. Nijinsky, who had some support among his former colleagues, attempted to establish a new ballet company of his own, starting in April 1914 with a projected season in London. For this Nijinsky commissioned new orchestrations of the Chopin-based Les sylphides and Schumann’s Carnaval in both of which he had appeared under Diaghilev, in the latter as Harlequin. Ravel’s version of Les sylphides is lost, and from his Carnaval only four movements survive, the opening Préambule, Valse allemande, Paganini and the final Marche des Davidsbündler contre les Philistins. Nijinsky’s London season was cut short when, in the third of its scheduled eight weeks, he fell ill and the London Palace Theatre reverted to its usual music-hall variety repertoire.

It was in response to a commission from Koussevitsky that Ravel, in 1922, undertook his orchestration of Mussorgsky’s Tableaux d’une exposition (Pictures at an Exhibition), a work that at the time was only available in the version edited by Rimsky-Korsakov after Mussorgsky’s death. It had been written in 1874 as a set of piano pieces, a translation into music of paintings, designs, models and drawings by Mussorgsky’s friend Victor Hartmann, who had died the year before. Ravel’s well-known orchestration makes telling use of a large orchestra, with an extended and varied percussion section, including, for the minstrel of The Old Castle, a serenading alto saxophone. The exhibits are linked by a Promenade, each with different orchestration, starting with the brass, led by a trumpet, as the visitor to the exhibition goes from exhibit to exhibit. The titles of the works are largely self-explanatory. The sinister Gnomus is a design for nutcrackers in the shape of a gnome, and a French horn leads the second Promenade. Bassoons introduce The Old Castle, where a troubadour, the alto saxophone, sings outside the castle walls, and the Tuileries depicts children at play and quarrelling, while nursemaids gossip, in the famous Paris gardens. Bydlo is a traditional Polish peasant ox-cart, with its creaking wooden wheels slowly turning and the opening melody entrusted to the tuba. There follows a Promenade started by the woodwind and the chattering Ballet of the Chickens in their Shells accompanies designs for children’s costumes, as described in the title. Samuel Goldenberg and Schmuyle, the names of those portrayed the invention of the painter, is a picture of two Jews, one rich, one poor, a present by Hartmann to the composer, with the following Promenade, originally omitted, orchestrated by Leonard Slatkin. In Limoges market-place old women gossip, discussing the fate of an escaped cow, and more trivial nonsense, while the Roman Catacombs, subtitled Sepulchrum romanum, are lit by a flickering lamp, the skulls piled on either side beginning to glow in the light from within. This is linked to the eerie With the Dead in the Language of the Dead. The macabre continues with The Hut on Fowl’s Legs, a clock in the form of the hut of the witch Baba Yaga, who crunches up children’s bones and flies through the night on a pestle. The triumphant conclusion offers a design for a triumphal gate in Kiev, to commemorate the escape of Tsar Alexander II from assassination in 1866. The music contrasts the massive structure with the sound of a solemn procession of chanting monks.

Keith Anderson

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