About this Recording
8.573448 - RAVEL, M.: Orchestral Works, Vol. 5 - Antar (after Rimsky-Korsakov) / Shéhérazade (Dussollier, Druet, Lyon National Orchestra, Slatkin)
English  French 

Maurice Ravel (1875–1937)
Orchestral Works • 5


Ravel was still a teenager when he fell under the spell of Russian music: he discovered both The Five (Mussorgsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, Cui, Borodin and Balakirev) and the Javanese gamelan at the age of fourteen when he visited the 1889 Universal Exhibition in Paris (an event whose centrepiece was the newly constructed Eiffel Tower). Ten years later, the dual impact of Russia and the Orient bore fruit in the “fairy overture” Shéhérazade, originally intended to be the curtain-raiser for an opera based on the Arabian Nights—a work that in the end never saw the light of day. Ravel’s admiration for The Five proved lasting, although his initial predilection for Borodin and Rimsky-Korsakov was later surpassed by his appreciation of the music of Mussorgsky (he orchestrated the latter’s Pictures at an Exhibition in 1922, having already completed his opera Khovanshchina with Stravinsky in 1913).

In early twentieth-century Paris, a group of unconventional young artists who adopted the nickname “Les Apaches” (The Ruffians) grew up around the figure of painter Paul Sordes, meeting regularly to discuss art, literature and music late into the night. At their gatherings, Ravel would play piano four-hands arrangements of all kinds of music with a fellow student from the Conservatoire, the Catalan pianist Ricardo Vines. In 1901, he dazzled the group with the stunning Jeux d’eau, a new work for piano which proved his maturity as a composer. It was also at an Apache gathering that Ravel met Tristan Klingsor, whose poetry inspired a second work entitled Shéhérazade (1903). This three-part song cycle for solo voice and orchestra is less closely connected to orientalism than is the overture written five years earlier; it also owes a considerable debt to the vocal writing of Debussy, as revealed by Pelléas et Mélisande, premiered in 1902. Ravel was quite open about this aspect of his work, noting in an autobiographical sketch he wrote in 1928, “Shéhérazade, in which the influence of Debussy—in spiritual if no other terms—is quite evident, dates from 1903. In it, I yielded to the profound fascination that the Orient had exerted over me since my childhood.” That said, the work also boasts a number of trademark Ravelian qualities—clarity of discourse, sophistication of detail, and an ongoing conflict between instinct and control.

Ravel’s choice of orchestral forces also reflects the influence of Debussy: divided strings, a large wind section, celesta, two harps and a rich array of percussion. But where Debussy favours doubling and timbral blending, uses the warmth of the brass section and divides the strings to increase the effect of their massed ranks, creating what Cocteau denounced in his 1918 pamphlet on music Le Coq et l’Arlequin (Cock and Harlequin, transl. Rollo H. Myers, 1921) as “the kind of fluid atmosphere congenial to shortsighted ears”, Ravel instead focuses on the individuality of different timbres and separates the strings only in order to create more transparency, very different from the luxuriance of the earlier “fairy overture”.

In June 1907, at another Apache meeting, Ravel and Vines sightread a score by Rimsky-Korsakov: Antar. Little did Ravel know that, two years later, he would cross paths with that score again. The exploits of Antara ibn Shaddād, a sixth-century Arab warrior-poet, had been part of the oral story-telling tradition for many years before they were set down in writing in the twelfth-century Romance of Antar. Rimsky-Korsakov had been inspired by a fairy tale by Osip Senkovsky that develops an episode which does not in fact appear in the traditional stories. Antar, fleeing the sinful society of mankind, saves a gazelle (the peri Gul-Nazar in disguise) from being killed by a bird of prey. Later, in a dream, he falls in love with the queen of Palmyra, another embodiment of Gul-Nazar. When he awakes, she grants him three wishes: revenge, power and love. Ultimately she kisses him with such passion that it kills him. After composing an original version in 1868 and calling it his Second Symphony, Rimsky-Korsakov reworked Antar in 1875, and again in 1897, now designating it a symphonic suite. Back in 1868 he had just discovered Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique, from which he borrowed the concept of the idée fixe, a theme representing the hero that recurs throughout the work as a whole; in Antar, however, the thematic material does not undergo symphonic treatment (exposition, development, recapitulation), but is instead subject to free and continuous transformation, with the result that the work is more closely related to the symphonic poems of Liszt than to Berlioz’s Symphonie.

Unfortunately, in 1903 the publisher Bessel refused to print the definitive version of 1897, because it would have meant having to engrave new plates. Rimsky-Korsakov had to be content with a compromise—the 1875 plates were used, but with some changes incorporated. His final version only appeared posthumously, in 1913. It was, therefore, the hybrid version of 1903 that Ravel used when, at the request of Paris’s Theatre de l’Odeon, he drew from the score a suite of incidental music for Antar, a new four-act play by the Lebanese writer Chekri Ganem, then living in exile in Paris. The play is based on an episode from the Romance of Antar: the star-crossed love affair between the hero and his cousin Abla.

In French artistic circles, a passion for all things Russian remained undimmed. A week after the Parisian premiere of the play, Rimsky-Korsakov’s suite was performed in the Salle Gaveau. That same year (1910), Diaghilev’s newly formed Ballets Russes company made its name with two productions: on 4th June a ballet based on Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade with choreography by Michel Fokine, and on 25th June The Firebird, the first (and most Rimskian) ballet by the rising star of Russian music, Stravinsky.

Ravel’s involvement in the incidental music for Antar went almost unnoticed. In its announcement of the opening night, on 7th January 1910, at the Theatre de Monte-Carlo, the literary periodical Gil Blas attributed the musical arrangement to the conductor, Gabriel Pierne. The Ménestrel and the Aurore, in their reviews of performances at the Theatre de l’Odeon, mentioned only Rimsky-Korsakov. Ravel himself, in a letter to Chekri Ganem of 23rd January 1910, remained the soul of modesty, noting only that the incidental music comprised:

“1. The symphonic poem Antar by Rimsky-Korsakoff [sic] and fragments of the same work, reorchestrated by me specifically for these performances.
2. A fragment of the same composer’s Mlada.
3. Fragments from songs by the same composer, in my orchestrations.”

The orchestral score preserved by the Leduc publishing house bears no trace of the songs (drawn from Opp. 4 and 7), which have been identified from a piano reduction held by the Bibliotheque Nationale de France. Nor does the orchestral score mention the extract played in both Monaco and Paris from Felicien David’s Le Désert (1844), a work renowned for having launched the fashion for musical orientalism. It is however sufficiently complete to enable a full reconstruction (from which all that has been omitted are the repeats of two numbers) and the preparation of all orchestral parts. The 1910 play did not lend itself well to the format of a concert performance, which is why the idea occurred to commission a new text—Amin Maalouf, another French-Lebanese writer, soon emerged as the obvious choice of author. As he explained in an interview with the Lyon newspaper Le Progrès on 11th June 2014, the day before the work’s premiere, “The warrior-poet Antar and his beloved Abla are, in a way, the Romeo and Juliet of the Arab world. Everyone knows their story. Based on a sixth-century pre-Islamic tale that you could still have heard recounted by the storytellers who frequented the cafes of Beirut and Damascus as recently as a few years ago, this epic symbolises the chivalric spirit … Unlike the four opera librettos I have written for Kaija Saariaho, the text came after the music. I listened to Rimsky-Korsakov’s work, took advice from Leonard Slatkin, Music Director of the Orchestre National de Lyon, and wrote my version of the legend of Antar by studying the score and letting myself be guided by the emotions suggested by the music. Most of the text is spoken, above the music, by [actor] Andre Dussollier, who was quite closely involved with this piece during its development.”

It is easy to see what attracted Ravel to Rimsky-Korsakov’s score: its powerful orchestration, original and changing modality (long before Bartók and Messiaen, the third movement even ends on an octatonic scale!) and rhythmic power make Antar a magnificent forerunner of Scheherazade (1888), the Russian composer’s best-known masterpiece, it too cast in four movements. Ravel must particularly have appreciated the opening bars, with their disquieting, modern harmonies, depicting the immensity of the Syrian desert.

The opulent thematic material, dominated by the motifs portraying Antar (noble in character, entrusted to the violas) and Gul-Nazar/Abla (light and sinuous, played by the flute), lends itself to all kinds of derivations and inspired a series of brief instrumental links and interventions from Ravel. In several numbers (notably Nos. 1 bis, 12 and 16) he writes in the style of Rimsky-Korsakov, but elsewhere the ideas are very much his own: the recurring presentation of the Antar theme on solo viola; the charming flute/clarinet fugato (No. 3), the elegant waltz of No. 7, and the turquerie on typically Ravelian instruments of No. 1 bis (oboe, Basque drum and tambourine). His touches of genius include changing the original order in which Rimsky-Korsakov’s four movements are heard and incorporating into the score a slightly abridged version of the terrifying witches’ sabbath from the opera-ballet Mlada (1890, reworked by Rimsky-Korsakov in 1901 into the symphonic poem Night on Mount Triglav) to illustrate the hero’s thirst for power. In 1910, a troupe of Algerian dancers were employed for this scene, and the notorious Mata Hari danced the role of Cleopatra. In Amin Maalouf’s retelling, this episode sees Antar ignoring Abla’s warnings and entreaties and insisting on facing the enemy once more. The battle proves to be his last, and his body is borne back to his grieving wife.

Claire Delamarche
Translation by Susannah Howe

The short cycle Shéhérazade, settings of three poems from the collection of that name by Ravel’s friend Tristan Klingsor, was written in 1903, the year in which Klingsor (Justin Leon Leclere) published his collection of poems under the same title, suggested by the work of Rimsky-Korsakov and its own literary source, The Arabian Nights, a new French translation of which, by Joseph Charles Mardrus, was nearing completion. The longest of the songs, Asie, was dedicated to the singer Jeanne Hatto (Marguerite Jeanne Frere), for whose benefit he had Klingsor change the word ‘pipe’ to ‘tasse’ towards the end of the poem at the line En élevant comme Sindbad ma vieille tasse arabe. The poem is full of sensuous pseudo-oriental imagery, to which the music fully responds, Damascus and cities of Persia, minarets reaching up in the air, silk turbans on black faces, merchants, cadis and viziers, the executioner with his curved scimitar, people dying of love and of hate, all in a symbolist never-neverland. The second song, La Flûte enchantée, was dedicated to the society hostess Mme Rene de Saint-Marceaux, at whose salon Colette had first met Ravel. Here the singer, while her white-bearded master sleeps, hears her lover’s flute with music of sadness and of joy, each note like a mysterious kiss on her cheek, as she stands by the casement. L’Indifférent was dedicated to Emma Bardac, at the time still married to the banker Sigismond Bardac and later to marry Debussy. The singer sees a handsome young man, his lips, at her doorstep, singing a strange and charming language; she bids him enter but he walks languidly away, with a graceful gesture, his departure reflected in the brief, dying postlude.

Keith Anderson

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