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9.70873 - RAVEL, M.: Miroirs / Gaspard de la nuit / La valse (Biret)

Maurice Ravel (1875–1937)
Miroirs • Gaspard de la nuit • La valse


Born in 1875 in the small coastal village of Ciboure in the Basque region of France, Maurice Ravel spent his childhood and adolescence principally in Paris, starting piano lessons at the age of seven and from the age of fourteen studying the piano in the preparatory piano class of the Conservatoire. 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 and to the body of French song, and with commissions for ballets. During the war he enlisted in 1915 as a driver 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.

Miroirs was written in 1904 and 1905 and each of the five pieces that make up the work was dedicated to one of the Apaches, the name chosen by Ravel and his circle of friends that marked their unconventional attitude to established artistic traditions. Noctuelles (Night Moths), dedicated to the poet Léon-Paul Fargue, is harmonically daring in its depiction of the moths of the title. Oiseaux tristes (Sad Birds), which follows, is dedicated to the pianist Ricardo Viñes and draws its inspiration from the bird-calls with which it opens. Une barque sur l’océan (A Boat on the Ocean), dedicated to the painter Paul Sordes, makes formidable technical demands, with its wide-spread arpeggios, through which the melodic line is always to be heard. This is followed by Alborada del gracioso (The Jester’s Aubade), dedicated to the Greek-born writer and critic M.D. Calvocoressi, a brilliant evocation of Spain. Miroirs ends with La vallée des cloches (The Valley of the Bells), for Maurice Delage, one of Ravel’s few pupils and four years his junior. In this last piece Ravel claimed the inspiration of the many church bells to be heard at noon in Paris. Here the bells are heard, at first tolling in the distance, in a piece of subtly suggestive beauty.

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 first quoted from Charles Brugnot’s Les deux génies:

…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 came a murmur
As of songs interrupted by a sad, tender voice.)

Ondine is the mermaid, in love with a mortal, who is heard in the drops of water against the window-panes and lit by the light of the moon. Each wave is a 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 that 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. The piece is dedicated to the pianist Harold Bauer. A quotation from Goethe’s Faust precedes Le gibet (The Gallows):

Que vois-je remuer autour de ce

(What do I see stir around this

Bertrand’s prose-poem amplifies the question. 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 the hanged man that glows red in the setting sun. The bell is heard tolling as the music begins, revealing a haunted landscape. Ravel dedicated the piece to his friend and champion, the critic Jean Marnold.

Bertrand’s poem Scarbo is preceded by lines from the translated Contes nocturnes (Night Tales) of E.T.A. Hoffmann, known to his 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 caché.

(He looked under the bed, in the fireplace,
in the chest; - no-one. He could not
understand how he had come in,
how he had hidden himself.)

Bertrand goes on to speculate about 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 grows 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. The piece is dedicated to the Swiss-American pianist Rudolph Ganz, who had done much to promote the music of Debussy and of Ravel.

Ravel wrote three versions of his choreographic poem La valse, one for orchestra, one for two pianos and one for solo piano. It was completed in 1920 but the idea of an ‘apotheosis of the Viennese waltz’ had long been with him. The two-piano version was played through to Diaghilev, who rejected it as a ballet, a decision that marked the end of Ravel’s relationship with the Russian impresario. In some senses La valse celebrates a vanished era, in a way that, as elsewhere in Ravel’s work, has echoes of Edgar Allan Poe. 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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