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NBD0030 - RAVEL, M.: Orchestral Works, Vol. 1 - Alborada del gracioso / Rapsodie espagnole (Lyon National Orchestra, Slatkin) (Blu-ray Audio)
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 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.
Ravel completed his group of piano pieces, Miroirs, in 1905, dedicating each to one of the Apaches, the name adopted by Ravel and his circle of friends that marked their unconventional attitude to established artistic traditions. The fourth piece, Alborada del gracioso (The Clown’s Aubade), dedicated to Michel-Dimitri Calvocoressi, a critic and music writer of Greek parentage, born and raised in France, brings a brilliant vision of Spain. The title, which defies accurate translation, refers to the stock character of Spanish theatre, the gracioso, a servant or squire who often comments satirically on the actions of his superiors. In 1918 Ravel orchestrated the piece for Dyagilev, who used it in his Spanish ballet Les jardins d’Aranjuez, with music that included Fauré’s Pavane and Ravel’s orchestration of Chabrier’s Menuet pompeux. The ballet, seen in San Sebastian and in the 1919 Ballets russes season in London, had choreography by Léonide Massine and a scenario based on the painting Las meninas, the original title of the ballet, by Velázquez. Décor and costumes were by José-Maria Sert. The very successful orchestration transforms the original piano piece, with a lively and characteristic use of percussion instruments in the dance and darker suggestions in the central bassoon recitative.
Ravel’s Pavane pour une infante défunte was also originally for piano and written in 1899. Its title, chosen, it seems, after the piece had been completed, couples a nominal Spanish element with a nostalgia for the past very typical of the turn of the century. Ravel dedicated it to the Princesse de Polignac (Winnaretta Singer) and arranged it for a relatively small orchestra in 1910.
The Rapsodie espagnole was completed in 1908, after a two-piano version of the work the previous October. It consists of four movements, the evocative Prélude à la nuit, Malagueña, Habanera, and Feria. The Habenera had originally been written in 1895 as a work for two pianos. With Entre cloches, written two years later, it formed the Sites auriculaires, first imperfectly performed in 1898 by Ricardo Viñes and Marthe Dron on a newly devised instrument, a piano with two keyboards, at a Société nationale de musique concert, to conservative disapproval. Debussy showed interest and borrowed the score of Habanera and it has been widely supposed that the piece gave rise to Debussy’s own Soirée dans Grenade a few years later. Rapsodie espagnole was Ravel’s first major orchestral work, a demonstration of his originality and of his gifts as an orchestrator. The music moves from the stillness of night, with its four-note descending motif, to be heard again in the second and fourth movement, to two characteristic Spanish dances and a final celebratory Spanish fiesta.
Ravel’s interest in Spain and its music, reflected in his Rapsodie espagnole and in the opera L’heure espagnole, on which he was engaged in these years, was shown in March 1907 in his Vocalise-étude en forme de habanera, a contribution to the Conservatoire voice teacher AL Hettich’s ten-volume collection of modern vocalises, to which many contemporary composers had contributed. The original Vocalise has been adapted for the use of various instruments, here the violin.
As early as 1895 Ravel had been contemplating the composition of an opera. This was to be Shéhérazade, based presumably on The Arabian Nights, familiar since the eighteenth century in the translated version of Antoine Galland. Eventually the project was abandoned, but Ravel completed an Ouverture de féerie in 1898 in a version for piano duet, which he orchestrated the following year for a performance at the Société nationale de musique, the work included at the insistence of Fauré, in spite of the reluctance of Chausson, the secretary of the Société. The Overture is a colourful patchwork, evidence of the early skill of Ravel as an orchestrator and of his inventive command of instrumental resources. Melodically the work evokes the Persian origins of the literary source and the oriental preoccupations of the period. The Overture was not well received by critics on the occasion of its first performance.
The piano Menuet antique was written in 1895 and first performed in 1898 by Ravel’s friend Ricardo Viñes. Ravel orchestrated the piece in 1929 and it was given its first performance the following year with the Orchestre Lamoureux. The Menuet antique reflects another contemporary fascination, an interest in an earlier period of French history and culture, the world of Watteau. The musical language that Ravel uses in his approach to the old dance form, with its contrasting Trio, is very much his own.
Boléro, which Ravel himself described as an orchestrated crescendo, was written in 1928, commissioned by Ida Rubinstein for her ballet company. Décor and costumes were by Alexandre Benois and choreography by Bronislava Nijinska, and it was danced by Ida Rubinstein, with Anatole Vitzak. In a Spanish tavern a dancer starts tentatively, trying out her steps on a large table, and as she gathers confidence the drinkers from the surrounding tables gather round her, joining her in their growing enthusiasm. The music relies on a single theme, with two parts, and the constant rhythm of the snare drum, over which instrument after instrument enters as the texture thickens and the volume increases. Ravel had a very clear idea of the tempo at which Boléro should be performed, making this clear to Toscanini, who had claimed to ‘save the work’ by taking it at a faster pace. Boléro won immediate popularity, which it has retained, and has provided a basis for various choreographers and dancers, from Lifar to Béjart.
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