THE COMPLETE PIANO WORKS OF MAURICE RAVEL Vol One
Be it genuine or contrived, one of the central issues of "Impressionist" music has always been to define the relationship between Debussy and Ravel, and of who owes what to whom. The common understanding of Ravel "having received the torch from Debussy" actually proves to be quite incorrect. In fact, although the two had initially cultivated a reasonably warm relationship, it started to suffer after Debussy published in 1903 his Estampes, in which the second piece, La soirée dans Grenade, bears a marked similarity with Ravel's Habanera from Sites auriculaires, for four-hands piano, the manuscript of which Ravel had lent to Debussy in 1898.
Although Ravel eventually tried to assert his independence and avoid constant comparisons by declaring himself "anti-Debussyan", his own feelings must have been somewhat ambivalent: not only did he attribute to Debussy at the same time a "great creative influence in modern French music" but in 1928, already from a certain historical distance, in his lecture on the contemporary music delivered at the Rice University in Texas, he also remarked: "It has been claimed with some insistence that the earlier appearance of my Jeux d'eau possibly influenced Debussy in the writing of his Jardins sous la pluie, while a coincidence, even more striking, has been suggested in the case of my Habanera; but comments of this sort I must leave to others". This was not just a case of highly polished manners that were characteristic of Ravel's public behaviour and befitted his image of a dandy: Ravel appreciated Debussy's music to the point of arranging the symphonic poem L'après-midi d'un faune for piano four-hands in 1910, indicating that he would like the piece played at his funeral "because it is the only score ever written that is absolutely perfect" and adding later: "It was upon hearing this work, so many years ago, that I first understood what real music was".
Coming from a self-professed perfectionist who was on the quest for l'objet juste, an objective representation transmitted without intimate involvement and often perceived by the listener as "cool" and "impersonal", and whom Stravinsky dubbed "the Swiss watchmaker", this comment speaks volumes. Indeed, although posterity has shown appreciation for Ravel's immaculate writing (the American composer Elliott Carter commented: "Combined with an extraordinary sense of style and infallible ear was a refinement of taste and a unique inspiration that made [the] very work he wrote right and final in its own category") contemporary comments often showed a different appreciation: "To hear a whole programme of Ravel's works is like watching some midget or pygmy doing clever, but very small, things within a limited scope... [with] the almost reptilian cold-bloodedness, which one suspects of having been consciously cultivated" (The Times, April 1924).
Be that as it may, in 1906 Ravel wrote to critic Pierre Lalo, affirming that with Jeux d'eau he could claim priority in a "special type of writing for the piano" customarily ascribed to Debussy, and that in effect the work had an initiating role in 20th-century piano music. "Jeux d'eau marks the beginning of all the pianistic innovations which have been noted in my works. This piece, inspired by the sound of water and the musical sounds made by fountains, cascades, and streams, is based on two themes, like the first movement of a sonata, without however submitting to the classical tonal scheme".
The inscription on the score "River god laughing at the water that tickles him" indicates the source of Ravel's more immediate inspiration for Jeux d'eau and is taken from the poem Fête d'eau by Henri de Régnier, who indicated on the manuscript that it was in its turn inspired by the Bassin de Latone, the one fountain in working order at Versailles at the time. Furthermore, Liszt's Les jeux d'eau à la Villa d'Este can certainly not be ignored as an important musical and textural precursor.
Ravel first presented the piece to his fellow "Apaches", a group of similar-minded friends and artists whose members included the poets Tristan Klingsor and Léon-Paul Fargue, Abbé Léonce Petit, critic Emile Vuillermoz, and composers André Caplet, Maurice Delage, Manuel de Falla and Florent Schmitt. The group's nickname was coined by the pianist Ricardo Viñes, Ravel's friend and, from 1889, colleague in de Bériot's piano class in the Conservatory. A witness commented that they were showered with "a whole panoply of subtleties and vibrations which none of us could previously have imagined".
Léon-Paul Fargue recorded an anecdotal event in which, while in Vienna, Ravel went to buy a wallet. The salesgirl asked if he was indeed the composer of Jeux d'eau, which she loved playing, and upon his acknowledgment, she offered him the wallet with her thanks and profound admiration. Ravel commented that Vienna was the only city where a salesgirl would be playing a piece like Jeux d'eau and would make such a gracious gesture.
GASPARD DE LA NUIT
Aloysius Bertrand wrote his Histoires vermouleux et poudreuses du Moyen Age around 1830 but the collection was only published posthumously in 1842. Ravel was introduced to the work during his student days by Viñes, who lent him the 1895 edition of Betrand's work that Ravel kept for fifteen months. Fascinated by it, in 1908 Ravel composed Gaspard de la nuit, a set of "three romantic poems of transcendental virtuosity", as he called it. Although the cycle was dedicated to Rudolf Ganz, Swiss-born pianist, it was published and premiered by Viñes in 1909. Ravel would later advise pianists to read the whole collection by Bertrand before playing the work. All three pieces loosely follow a disguised and concealed sonata form, which is somewhat more elaborate and explicit in the last piece. Ravel commented to Vlado Perlemuter: "I wanted to produce a caricature of romanticism", adding under his breath "Maybe I got carried away". Indeed, apart from being one of the most demanding works in the piano literature, the cycle made such innovative demands on technique and coordination that at a performance by Robert Casadesus in the twenties musicians were still so incredulous about its density and complexity as to query "How can one be sure all the right notes are being played in Scarbo?"
Ondine continues the tradition of "water pieces" traced, among others, by Liszt and Debussy. Its final section parallels quite closely the developments in the text that describes a Lorelei-like water-nymph who seduces mortals. Le Gibet has no direct antecedent in Ravel's output, but its macabre and desolate atmosphere instantly makes one think of Edgar Allan Poe. "It is the bell which tolls from the walls of a city beyond the horizon, and the corpse of a hanged man reddened by the setting sun." A piano roll recording of this piece, supposedly by Ravel, was actually made by Robert Casadesus under Ravel's supervision, and what stands out most in it is the insistence of the tolling bell.
Ravel's musical description of the malevolent gnome Scarbo was also motivated by the wish "to write something more difficult than Islamey", an oriental fantasy for piano by Balakirev that represents an important marker in the final stages of the development of the Romantic piano technique. Ravel indicated that Scarbo's first theme, developed from the opening motive, was illustrative of the words "quelle horreur". In his review of the cycle's premiere in 1909 by Ricardo Viñes, Louis Laloy remarked upon the smile beneath Viñes' moustache in this movement - perhaps reflecting either the bemusement at the composer's success of transmitting the dwarf's malicious humour or the bemusement at the composer's success in writing a maliciously difficult piece.
Composed about 1893, Sérénade grotesque was originally entitled just Sérénade in the autograph. Ravel admitted the influence of Chabrier's Bourée fantasque, written two years earlier, returning himself to the spirit later and in a more suggestive manner in Scarbo. There is also an association with Alborada del gracioso (Miroirs), where the Spanish idiom is likewise suggested by guitar-like strumming in the opening measures, marked pizzicatissimo.
Written in 1904-05, the cycle Miroirs was premiered in 1906 in Salle Erard by Ricardo Viñes, as one of the "Apaches" who eventually became dedicatees of all five pieces. Most of the pieces are characterised by a hitherto unparalleled formal freedom that may have been a result of a comment made by Debussy to Ricardo Viñes regarding Debussy's D'un cahier d'esquisses (1903), composed with the intention of keeping a sense of improvisation. Viñes transmitted the idea to the group, and Ravel apparently showed great enthusiasm for it, commenting later: "Miroirs marked a change in my harmonic development which was great enough to disconcert even those most accustomed to my style up to that point". He ascribed particular constructive significance to this cycle, in its use of Symbolist correspondences, as suggested in Shakepeare's Julius Caesar: "The eye sees not itself / But by reflection, by some other things."
According to Léon-Paul Fargue, dedicatee of the piece, Noctuelles are night moths "which take clumsy flight from barn to barn to tie themselves to other beams".
Concerning Oiseaux tristes, Ravel wrote: "The earliest of these pieces - and, it seems to me, the most characteristic - is Oiseaux tristes' . . . In this work, I evoke birds lost in the torpor of a very sombre forest, during the hottest hours of summertime". This piece was dedicated to Viñes, who considered it "a Japanese print", whereas Ravel commented that it was fun to dedicate to a pianist a piece that was not in the least "pianistic".
Une barque sur l'océan is the only piece in the set without an original metronome mark. Ravel's orchestration of it was performed once in 1907 and then withdrawn by the composer, to be published only posthumously. Gaston Carraud criticised it in La liberté as "a confusing kaleidoscope". The fluid and sweeping arpeggios depicting the waves merited the remark comme une harpe by the composer in Vlado Perlemuter's score, although in the orchestrated version Ravel has used celesta.
Alborada del gracioso is a combination of a seguidilla and a serenade by a jester in the middle section. Ravel affirmed that the structure of the piece is "as strict as that of a Bach fugue". It was orchestrated - more successfully than its predecessor - by the composer thirteen years later and performed in 1919. The orchestration was commissioned by Serge Dyagilev for a composite ballet that also included Ravel's transcription of Chabrier's Menuet pompeux, premiered in London in 1920. The spirit of this work continues in Ravel's opera L'Heure espagnole (1909).
Ravel had experimented with the aural landscape of La Vallée des cloches a decade earlier in his 1897 work for two pianos Entre cloches, part of Sites auriculaires. Commenting to Robert Casadesus that the counterpoint of bells was "inspired by Parisian church bells tolling at noon" Ravel continued to be inspired by the bells in several other pieces (La cloche engloutie, L'heure espagnole, Gaspard de la nuit).
The cycle found its place quickly in the international concert repertoire: Benjamin Britten, for example, studied the cycle as a seventeen-year old during his summer holidays of 1930.
It took Ravel fourteen years to formulate and crystallise the essence of La Valse. The piece, which begun as the "symphonic poem" Wien and ended as a "choreographic poem" demonstrates the quality of Ravel's musical instinct, as it had been written before his visit to Vienna just as the Blues of the violin sonata had been written before his U.S. tour. Meant to represent an "apotheosis of the Viennese waltz", it follows the customary form of a series of enchained waltzes that can be divided into two sections, the second of which is a free recapitulation. The work was composed in 1919-20, and was premiered in the same year by the Lamoureux Orchestra. Its first ballet presentation, by Ida Rubinstein's troupe, took place at the Paris Opéra in 1929. Both the piano solo version and the version for two pianos appeared in print in 1920, before the orchestral version of 1921. The two-piano version was the first to be performed, two months before the orchestral one, in October 1920, and that performance indeed took place in Vienna, at Arnold Schönberg's Society for Private Musical Performances, with Alfredo Casella and Ravel at the pianos.
Remarkably, when Ravel played the piece for Diaghilev in Paris in April 1920, in Stravinsky's company, Diaghilev's only comment was to pronounce it "a portrait of a ballet, a painting of a ballet" while Stravinsky, obviously seeking to remain neutral, remained silent. This episode marked an end of Ravel's relationship with both of these artists - effective, in Diaghilev's case and virtual, in Stravinski's. In another backhanded compliment, Darius Milhaud characterised the work in his review as "Saint-Saëns for the Russian ballet". Here is how Ravel, who authored the argument for the ballet, described the setting in the score: "Clouds whirl about. Occasionally they part to allow a glimpse of waltzing couples. As they gradually evaporate one can discern a gigantic hall, filled by a crowd of dancers in motion. The stage gradually brightens. The glow of the chandeliers breaks out fortissimo.
An Imperial Court about 1855". © 2006 Robert Andres
Recorded at Teatro São Luiz (Sao Luiz Municipal Theatre), Lisbon, Portugal on 27th-29th September 2006
Produced and engineered by Julia Thomas
Post-Production at Finesplice, UK
Photos of Artur Pizarro by Sven Arnstein