MIROIRS – SOME REFLECTIONS
“Nothing is more hateful than music without hidden meaning.”
(Rien de plus haïssable qu’une musique sans arrière-pensée.)
Thus Maurice Ravel quotes his great adopted countryman and predecessor, Frederic Chopin, at the head of a 1910 essay meditating on Chopin’s greatness. Ostensibly about Chopin’s imbuing workaday genres – polonaise, mazurka, waltz – with this hidden meaning, taken apart the essay reveals a hidden meaning of its own, a succinct and maybe thinly-veiled description of Ravel’s own art.
How could this sentence, about Chopin’s musicianship as a state of being not profession, be written without self-awareness: “[performers] must be sensitive to rhythm, melody, harmony, to the atmosphere which sounds create, to be thrilled with the linking together of two chords, as with the harmony of two colors.”
Or this, commenting on Chopin’s psychological layering of grand polonaises and marches: “Often he introduces into these dances a dolorous, poignant element, until then unknown… this tragic sentiment reaches the sublime.” Over all of Ravel’s extraordinary virtuosity, a melancholy too hangs, a sublime and dignified sense of the tragic.
Here Ravel confirms, via Chopin, his belonging in the Impressionist set: “It is a property of all true music to evoke, incidentally, feelings, landscapes, characters.”
And how did Ravel come up with his own sparkling pianism, with brilliant cadenzas, huge waves of sound appearing from and disappearing into nowhere, imitations of guitar arabesques, embroideries of bells? He “was not content merely to revolutionize piano technique. His figures are inspired. Through his brilliant passages one perceives profound, enchanting harmonies. Always there is the hidden meaning which is translated into poetry of intense despair.”
Finally, if all that is not clear enough as Ravel’s own art reflected in his vision of Chopin, take at last this almost modern-sounding sentence: “Hints to the artist of genius: write pieces after the manner of Chopin.”
Miroirs, though, are definitely pieces after the manner of Ravel. Even if we see traces of Chopin’s art – the atmosphere, the unexpected harmonies, the dolorous interludes, the landscapes of sound, the enchanting harmonies hidden in fleeting passage-work – they are, s in the essay, filtered thoroughly through Ravel. Years later, he wrote that Miroirs was inspired by a quotation from Shakespeare: “The eye sees itself not, but by reflection, by some other things.”
Just as he trained his eye on Chopin and saw himself reflected there, the expression of this music comes from an incredible empathy with things observed. The fluterring of night moths, a flock of disturbed birds, various waves of the ocean, Spanish guitar, and a landscape of bells are uncannily evoked. He saw these things and saw himself, melding them completely with his art. Movement and sound are united in imagination, constructed as if under a magnifying glass, and given a luxurious veneer.
In these ways, these five pieces really have to be called Impressionist. Both Debussy and Ravel resisted the term, probably because it was based on a misconception. Paul Roberts, a terrific writer on Debussy and Ravel, pointed out that Impressionism in painting is associated with a certain obscurity – water lilies blurred almost to abstract colors, for instance – whereas in music it meant the representation, in sound, of specific things or movements. The representational nature of this music is the genesis of it.
When Ravel composed Miroirs, in 1903, Impressionism in painting was already decades old. It was nascent in music in the previous ten years or so due mainly to Debussy’s orchestral works. The piano style Ravel employed (invented) was his own. Although Debussy was composing Estampes simultaneously, the rest of his major solo works were all waiting to be born. The two composers shared certain aesthetics though, such as an aversion to Wagnerian drama and appreciation of the old French clavecinists, and a strong nationalist tendency to ensure a French art thrived.
At this time, Ravel belonged to an informal social group of artists who called themselves Apaches, or Hooligans, and they had a distinct sense of French art. Each of the five movements of Miroirs is dedicated to a member of this group. Perhaps they were not unlike Schubert and his bohemian group of poets and singers, another group of mutually influential artists. A certain hermetic quality might also be shared – while Beethoven’s nephew wrote in the conversation books that Schubert “hides himself,” Ravel crafted an impeccable public persona of an emotionally inflappable aesthete. He lived through fancy clothes and a love of archaic, even monastic language the life of a true dandy, in Baudelaire’s definition someone who seeks to be “sublime without interruption.”
Another major figure in the Apahces shared this public reticence, the poet Léon-Paul Fargue. He is remembered among those in the know as a true Bohemian, unaccustomed to daily labors but a poet on the level of Mallarmé who nevertheless avoided being published. He hid himself. A line from his poetry read aloud at one of the Apache meetings earned him the dedication of the first piece in Miroirs: “In the shed, the night moths take off, in awkward flight, and circle around other beams.” (Les noctuelles des hangars partent, d’un vol gauche, cravater des autres pouters.)
Noctuelles is a most unusual piece, and partly for its title. The word is apparently a very niche description of moths in French, not at all a commonplace, and reflects Ravel’s taste for the obscure. The piece itself is equally obscure, never settling into regular patterns, as elusive as the moths themselves. Silence punctuates almost every phrase, and Ravel layers simple rhythmic formulas in very complex ways, the unpredictable flight paths of moths.
Oiseaux tristes, Sad Birds, was the first of the set to be composed and it apparently baffled the first listeners, the Apaches. Later Ravel described it as “birds lost in the torpor of a very dark forest during the hottest hours of summer.” Birds in music had mostly been depicted as chatty, upbeat warblers, with the exceptions of Schubert’s crow or Liszt’s nightingale in the Mephisto Waltz, but these birds live in a bleak and humid atmosphere. The music is so brooding as to seem completely free of form, a total immersion into a Rousseau-like surreal forest. Two passages in particular capture my attention, the first where a sudden shriek or caw causes a ruffling disturbance, and all the birds lift off in cacophony:
MAURICE RAVEL (1875-1937)
Hyperion Records CDA 67341/2
The complete solo piano works of Maurice Ravel are presented here on two discs, reminding us that Angela Hewitt plays more than just Bach!
“a magnificent survey … a treasure trove!” (Gramophone)
“second to none”
(The Penguin Guide to Compact Discs)
Compact Disc 1 – (68’09)
1. Menuet antique (6’29)
2. Pavane pour une infante défunte (7’04)
3. Modéré (4’39)
4. Mouvement de menuet (3’13)
5. Animé (4’02)
Valses nobles et sentimentales
6. Modéré – très franc (1’19)
7. Assez lent (2’42)
8. Modéré (1’17)
9. Assez animé (1’14)
10. Presque lent (1’26)
11. Vif (0’39)
12. Moins vif (3’06)
13. Epilogue: Lent (5’17)
Le Tombeau de Couperin
14. Prélude (3’07)
15. Fugue (3’27)
16. Forlane (5’44)
17. Rigaudon (3’15)
18. Menuet (6’01)
19. Toccata (4’08)
Compact Disc 2 – (70’02)
1. Sérénade grotesque (3’53)
2. Jeux d’eau (5’42)
Gaspard de la nuit
3. Ondine (6’41)
4. Le Gibet (7’23)
5. Scarbo (9’24)
6. Menuet sur le nom d’Haydn (2’00)
7. Prélude (1’25)
8. A la manière de Borodine (1’37)
9. A la manière de Chabrier (2’13)
10. Noctuelles (5’00)
11. Oiseaux tristes (4’21)
12. Une barque sur l’océan (7’30)
13. Alborada del gracioso (6’44)
14. La vallée des cloches (6’10)
This is a reminder that Angela Hewitt doesn’t only play – or record – the music of Bach, as she has already shown us with her disc of Messiaen. Here, in this 2CD-set, she gives us the complete solo piano music of Ravel, including the early ‘Sérénade grotesque’. Miss Hewitt’s elegant and poised playing, along with her feeling for the dance, serve her especially well in the piano music of this fastidious French master.
Recorded in tje Reitstadel, Neumarkt, Germany, on 20-23 March 2000 and Henry Wood Hall, London, on 11-14 August 2001
For online sales in Canada, please go to: http://angelahewitt.ca
Maurice Ravel was born on 7 March 1875, in Ciboure, a small port at the foot of the Pyrenées in the heart of Basque country. His father was a famous engineer, and it was he who first operated a gas-powered automobile. It is always said that he was Swiss – which is true, he was born there – but his parents were Savoyards, which implies a link with Sardinia. His mother was one hundred per cent Basque and had lived in Spain for many years. Maurice, as a baby, was lulled to sleep to the sound of Iberian folksongs, and indeed Spain became one of his principal sources of inspiration later on.
Soon after his birth, his parents moved to Paris where Maurice began his piano lessons at the age of seven. In 1889 he entered the Paris Conservatoire, receiving his Première Médaille in piano in 1891. It was soon apparent, however, that he was more gifted at composition. His teacher, Gabriel Fauré, recognised Ravel’s exceptional talent, never ceasing to support and encourage him.
The desire of every composition student at the Paris Conservatoire was to win the Prix de Rome. Ravel entered this competition five times, only once winning a third place. After his last try in 1905, when he wasn’t even admitted to the final stage, he was barred from entering any future competition. This created a huge scandal, and the Director of the Conservatoire, Théodore Dubois, was forced to resign. (His place was taken by Gabriel Fauré.) By this time Ravel had already composed such well-known works as the Pavane, Jeux d’eau, and his beautiful String Quartet, and the whole affair probably only served to enhance his growing reputation.
At the outbreak of World War I, Ravel tried many times to enlist in the army but was refused because of his short stature (he was only 5’4”). He persisted, however, and was eventually accepted for a year as a truck-driver. In 1921 he acquired a house in Montfort l’Amaury, fifty kilometres west of Paris, where he welcomed his friends and colleagues to make music and, especially, to have a good meal. The house remains intact and gives a fascinating look into this perplexing character.
After the war, Ravel toured extensively in Europe as both conductor and interpreter of his own works. In 1928 he crossed the Atlantic and had huge successes in the United States and Canada. It was during this tour that he met George Gershwin, who asked Ravel to give him some lessons. Ravel refused, saying, “You might lose your spontaneity and, instead of composing first-rate Gershwin, end up with second-rate Ravel!”.
In 1933, after an accident in a taxi, he first showed signs of an illness that, four years later, would bring about his death. We now know that he suffered from aphasia, a rare brain disease that caused him to lose co-ordination of his movements, while retaining his sanity. This meant that although he still heard and felt music inside him, he was unable to write it down. There is a very touching story of him attending a performance of his Daphnis et Chloë, after which he cried and murmured, “But I still have so much more music in my head!”. In December 1937 he underwent an operation to remove a brain tumour which at first was thought successful, but, three days after Christmas, he died.
What kind of person was Maurice Ravel? In appearance he was always dressed in the latest fashions, and couldn’t go anywhere without his black patent leather shoes which, according to the pianist Marguerite Long, he was always forgetting at home when he left on tour – causing innumerable delays. He also couldn’t be separated from his favourite brand of cigarettes, and almost cancelled his American tour for fear of not finding them there. All of his close friends treasured the time he spent with them, but he seems never to have had any intimate relationships. His only love affair was with music. He knew how impossible he would be to live with, and preferred the solitude which enabled him to compose so many great works. He reportedly said to his close friend, the composer and conductor Manuel Rosenthal, “You see, an artist has to be very careful when he wants to marry someone, because an artist never realizes his capacity for making his companion miserable. He’s obsessed by his creative work and by the problems it poses. He lives a bit like a daydreamer and it’s no joke for the woman he lives with. One always has to think of that when one wants to get married”. He loved children, however, and was never happier than when he could be a part of their imaginative world. In his house in Montfort one can see all the objects he collected, including one of his treasures – a bird in a cage which, when wound up, began to sing. When he received it as a present, he put it to his ear and said, “I can hear its heart beat”. Fairytales inspired him (we immediately think of the Mother Goose Suite), especially the scary ones, and he was a great admirer of Edgar Allen Poe. He was also very fond of animals and had a family of Siamese cats who ruled the house at Montfort. The violinist Hélène Jourdan-Morhange attested to how they used to prowl over pages of manuscript, leaving traces of muddy footprints. Nature, too, was a source of inspiration and consolation in his solitude. He went for endless walks – many of them in the middle of the night, as he was an insomniac, and slept during the day. The shutters in his bedroom in Montfort have holes in the shapes of stars so that he could imagine them shining when it was daylight outside.
One of the most puzzling things about Ravel is that he carefully concealed his emotions behind a rather cold exterior. He was very secretive, and hated any sort of vulgarity (“One doesn’t need to open one’s chest to show that one has heart.”). As a result of this behaviour he was often accused of being insensitive, cold, and too cerebral – an opinion which is sometimes still voiced today; but how could an ‘insensitive’ person possibly write music such as his that is full of sensuality, tenderness, and voluptuousness? Ravel said of himself: “You know the somewhat ridiculous side of my character: my sensitivity. I am of the same type as the Romantics”. Of his music he said: “There are two kinds of music: cerebral music, such as that of Vincent d’Indy, and intuitive, emotional music – my own. Great music must come from the heart. Any music created by technique and brains alone is not worth the paper it is written on”. Stravinsky said Ravel was ‘only a Swiss clockmaker’, alluding to his Swiss ancestry and his perfect craftsmanship. Ravel was indeed a perfectionist and admitted that the gift of botching had been denied him – but his music is never cold.
Ravel himself was not a very good pianist and knew it. His friends used to argue over which he was worse at: playing the piano or conducting. He was to have given the premiere of his G major piano concerto, but opted out at the last minute. Despite this lack of virtuosity, he left us with some of the most ‘pianistic’ music ever written, and certainly some of the most difficult! The transparency and perfect craftsmanship of his piano music demands an infallible technique – and by that I don’t just mean playing fast and loud. You need a highly developed sense of colour and rhythm, and an incredible amount of poetry and imagination. It is as though you first need to be an expert at Mozart and Liszt before attempting Ravel. As in Mozart you need a precise, alert, but beautifully shaded touch – combined with the fluidity, stamina and brilliance needed to play Liszt. Ravel delighted in certain technical challenges – especially repeated notes, glissandi, left-hand arpeggios covering almost the whole keyboard, hands in an overlapped position, very large stretches, and irregular double-note passages.
There has been a lot of discussion over the remark that Ravel once made: “I don’t ask for my music to be interpreted – just to be played”. A lot of people take that literally and consider it the one big clue to playing his music (as they do with Stravinsky who said more or less the same thing). I think it must have been nothing more than a quip – Ravel’s biting sarcasm was well-known. It is also a trait of the perfect dandy to show detachment from his art, and this Ravel certainly did. The great French pianist Alfred Cortot reminds us of Goethe’s saying that ‘a work of art that leaves nothing to the imagination is not a true and complete work of art’. Surely Ravel’s music is art of the highest order.
The Menuet antique, written in 1895, was Ravel’s first composition to be published. It was dedicated to the pianist Ricardo Viñes, his closest friend in his student days, who later gave the premiere of many of Ravel’s works. The first of four minuets which he was to write for the piano, it shows the fusion of three major sources of inspiration: the dance, which is so prevalent in Ravel’s music; a return to classical forms; and the influence of Emmanuel Chabrier. As part of his collection of piano pieces entitled Dix Pièces pittoresques (1881), Chabrier composed a Menuet pompeux which Ravel orchestrated in 1918. He admired him more than any other composer of his time, and held him in the same esteem as the painter Manet.
This is not Ravel at his best, and many passages are rather awkward, but there are certainly glimpses of what is to come. Marked ‘majestueusement’, its limping rhythm, rather than being shied away from, should be emphasized. The influence of Chabrier is most noticeable in the touching trio where, towards the end, there is a clever superposition of the two themes (a device with recurs in the minuet of Le Tombeau de Couperin). Ravel must have been happy enough with his youthful efforts to orchestrate the work in 1929.
The Pavane pour une infante défunte (‘Pavane for a dead infanta’) is, along with Boléro, Ravel’s most popular work. Perhaps annoyed by its huge success and arrangement for every instrument under the sun, Ravel spoke rather unjustly about it, without, however, denying it any merit:
I have no qualms in speaking about this piece: the Pavane is far enough removed from the present to warrant my abandoning the role of composer for that of critic. In perspective, its qualities are no longer visible to me but, alas, its weaknesses stand out very clearly: the influence of Chabrier is too obvious and the form is quite uninteresting. (1912)
Written in 1899, it was not premiered until 1902 (by Ricardo Viñes), but had immediate success. His apparent distaste for the work did not stop him from orchestrating it in 1910, and it is in this version that we most often hear it. The form is simple but, I think, effective: a refrain appears three times with slight modifications in the accompaniment. In between we have two couplets, each repeated twice. The title was chosen by Ravel because of the similar-sounding words ‘infante’ and ‘défunte’.
In what is now a famous quote, Ravel gave this advice to a young pianist who was taking the Pavane too slow for his liking: “Remember that I wrote a pavane for a dead princess and not a dead pavane for a princess!”. For sure, a tempo that drags will make one lose the sense of line which is so important here (and it is not funeral music: the ‘dead’ refers to a princess of a long time ago rather than to one recently deceased). I had an interesting experience when recording this piece: I did so at both sessions, over a year apart, and one version was a full 45 seconds longer than the other. When it came time to choose between the two, and of course being fully conscious of Ravel’s directive, it nevertheless took me a long time to decide. In the end I opted for the slightly slower version which had more of a ‘special’ feel to it, and which, although slow,still easily carried the line. The metronomic indications in the various editions range from q = 54-80, so that isn’t much of a help. Ravel marked the piece, Assez doux, mais d’une sonorité large (‘Rather gentle, but with a full sound’).
Ravel loved challenges, and his Sonatine, like many of his other works, owes its existence to one. His friend, the critic M D Calvocoressi, mentioned to him in 1903 that a music magazine had announced a competition for the composition of a first movement of a sonatina, 75 bars in length. Ravel, delighted with the prospect, set himself to work. He was, however, disqualified for two reasons: first of all, he was the only candidate; secondly, his movement ended up being a few bars longer than the rules permitted. The entire work was not published until 1905. Ravel played it fairly frequently on his foreign tours as it was more or less within his technical grasp. The word ‘sonatine’ should not mislead us. The diminutive implies – as with Roussel later on – a composition reduced in length but not in technical difficulty or expressive content. It should by no means be played as a trivial work, limiting the nuances and the contrasts. After all, the indication ‘passionné’ appears at the climax of the first movement for the first and only time in Ravel’s piano music (excluding its brief appearance in the pastiche A la manière de Borodine).
It is also noted for its unity of form: the descending fourth which opens the piece reappears in the other two movements, as does the initial theme. Most students will stumble over the opening, which finds the hands in an awkward overlapping position, but which must sound easy and fluid. The second movement, marked ‘Mouvement de menuet’ should neither drag nor hurry. Ravel didn’t want it to sound commonplace. The third movement is brilliant yet lyrical, giving the opportunity to produce some magical sonorities.
The circumstances under which the Valses nobles et sentimentales were first performed are now legendary. In 1911, the Independent Society for Music came up with the idea of organizing a concert of new works without naming the composers so that the public would not be influenced by their prejudices. The works played were thus anonymous, and the public was invited to guess the composer. It was during this concert, amid an indescribable fracas, that the Valses nobles et sentimentales were premiered, played by Louis Aubert. Ravel, inscrutable as always, was surrounded by friends and admirers who, unawares, added their jeers to the boos of the audience. We can imagine what he must have felt, especially as this was his favourite among his piano works. The result of the ballot was not in his favour: the Waltzes were attributed to umpteen composers, Ravel being cited by only a small minority. And yet, if there is one work that bears the signature of its composer, it is this. Concerning it, he wrote:
The title indicates clearly enough my intention to compose a set of waltzes after the example of Schubert. After the virtuosity of Gaspard de la nuit comes this sparse, transparent writing in which the harmony is harsher, setting off to advantage the musical outlines.
The work is preceded by a line borrowed from the poet, Henri de Régnier: ‘ … le plaisir délicieux et toujours nouveau d’une occupation inutile.’ (‘ … the delightful and ever-fresh pleasure of a useless pastime’). A chain of seven waltzes is followed by an epilogue in which we hear echoes of the principal themes, finally evaporating into thin air. It is writing of the highest intelligence, subtlety and sophistication, but with an élan and sense of timing that is breathtaking. It is therefore not surprising that once again Ravel orchestrated the work, this time also adding the plot for a ballet. The latter is incredibly schmaltzy, not least of all its title, Adélaïde, ou le langage des fleurs. It is certainly easy to find more brilliant and accessible pages in the piano works of Ravel, but perhaps none which are more delightful to the trained ear.
Ravel’s last work for solo piano, Le Tombeau de Couperin, was published in 1917, twenty years before his death. Much of the suite, however, was sketched well before he enlisted in the army in 1915. It was conceived not so much as a homage to Couperin ‘as to the whole of eighteenth-century French music’. After the war, the Tombeau was to serve another purpose, each of the six pieces being dedicated to a friend who fell on the field of battle. The title page, drawn by Ravel himself, includes a funerary urn. His mother also died in 1917 – an event from which he never totally recovered. Cortot describes it justly when he says: ‘No glorious monument could honour the memory of the French better than do these luminous melodies, these rhythms which are at the same time distinct and flexible – a perfect expression of our culture and of our tradition’.
The suite begins with a Prélude, which is a delicate mouvement perpétuel, demanding great evenness of touch and tempo. The lyrical touches should stand out from the bubbling semiquavers. Then comes an enigmatic Fugue (the only one Ravel ever wrote outside of harmony class). It is very difficult to play well, observing the correct phrasing and articulation of the three voices. Ravel once remarked to Marguerite Long, who gave the first performance, that he didn’t know how she could play it from memory without going wrong! Of course after that she did go wrong, and left it out entirely from then on – something for which Ravel scolded her! It should be played simply but expressively. The ending always reminds me of a music-box winding down – remembering how Ravel liked all things mechanical.
The Forlane as a dance originated in Italy (frioule). It was a lively, somewhat impetuous dance which was banned by the Church for being too improper. It travelled, as many dances do, to both France and Germany. In Ravel’s day it was popular as a substitute for the tango – a dance which was then all the rage, but also banned by the Church. Ravel, who was strongly anticlerical, no doubt relished including this dance in his suite. His Forlane takes as its model the one contained in the fourth Concert royal of François Couperin. The dotted rhythm must never become lazy, although the piece is certainly full of charm and, at times, abandonment. The second theme is nonchalant, the third innocent, and the fourth almost martial. It contains some of Ravel’s spiciest harmonies.
The energetic Rigaudon has a very definite rustic flavour, interrupted in the middle by an innocent and naive trio. In the orchestral version (Ravel orchestrated the suite minus the Fugue and Toccata in 1919), the melody of the trio is played by the oboe, with the flute, clarinet, and cor anglais taking over at times to change the colour. Cortot is right to point out its resemblance to Chabrier’s Danse villageoise. Then comes the aristocratic Menuet, a very touching movement which seems to have the same feeling of regret as does the famous Pavane (both are in the key of G major). The musette which forms the middle section is to be played nobly and with the use of the soft pedal, except for the immense crescendo that suddenly appears, marking the emotional high point of the suite so far. The recapitulation sees the superposition of the two themes – just as we had in the Menuet antique. Ravel ends the piece with a chord containing a major seventh – something for which he had been eliminated from the Prix de Rome some twelve years before!
Nobody, except perhaps his cats and housekeeper, ever saw Ravel compose (orchestrating was different – that was allowed), and no manuscript paper was left hanging about. The composer, critic and musicologist Roland-Manuel tells us that all the time Ravel lived on the Avenue Carnot in Paris with his mother, the only score he ever saw out on the piano was that of Sixty Sonatas by Scarlatti. The latter’s fondness for repeated notes must have worn off on Ravel, as that became one of his favourite keyboard tricks (much to the dismay of many a pianist after him). The Toccata which brings Le tombeau de Couperin to its brilliant conclusion is a pièce de résistance which can easily be sabotaged by a piano with bad repetition. To bring it off successfully requires great stamina, and a willingness to hold back on power until the very end. Behind all the virtuoso acrobatics, however, lies something more tragic. It is not hard to imagine an army advancing and the relentless foot-stamping of soldiers. There is one melody in particular which is first heard as an entreaty, then as something suggesting terrible despair, and finally – at the end – promising triumph.
The Sérénade grotesque was Ravel’s first composition for the piano, written at the age of eighteen. It wasn’t published, however, until 1975, so is not included in many older recordings of his ‘complete’ works. Already in this early work, Ravel’s personal stamp is present. The rhythms and harmonies, as well as the guitar-like pizzicatissimo chords of the opening all foreshadow Alborada del gracioso. Its one strand of lyrical melody is marked ‘très sentimental’. Ravel’s first significant work for piano is his well-known Jeux d’eau (‘Fountains’) which appeared in 1901. He spoke of it as being ‘the foundation of all the pianistic innovations ascribed to my works in general’. It takes as its obvious models two works by Liszt (Jeux d’eaux à la Villa d’Este and Au bord d’une source), but is a masterpiece in its own right. Ravel, who was criticized during his lifetime for being an imitator of Debussy, made it clear that his Jeux d’eau was written two years before Debussy’s Jardins sous la pluie, and four years before Reflets dans l’eau. At the top of the score he quotes a line from Henri de Régnier’s poem Fête d’eau, in turn inspired by the fountains in the gardens of Versailles: ‘Dieu fluvial riant de l’eau qui le chatouille …’ (‘The river god laughing at the water that tickles him …’). Ravel evidently told the pianist Henriette Faure, after she had played it too slowly for his liking, that her fountains ‘were sad ones’ and that she obviously hadn’t read the epigraph. It requires a large hand (as do most of his works), and a well-developed and imaginative use of tone colour. The notes have to be there, but it’s the effect that counts. It shows both sides of Ravel’s writing: the classical form (it is vaguely in sonata form), and the impressionistic use of light and shade. It is dedicated to his teacher, Gabriel Fauré, who held it in high esteem. Ravel’s favourite composer was Mozart, whom he considered a god. One thing they had in common, besides elegance and grace, was the ability to work on widely disparate works simultaneously. At the same time (1908) that Ravel was composing his masterpiece of luminosity, Ma Mère l’Oye (Mother Goose), he was plunging himself into the gloominess of Gaspard de la nuit, the work that marks the summit of his output for solo piano. It was through his friend, the pianist Ricardo Viñes, that Ravel became acquainted with the poetry of Aloysius Bertrand (1807-1841). Although quite forgotten today, he had his admirers, among them Victor Hugo. In 1836 Bertrand published a book with the obscure title Gaspard de la nuit (the name with which he signed the book) and subtitled Fantaisies à la manière de Rembrandt et de Callot (the latter was a seventeenth-century engraver). In 1896 Viñes lent his copy to Ravel, getting it back, only after asking for it, more than a year later. It took Ravel another eleven years to commence his work based on three of these poems. In an autobiographical sketch, Ravel was reticent, to say the least, in his description of the work: ‘Gaspard de la nuit is a set of three romantic poems of transcendental difficulty’. He insisted that each of the poems be printed as a preface to the corresponding piece of music. So we begin with:
Hark! Hark! It is I, it is Ondine who, with drops of water, rustles the resonant diamonds of your window illuminated by the muted moonbeams; it is the lady of the manor, dressed in moiré, who from her balcony contemplates the starlit night and the slumbering lake.
Each ripple is a sprite which swims in the current; each current is a path which meanders about my palace; and my palace is of water at the bottom of the lake, built within the triangle of flame and earth and air.
Hark! Hark! My father beats at the groaning waves with the branch of a young alder; and my sisters, with their foamy limbs, caress the cool islets of herbs and waterlilies and gladioli, which shame the bearded, deciduous willow with its nets forever cast.
Through her murmured song she pleads with me to accept her ring for my finger, to become the husband of a water-nymph and with her visit the palace and become king of the lakes.
And, because I replied that I loved a mortal, she – vexed and sulking – shed a few tears, then burst into laughter … and vanished in a white spray which trickled down my blue window pane.
The way in which Ravel evokes the shimmering moonlight on the lake is a stroke of genius. The repeated chords that open in the right hand have a tongue-twister of a rhythm that is enough to put off many a player from going any farther. Yet it all has to sound so easy! We know from testimony left by his students that Ravel was more concerned with the effect rather than the individual notes – but it’s nice to have both! Ondine’s murmured song then makes its entry, tender and melancholy. There is a sense of gradual awakening which is typically Ravelian. The fortissimo passage which is the climax must correspond to the phrase, ‘And, because I replied that I loved a mortal’. You can then hear Ondine shedding a few tears in the right-hand solo before the last page. Then comes her burst of laughter and sudden disappearance. It is a poem as much in music as it is in words.
Le Gibet (The Gallows)
Ah – is what I hear the night wind whining or is it the man on the gallows, uttering a sigh through the forked gibbet?
Might it be some cricket singing, crouched in the moss and dead ivy which the forest wears on its feet, out of pity?
Perhaps some fly out hunting, sounding the clarion about those ears now deaf to the tally-ho?
Could it be a ladybug who, in the course of her irregular flight, picked up a bloodstained hair from that shaven head?
Or else could it be some spider weaving a half-length of muslin to knot about that strangled throat?
No – it is a bell tolling at the city walls, on the horizon, and the body of a hanged man, reddened by the setting sun.
This is an extraordinary ‘painting’ by Ravel. In 52 bars he manages to create an odour of death through sounds that are purposely void of expression. The tolling of the bell, symbolized by the static invariability of a B flat which is heard well over two hundred times at regular intervals, creates an atmosphere of almost unbearable tension, as much for the player as for the listener. The bell should remain ‘on the horizon’ and not be too present. Distinguishing it within the sometimes thick texture (as in the descending chordal passages where the hands are stretched to the limits) requires skill. Ravel asks for the soft pedal to be used throughout the piece.
Oh, how many times have I seen and heard Scarbo, when at midnight the moon shines in the sky like a silver shield on a blue banner dotted with golden honeybees!
How many times have I heard him buzzing with mirth in the shadows of my alcove, and running his nail along the silk coverlet of my bed!
How many times have I seen him leap to the floor, pirouette on one foot and cartwheel about the room like a spindle fallen from a witch’s spinning wheel!
Then, just when I thought him vanished, the imp grew longer between the moon and myself – like a church steeple, a golden bell shaking from his pointed cap!
But soon his image became bluish and semi-transparent like wax; his face turned pale like the stump of a candle … and suddenly he expired.
This piece is almost entirely constructed from three motifs – the first is presented in the opening bar, the second which is the repeated-note figure, and the third which surely must be Scarbo’s claws, scratching the silk coverlet. There is practically nothing else in the work other than these three fundamental elements and their transformations. Ravel liked to add the words ‘Quelle horreur!’ to the right-hand theme that enters in bar 32 (taken from the first motif). While getting around the technical difficulties of this piece, the pianist must also ‘be’ the devilish Scarbo – but, at the same time, should imagine himself as the person locked in the room with him, feeling terrified. Much of it is written between ppp and piano, thus keeping extra power for the big climaxes – something which is not always adhered to in performance. You need the reflexes (and the claws!) of a cat, and the nerves to remain cool-headed so as not to fall apart in the middle of such terror.
In writing Scarbo, Ravel wanted to compose a piece that would be even more difficult to play than Balakirev’s Islamey. He later confided to one of its interpreters that he had considered writing a caricature of Romanticism but was afraid of being carried away by it … which once more confirms that Ravel was an incurable Romantic at heart and yet ashamed of the fact. He also described Scarbo as ‘an orchestral transcription for piano’.
To commemorate the centenary of Haydn’s death in 1909, the editor of the Revue Musicale invited several French composers (Ravel, Debussy, Dukas, Hahn, d’Indy, and Widor among others) to write a tribute to their illustrious predecessor. The following notation was arrived at: H=B, A=A, Y=D, D=D, N=G. By continuing up the keyboard and using the complete alphabet, Y ends up on a D, N ends up on a G, and the H was borrowed from German musical notation (where it stands for a B). Ravel, ever ready to accept a challenge, set to work on his Menuet sur le nom d’Haydn, which is nevertheless one hundred per cent Ravel.
The Prélude was written as a sight-reading test for an examination at the Paris Conservatoire in 1913. One of the candidates, Jeanne Leleu, read it particularly well, and Ravel asked her permission to dedicate it to her. She had already played in the premiere of the duet version of Ma Mère l’Oye three years previously, so must have been familiar with his style. Although it is a mere trifle, it could have been written by nobody but Ravel, and serves as an excellent introduction to the composer. Most of Ravel’s piano works need very advanced pianism, so it is nice to have one that doesn’t!
The two A la manière de … pieces were written in 1912 at the request of the composer, conductor and pianist Alfredo Casella who wanted to publish a few pastiches of his own (among which exists a pastiche of Ravel entitled Almanzor ou le mariage d’Adélaïde). Ravel chose to pay a mildly tongue-in-cheek homage to two of his favourite composers. To Borodin he dedicated a waltz which is more Russian than Borodin himself. On Chabrier’s behalf he composed a pastiche of Siebel’s aria, Faites-lui mes aveux from the third act of Gounod’s Faust, incorporating characteristic arpeggios, octave doublings of the melody, and a rumbling passage in the bass that is straight out of Chabrier’s Sous bois (Pièces pittoresques).
The cycle of five pieces entitled Miroirs was composed at the same time as the Sonatine (1905) but with a marked difference in the style and writing. Each movement is dedicated to a member of the group called ‘Les Apaches’, formed to battle the Establishment. Ravel left us with the comment that ‘these pieces marked such a change in my harmonic evolution that nonplussed even those most accustomed to my musical style’. His biographers have puzzled over the title given to this album which contains pieces that appear to have no connection with one another. Surely, though, it is the wonderful richness of the musical and emotional content that counts for more than anything.
The set begins with Noctuelles, a title which is infinitely more poetic in French than in English (‘Owl-moths’). The work, dedicated to the poet Léon-Paul Fargue, was inspired by one of his lines, ‘The owl-moths leave their hangars in irregular flight, to ornament other rafters’. Besides this irregular flight of the insects – marvellously translated by Ravel into a perpetual asymmetry in the two hands, there is an admirable middle section which is intensely expressive. Characterized by a falling third (which we will later find in Une barque sur l’océan) and by the syncopated accompaniment (which reappears in Alborada del gracioso), it must nevertheless keep moving and not drag.
According to Ravel, Oiseaux tristes was the first-composed and the most typical of the five pieces. Here he evokes an image of ‘birds lost in the torpor of a very dense forest during the hottest hours of summer’. His inspiration for writing this piece evidently came during a walk in the forest of Fontainebleau. They are two ‘layers’ to the piece: the birdsong on high, and the dense, stifling atmosphere of the forest below. In the middle our peace is suddenly shattered, no doubt by a flock of birds taking off, thus also portraying the reaction it provokes in the observer. Ravel loved playing this piece time and time again, trying to get his fellow Apaches to understand it – which at first, they didn’t.
Ravel adored little automatic toys and his house was full of them. Among them, constantly on his piano (and still sitting there today) was a tiny boat in the middle of cardboard waves, enclosed by a glass bell. A crank activated the waves, transforming them into a turbulent ocean. Did Ravel manipulate this toy for hours on end while composing Une barque sur l’océan? One of his aims in writing Miroirs was to free himself from the style of his early work, Jeux d’eau. The contrast between these two water pieces could not be more evident. As in Noctuelles, Ravel once more inserts a plaintive melody in the middle of the piece which is marked ‘expressif’.
Ravel always seemed to visit the countries from which he gained inspiration after having written works influenced by them: such is the case with Spain and America (his blues movement in the Sonata for violin and piano was written before he set foot in America). Alborada del gracioso is not only one of his most celebrated works, but also one of his best attempts at ‘Spanish’ music. The title gains nothing in translation: Alborada del gracioso sounds so much better than Aubade du bouffon or A Jester’s Morning Serenade. We don’t know why Ravel chose this title. Perhaps he was inspired by one of the fairytales of Oscar Wilde, The Birthday of the Infanta, in which a jester falls in love with a princess. She offers him a rose, but he dies upon realising that she was only making fun of him. There is certainly something apocalyptic in the ending which is akin to that of La Valse. This is another of Ravel’s repeated-note pieces which can be completely thrown into disarray by an uncooperative piano! Ravel said that under no circumstances should you slow down for the repeated notes – it’s best to ‘fudge’ it a bit than to do that. The work is more often played in its orchestral version, but somehow the sense of struggle and (hopefully ensuing) accomplishment that a pianist can portray is missing for me in that version.
La vallée des cloches is very different from the other four pieces and might, at a pinch, be passed off as Debussy! It is certainly similar to the latter’s Etude de sonorités which was written ten years later. Ravel told the pianist Robert Casadesus that it was inspired by the sound of bells in Paris at midday. It requires a faultless sense of tone colour and timing. Some people are amazed that Ravel chose to end the cycle with a piece so devoid of virtuosity. A standing ovation, which would have been guaranteed after Alborada, is no longer a possibility. For me it’s the perfect ending.
In the preparation of this text, I am hugely indebted to my former teacher, Jean-Paul Sévilla, whose own notes, lectures, and performances of the solo piano works of Ravel will forever remain in the memory of all those who were fortunate enough to hear them. The poems were translated by the late Douglas Voice.
Angela Hewitt ©2002
Available audio excerpts from this recording
02-Pavane pour une infante défunte
03-Sonatine – Modéré
04-Mouvement de menuet
06-Valses nobles et sentimentales – Modéré – très franc
14-Le Tombeau de Couperin
22-Gaspard de la nuit – Ondine
25-Menuet sur le nom d’Haydn
27-A la manière de Borodine
28-A la manière de Chabrier
29-Miroirs – Noctuelles
31-Une barque sur l’océan
32-Alborada del gracioso
33-La vallée des cloches
Ravel: Miroirs – Alborada del gracioso (6’43)
Reviews of this record
Gramophone / Bryce Morrison / Ravel Piano Works
Rondo / Matthias Kornemann / Ravel: Das Soloklavierwerk