Mercury Orchestra


Notes on the composers and the pieces

Maurice Ravel

Maurice Ravel

Joseph-Maurice Ravel (1875-1937) was born in France near the Spanish border, to Swiss and Basque parents. His father’s engineering work soon brought the family to Paris, and the young man entered the Paris Conservatory at age 14. He enrolled as a pianist but switched to composition under Gabriel Fauré and André Gedalge. Ravel was less radical a composer than Debussy but rebellious in his own way. Where Debussy could write pieces to please the Conservatory masters and win a Prix de Rome, Ravel refused to be bound by the school’s composition rules. His failure to win prizes did not endear him to his masters, even though he wrote successful pieces early on, including his Violin Sonata (1897) and Shéhérazade (1898). Given those successes, his failure to win the Prix de Rome in 1905 led to a public scandal and a change in the Conservatory directorship.

Soon after that debacle, Ravel entered a period of great productivity, producing works like L’Heure Espagnole and Rapsodie Espagnole (1907), Valse Nobles et Sentimentales (1911), major piano pieces, and Daphnis et Chloé for Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes in 1912. Around this time, he met Igor Stravinsky and joined a group of radical composers known as Les Apaches. In 1906, he started but did not finish Wien, an orchestral homage to Johann Strauss.

Wien would turn into La Valse fourteen years later. In the interim, World War I brought his composing to a near halt. Ravel tried to enlist but was turned down for physical reasons and ended up a military transport driver. In 1916 he started to feel the urgings to compose when dysentery sent him to Paris to recover. Soon after, his mother died. Ravel’s mother was the closest human contact Ravel had—he never married—and with her loss came devastation and more musical inactivity. He wrote little during this period: most notably, Trois Poemes de Mallarmé (1913), Trois Chansons (1915), and Le Tombeau de Couperin (1917).

It was when Diaghilev asked him for another ballet after the war that Ravel’s compositional juices returned. He completed Wien, called it a “choreographic poem,” and changed the title to La Valse. Diaghilev called the result a “masterpiece” but added that, “it’s not a ballet…it’s the portrait of a ballet….” He thought it undanceable and refused to stage it. Ravel never spoke to him again. The ballet was not performed until Ida Rubenstein staged it in 1929 at the Paris Opera. After La Valse came L’Enfant et les Sortilèges (1925), a concert tour of the United States in 1928, and in the same year, Bolero. The Piano Concerto in G Major and the Piano Concerto for Left Hand came out in 1930 and 1931. Ravel’s last years were slowed by Pick’s disease, which may have been exacerbated by an automobile accident in 1932 (though he complained of memory problems and insomnia years earlier). He started some projects but produced only a few works. Brain surgery in 1937 was unsuccessful, and he died a year later.

Ravel was private, meticulous and precise as a person. Like Debussy, he was considered feline in manner, though he was more birdlike in appearance. Few caught him composing, though many saw him orchestrate, and his study rarely showed signs of a work in progress. As contemporaries, Ravel and Debussy influenced and respected each other, but their relationship suffered at the hands of critics eager to denigrate Ravel in favor of Debussy. From around 1900 until his death, Debussy was considered France’s greatest living composer. Ravel assumed the mantle only after Debussy’s death. Today, Debussy and Ravel are often thought of together, but they were very different composers. Ravel employed Impressionist techniques in works like Daphnis et Chloé, Mother Goose, and La Valse, but he was really an objectivist and a Classicist. Unlike Debussy, he wrote cleanly shaped melodies, etched textures, distinct rhythms, and firm structures. He used conventional tonality and rarely if ever the whole tone scale. A fabulous orchestrator, Ravel employed the full battery of instruments, but placed every note, chord, and instrument like a jeweler working with clear pristine colors. (His orchestration of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition is one of his most famous “works.”) Effects sound with polish and glitter; nothing is wasted. His search for novel colors often led to setting instruments in odd ranges or roles.

La Valse (1920)

Ravel “intended La Valse as an apotheosis of the Viennese waltz…” At the top of the score he wrote: “Through whirling clouds, waltzing couples may be faintly distinguished. The clouds gradually scatter: one sees…an immense hall peopled with a whirling crowd. The scene is gradually illuminated. The light of the chandeliers bursts forth at [a] fortissimo. An imperial court about 1855.” The time was a period of extravagance when Vienna was supreme, and the waltz ruled in dance-mad Europe. The first half includes several waltz tunes, played in phrases, fragments, and bits of rhythm. The music is charming, elegant, and Viennese in a French sort of way, but just a little bizarre. We really are peering through clouds from an unearthly distance. Everything is driven by the waltz rhythm. After a huge climax, the chandeliers go out, and there begins what Ravel called “fatalistic whirling.” The waltz themes break down and tumble on top of each other. Things come apart. Everything is madness, as the music gathers in fury. Dancers spin and fall, and the ceiling comes plunging down in one mighty and final crash. La Valse has been interpreted as the collapse of Viennese society, the breakdown of Europe, a satire on the Viennese waltz, Ravel’s grief over his mother’s death, and premonitions of a nightmarish future. There are even links to the ball in Edgar Allan Poe’s Masque of the Red Death. Some identify its change in mood to its being composed in two very different times: the first section conceived for Wien, the second the result of the madness of World War I.

Piano Concerto in G (1931)

Ravel wrote his Piano Concerto in G Major “in the spirit of Mozart and Saint-Saëns” to be “gay and brilliant”, like a divertimento, with Gallic exuberance in the outer movements. The orchestra is of chamber size. The first movement has five themes, brilliant solos for trumpet, and three cadenzas including a thunderous one with the piano in its lower range. With the exception of two quiet interludes, it is lively, vivacious, and jazzy, reflecting the bustle of the United States that impressed Ravel on his tour. The influence of George Gershwin is such that one might mistake parts for his work. It is hard to believe that Ravel struggled with the slow movement, given its intimate Mozartean serenity and simplicity written in 20th century language with a touch of quiet jazz. The finale, influenced by Stravinsky, is a perpetual motion in the piano, with a carnival of orchestral sounds and effects full of innovation, insouciance, and wit.

—Roger Hecht

Roger Hecht plays trombone in the Mercury Orchestra, Lowell House Opera, Dudley House Orchestra, and Bay Colony Brass (where he is also the Operations/Personnel Manager), and is a local freelancer. He is a regular reviewer for American Record Guide, contributed to Classical Music: Listener's Companion, and has written articles on music for the Elgar Society Journal and Positive Feedback magazine. He is a former member of the Syracuse Symphony, Lake George Opera, New Bedford Symphony, and Cape Ann Symphony.

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