Ravel (1875-1937) - Rapsodie Espagnole
always splitting the world into halves, aren't we? For instance, musical
pundits often split composers into those who compose “straight onto the
paper” and those who compose “at the piano”. Then they look askance at
the latter, pointing at their pianistic bones protruding through the flesh
of their orchestral works. Ravel, a longtime student of piano and composition
at the Paris Conservatoire, became one of the Twentieth Century's most
brilliant piano composers – yet nobody so much as bats an eyelid to find
that many of his finest orchestral works were arrangements of piano pieces.
The seemingly endless list includes Alborada del Gracioso, Ma
Mère l'Oye, Valses Nobles et Sentimentales, and Le
Tombeau de Couperin. On the other hand Daphnis et Chloé,
and La Valse, for example, were not based on piano pieces.
Any eyelids batting now? Perhaps there should be, because if we weren't
told, I reckon that most of us would find nary a bone-end in sight.
incredible sense of “colour” approached that of the painter. Sometimes
his piano originals became for him the equivalent of the charcoal line-work
that an artist often uses to sketch the skeleton of his oil-painting. Thinking
about it, can we tell paintings which conceal charcoal foundations from
those that don't? Rapsodie Espagnole (1908) provides something of
an acid test. Three of its four movements, which are laid out like a Baroque
(overture plus dances), were “painted directly onto the canvas”, while
one conceals a “charcoal skeleton”. Which one? That'd be telling! Why not
see if you can spot the “bones” [the answer is tucked away at the foot
of this note]. There is another curious aspect to this work.
being the offspring of a Swiss engineer and his Basque wife, was hardly
a stereotypical Frenchman, so we are not surprised to find that he was
somewhat inhibited, being more fascinated by mechanical objects than by
“Sss - you know what”. In fact, and for example, he disliked
the erotically-charged ballet scenario given to his Boléro,
declaring that he would have preferred the mechanistic aspect to dominate.
If that was evidence of a paternal influence, then surely his mother's
background drew him towards Spain, where his inhibitions fell off faster
than shorts on a nudist beach. This Iberian fascination drew from him one
of the sultriest, sexiest pieces of music ever to curl up an audience's
toes. Nor is it just a matter of unbelievably atmospheric scoring - every
last note is permeated by a tension, between the mysterious langour of
nocturnal Spain and the burning passions lurking beneath. For three movements,
it smoulders (and occasionally hiccoughs) like some brooding volcano. Ravel
suppresses the accumulating seismic forces. The music finally erupts in
a cataclysmic dénouement that's all the more spectacular
for being sat on for so long.
Prélude à la Nuit is permeated by four-note descending
phrase [A], a soporific haze that cloaks the themes in dreaming, broken
briefly by the siren-calls of clarinets, then bassoons.
Malaguena. Something of a party gets going, only to be dissipated by
[A], the revelries dissolving into the dreaming night.
Habanera. An intimate, sensuous display reaches a subdued but smouldering
climax before fading into breathless expectancy.
Feria. A brittle rhythm pricks the air, inciting wild, abandoned dancing.
The carnival descends into debauchery (it's true - just listen to
it!) and [A], now as high as a kite, stirs up the mother of all musical
orgies. Now, that's what I call a party!
The Habanera of Ravel's Rapsodie Espagnole came from Sites
Auriculaires for two pianos (c. 1896).
© Paul Serotsky
29, Carr Street,
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