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Ravel (1875-1937) - Rapsodie Espagnole

We're 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, Boléro 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. 

Ravel's 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 Suite (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. 

Ravel, 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. 

1. 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. 

2. Malaguena. Something of a party gets going, only to be dissipated by [A], the revelries dissolving into the dreaming night. 

3. Habanera. An intimate, sensuous display reaches a subdued but smouldering climax before fading into breathless expectancy. 

4. 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! 

Answer: The Habanera of Ravel's Rapsodie Espagnole came from Sites Auriculaires for two pianos (c. 1896). 


© Paul Serotsky
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