With Histoires naturelles
, on prose poems by Jules Renard, Ravel’s playfulness tipped over into controversy and the premiere in January 1907 was a noisy affair. His chief crime was to eliminate some of the final mute ‘e’s, in the popular style of the café concert. In the opening Le paon
, the peacock’s pomposity is undercut by the shortening of ‘la fi-an-cé-e n’ar-ri-ve pas’ to ‘la fian-cé’ n’ar-riv’ pas’. There was even shouting when, in Le grillon
, as the cricket took a rest (‘Il se repose’) Ravel’s music came to a sudden halt. Equally disconcerting, after the busy-busy movements of the cricket (which some commentators have likened to Ravel himself), is the magical, visionary epilogue in D flat major, where he later admitted he had deliberately allowed his Romantic inclinations to surface. Debussy, who by 1907 was no longer a friend, complained of the ‘factitious Americanism’ of the more light-hearted passages in the cycle, but even he had to admit Le cygne
was beautiful music. The piano part is marked ‘very gentle and enveloped in pedal’ and the setting of seven semiquavers in the right hand against two in the left makes for effortless progress, quite different from the cricket’s precise gestures. Ravel dedicated the song to Misia Godebska, a mover and shaker in Parisian musical circles who was soon to become Diaghilev’s right-hand woman, and it could be that Ravel saw her as the swan, gliding smoothly through society with her eye fixed on the main chance.
‘Not a bite, this evening’, complains the fisherman at the start of Le martin-pêcheur. The cool, diamond-like, almost Messiaenic chords do not react (unlike the 1907 audience which here rose to an apogee of outrage) but go their way ‘as slowly as possible’. Here is a music of silence, the singer somehow conveying breathlessness while breathing deeply. Pierre Bernac called it ‘the most difficult mélodie of the set’. But for the pianist the worst moments come in La pintade. With its gruppetti and shrill, explosive acciaccaturas, it looks back not just to Alborada del gracioso but to another fowl-piece, ‘Baba-Yaga’ from Musorgsky’s Pictures from an Exhibition. It makes an entertaining and aesthetically uncomplicated finale to the set, but also displays Ravel’s aggressive side.
from notes by Roger Nichols © 2009