Ravel marked himself out from most of his colleagues in his refusal to engage with Wagner—a great composer certainly, but dangerous as a model. Instead, he turned to Liszt, whom he regarded for one thing as a better orchestrator and, for another, as a piano composer on whom he could build. His Jeux d’eau
, finished in November 1901 and premiered by Ricardo Viñes on 5 April the following year, obviously invites comparison with Liszt’s Les jeux d’eaux à la villa d’Este
, and Ravel, asked how it should be played, answered ‘like Liszt, of course’. The epigraph, ‘Dieu fluvial riant de l’eau qui le chatouille’ (River god laughing at the water that tickles him), is taken from a poem by Henri de Régnier, who inscribed it on the earliest autograph of the piece: in fact the ‘Dieu’ of the quotation refers to the goddess Latona sitting naked on the back of a tortoise, as depicted on a fountain at Versailles. When the young pianist Henriette Faure played it to Ravel after the First World War, he complained: ‘Your fountains are sad ones.’ She repeated it, ‘thinking happy thoughts, so as to turn what I had previously thought was a meditation into a sparkling divertissement’. Ravel was content … and was quick to realize that he had found a new style of piano writing, to the point that he questioned the primacy in this area of Debussy, ‘who at the beginning of 1902 … had written only the three pieces Pour le piano
[which], from the purely pianistic point of view, say nothing really new’.
from notes by Roger Nichols © 2011