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Five o'clock foxtrot (as the ragtime sequence from Ravel's opera L’enfant et les sortilèges came to be known in the 1930s when various dance bands took it up as an instrumental number) sets the scene for a glorious programme of the composer at his most playful.
Ravel grew up in Paris during la belle epoque, the thirty-odd years prior to 1914 when Paris was the unquestioned artistic centre of the world. The fin de siecle years saw him enter the Paris Conservatoire. He was an immensely gifted youth, and one by one his early compositions began to show a real mastery of conception and execution—before the 1800s were out, he had produced such assured works as Habanera, Menuet antique, several fine songs, and Pavane pour une infante défunte.
Having found his musical voice remarkably early on, he went on to produce a string of works which show his powers in full flight. The mastery exhibited in these pieces was such that, after many failed attempts to win the coveted Prix de Rome, a scandal erupted. Ravel’s fame was assured. Many saw him as the leading light of the younger generation of composers after Debussy. In the years leading up to the start of World War I he positively flowered, producing one work of major importance after another.
The events of 1914 were to change everything. Disqualified from joining the army due to his small size and slight build, Ravel served as an ambulance driver for most of the war. He lost many friends in the battle and then, in 1917, suffered the death of his adored mother. Profound depression and ill-health followed. Till his death in 1937, he was never again the same man. Insomnia plagued him, and frequent black moods would silence his creative powers for months, sometimes years on end. Shortly after completing his two magnificent piano concertos in 1931, the brain disease which would eventually lead to his death began to manifest itself. After an unutterably sad illness leaving his intellect intact but unable to communicate, Ravel died aged sixty-two.
Five o'clock foxtrot
Around the early 1920s, the sound of American jazz began to infiltrate the cafes and nightclubs of Paris, where Ravel spent many a sleepless night entranced by it. He became an ardent follower of this newly developing music, and inevitably its sounds began to insinuate themselves into Ravel’s own compositions. But there is nothing incongruous about the way Ravel borrows from jazz: he makes it uniquely and effectively his own, working its flavour into the fabric of his art—'jazz effects', as he always carefully referred to them.
When he came to write the one-act opera L’enfant et les sortilèges, he could not resist the idea of 'having two negroes singing a ragtime at our National Academy of Music'. 'Go for it!' urged Colette, the great French writer whose libretto, about a brattish and mischievous child in a fantastic world of singing clocks and animals, had so struck a chord in Ravel’s imagination.
This, his second and last opera, is conceived in the spirit of the American musical as a series of linked set-pieces which take in a huge range of diverse musical styles. As it finally came out, Ravel’s 'ragtime' sequence is a jazz-inspired foxtrot involving a Wedgwood teapot and a China cup. A bizarre conversation strikes up in pigeon-English and lunatic Chinese, with the delicious orchestral accompaniment including some ritzy soft-shoe shuffle percussion, tinkling celeste figures, and a marvellously 'dirty' trombone solo. It is a high spot in this deeply enchanting and moving work.
For the present recording of Five o’clock foxtrot (as it came to be known in the 1930s when various dance bands took it up as an instrumental number), Christopher Palmer freely adapts the score by handing out its vocal utterances to saxophone, oboe and tutti strings, while adding extra percussion effects and organising repeats. lorious writing for strings throughout, added new dimensions to the fantasy. Ravel subsequently expanded the suite into a complete ballet, adding a whole new number and many linking passages.
This unique work came about as the result of a commission by the dancer and choreographer Ida Rubinstein—albeit indirectly. Ravel was intending to orchestrate sections of Iberia by Isaac Albéniz, and only discovered at the eleventh hour that for copyright reasons he was unable to proceed: the rights to orchestrate Albéniz’s work belonged to Enrique Arbos, who was himself undertaking a set of orchestral transcriptions of the piano music.
Thrown by this unforeseen development, Ravel quickly set to work on an original composition—despite the fact that when Arbos heard of Ravel’s interest in Iberia he graciously offered to step down. This came too late, however, for Ravel was already well ahead with his own score, provisionally entitled Fandango.
Once, years before, when on a yachting holiday on the Rhine, Ravel had written to Maurice Delage of some sights that had overwhelmed him. He spoke of the great German industrial centres with their 'vast cathedrals of fire … the incredible symphony of belts, whistles and hammer blows which engulf us … there is so much music in all this—I intend to make good use of it someday.'
Could it be therefore more than coincidence that in Ravel’s original scenario for Boléro, the action takes place in front of a factory? The insistent, hypnotic rhythm which dominates the piece might well be heard not only as a Spanish dance pattern, but as a relentless, mechanical hammering (riveting in more ways than one!) which acts as the mainspring for a theme which goes round and round like a conveyor belt, growing in volume from a whisper to a tumult. In Boléro, Ravel massively expands the wonderfully effective device of the extended crescendo created by Rossini in his operatic overtures.
The famous Boléro tune is played first by a succession of solo instruments including flute, oboe d’amour, sopranino, soprano and tenor saxophones, then in ever-increasingly colourful instrumental cocktails. A lone trombone picks it up (a notoriously difficult solo), then first violins, full string choir, and eventually the whole orchestra—leading to the single, astonishing key change and a deafening explosion of percussion and braying trombones. The electrical current is suddenly cut off, the dance ends, and the hypnotic stranglehold on the audience is finally released.
'This is one work they won’t be playing at the Sunday evening concerts!' joked Ravel as he handed over the finished score. If only he had known.
Pavane pour une infante défunte
Shortly after entering the Paris Conservatoire as a full-time student, Ravel discovered the music of Emmanuel Chabrier, which was to have some of the most profound influences on his early development. Together with his long-term friend, the Spanish pianist Ricardo Viñes, Ravel would play over and over Chabrier’s compositions, swept away by their originality and brilliance. On one occasion Ravel and Viñes, both sixteen years of age, learned by heart his Trois danses romantiques and visited the composer to play them for him.
There is no doubt that Ravel’s enthusiasm for Chabrier spilled over into his youthful Pavane pour une infante défunte. Later in life, Ravel spoke somewhat disparagingly of this piece, more or less dismissing it as 'timid and derivative'. When compared with the mature piano concertos, this is undoubtedly true—yet it is hard to deny the Pavane its tender grace and charm, to say nothing of the instantly memorable tune with which it begins. Ravel still clearly felt for the piece in 1910, when he made his now-famous orchestration of it, superbly crafted, and featuring some ravishing phrases for a solo French horn and for the strings.
Of the curious title, Ravel was equally noncommittal, claiming that he simply liked the alliterative sound of the words—an approximate translation of which is 'Pavane for a dead Spanish princess'. Once, when listening to a young pianist studiously ploughing his way through the piece with furrowed brow, Ravel went up to him and joked, 'Pardon me—it’s the princess who is meant to be dead, not the Pavane'.
All his life, Ravel took great delight in surprising people. This childlike enthusiasm never deserted him, even when he was suffering one of his all too frequent bouts of depression.
In later years he filled his home with toys and novelties which were guaranteed always to have the desired effect—the raising of eyebrows. There were hidden doors which he would spring open with a flourish, a clockwork nightingale which twittered mechanically and ruffled its feathers, fake Renoirs and porcelains which Ravel delighted in announcing came from department stores. His favourite was a ball of smoked crystal presented for view on an ornate stand; having extracted from his guests their profound admiration of it, he would roar with laughter and reveal that it was no more than a burned-out lightbulb!
Much of this longing to astonish asserts itself in Ravel’s music, and nowhere more so than in Tzigane, a concert rhapsody for violin and orchestra which joyfully empties the soloist’s bag of tricks with an infectious and sly sense of fun. It sets out, like his clockwork bird, to delight by surprise. Ravel piles difficulty on top of difficulty in the solo part, even inventing brand new violin effects when he has used up all the known ones. He understood perfectly the psychological effect this would have on audiences as they watch and listen to the soloist wrestle to overcome the fiendish challenges. Again and again in Ravel’s music there is this relentless, obsessive undercurrent at play, so that even here in this apparently harmless and jovial work we may find a demonic subtext insinuating itself into the proceedings.
The original score of Tzigane was conceived for violin and luthéal—a bizarre contraption not dissimilar to a metal bedstead, which was attached to the top of a grand piano. It contained levers and knobs which, when pulled, activated a series of dampers and resonators to produce some decidedly quirky sonorities from the pianist, ranging from a twanging cimbalom effect to a comical dry clucking noise. Alas, the luthéal has all but vanished from the scene, but in his orchestration of the accompaniment, Ravel attempts to recreate some of these weird sounds—which accounts for the unusual and often surprising deployment of the orchestral instruments, and the lavish use of harp and pizzicato strings.
From a rumbling, murky fog emerges a sound like an eerie, pounding heartbeat. Snatches of nasal melody are breathed—fragments of a tune groping in the dark to be heard. Gradually the mists part and light floods in, revealing a candlelit ballroom full of waltzing couples … So begins La valse, one of Ravel’s greatest achievements—a reincarnation of a Johann Strauss waltz pictured from this side of the Great War.
The earliest seeds of this mighty work can be traced back to at least 1906. By 1914, prior to the war’s outbreak, the preliminary sketches had acquired a provisional title, Wien, and the piece was formulating in Ravel’s mind as a homage to the Waltz King. However, what finally appeared was more an agonizing expression of all that occurred in Ravel’s life during the intervening years. In 1917, as the cataclysm continued, Ravel’s beloved mother died; it was a blow from which the 41-year-old composer would never fully recover. He was plunged into horrible despair. It seemed as if everything he had ever known and loved had been swept away, never to return.
In La valse, Ravel was able to vent his anguish in the most graphic terms: before us. Imperial Vienna, at first painted in glorious and glittering colours, is gradually but inexorably crushed as the twentieth century invades the nineteenth. It was as if the composer sought to expiate his personal grief by transforming the waltz into a whirling dance of despair.
The spur to the completion of the score was a commission from the great Russian impresario Serge Diaghilev, for whose Ballet Russes Ravel had, in more peaceful times, composed Daphnis et Chloé. It is not exactly clear what Diaghilev was hoping for, but obviously La valse was not it. He promptly rejected the work. However, it made an immediate impression when it was first performed in the concert hall—and it was clear that La valse had quickly found its true home.
There were eight or nine people in the room, amongst them Poulenc and Stravinsky, when Ravel first presented La valse to Diaghilev. Ravel had reduced the score to be performed by two pianists. As the composer and his partner played, Diaghilev was seen to look uncomfortable, shuffling in his chair and frowning. After the final deafening chords had died away, Diaghilev, clearly embarrassed, stood and said to the composer, 'Ravel, it is a masterpiece. But it is not a ballet. It is the portrait of a ballet …' Ravel did not reply. He calmly collected up the manuscript and left the room. There was much perplexity once he had gone—opinions flew in every direction. Stravinsky, significantly, remained silent.
Pièce en forme de habanera
Ravel turns to Spain yet again in this short work, originally conceived for wordless voice and piano. 'Vocalise' became 'Pièce' when Ravel adapted it for violin and piano. It achieved enormous popularity in this manifestation and has led to the publication of numerous other arrangements over the years, including transcriptions for flute, oboe and cello.
The Spanish rhythm of the habanera appears to have been a particular favourite of the composer’s, for he employed it many times—most notably in the Rapsodie espagnole, and in the final pages of his first opera, L’heure espagnole. In the present work, it supports an original melody which evokes Mediterranean vistas and sultry summer days.
Belgian composer Arthur Hoérée made orchestrations of works by Couperin, Honegger, Roussel, Ibert, Lully and others including Ravel’s Vocalise en forme de habanera. In this recording of Hoérée’s arrangement, the solo role is given, for the first time, to the oboe—an instrument for which Ravel professed a special fondness. It well emphasises the languid, pastoral aspects of the composer’s creation.
Daphnis et Chloé – Suite II
Daphnis et Chloé is Ravel’s most substantial work, and the nearest he came to writing a symphony; in fact, the work is subtitled 'a choreographic symphony in three movements', and it remains one of the most fully integrated and highly polished of all ballet scores.
It came about as the result of a commission by the great Serge Diaghilev, whose Russian Ballet were frequent visitors to the French capital. To Diaghilev’s everlasting credit, it is he who is responsible for coaxing scores such as Daphnis, The Firebird, The Rite of Spring and The Three-cornered Hat from the promising young talents of the time.
The notorious first performance of The Rite of Spring somewhat overshadowed the premiere of Ravel’s new work (it was characteristic of Ravel to be amongst those cheering the loudest for Stravinsky’s revolutionary score, for he was, according to his closest friends, a man who was almost unbelievably free of jealousy or resentment). Even so, Daphnis et Chloé was well received, especially by the musicians in the orchestra who were by all accounts bowled over by the brilliant and complex pages before them.
The Suite No 2 comprises the final one-third of the ballet. Ravel makes the original choral part optional in the suites, and it is, as is usual, omitted in this recording. The scene is a clearing at the edge of a sacred wood, just before sunrise. The god Pan has rescued Chloé from pirates on the island, and as a new day breaks she is restored to Daphnis. 'Lever du jour' begins with one of Ravel’s most rapturous and life-affirming inspirations, an evocation of dawn, alive with the sound of babbling brooks and an ecstatic chorus of birdsong. This heralds in a glorious long theme which seems to reach ever skywards until the sun bursts forth over the horizon in a magnificent climax, suspended cymbal and glockenspiel arpeggios ringing out over an enormous orchestral tutti.
There follows a lengthy virtuoso flute solo, 'Pantomime', as the two lovers mime the story of Pan and Syrinx, at the climax of which Chloé plights her troth before the altar. The music of this section of the ballet constitutes one of the jewels in the crown of every flautist’s achievement.
Then, to bring the suite—and the ballet—to its delirious, thrilling conclusion, comes the 'Danse générale'. The lovers rejoice amid a riotous bacchanal. With its galloping 5/4 rhythms, hair-raising trumpet figures and frenzy of percussion, this is one of the most stunning sequences ever written for the symphony orchestra. These final few minutes of music show Ravel at the absolute peak of his powers—it may come as no surprise to know that they cost him an entire year’s work.
Grant Cathro © 2022