Mercury Orchestra


Notes on the composer and the pieces

Maurice Ravel

Maurice Ravel

Joseph-Maurice Ravel (1875–1937) was born in the French town of Ciboure, near Spain, to a Swiss father and Basque mother. The family moved to Paris when the boy was three, and he spent most of his life there. Both parents supported their son’s musical ambitions, but Ravel’s independent nature made schooling difficult. He entered the Paris Conservatoire as a piano major in 1893, but was expelled for lack of promise two years later. After turning to composition, he re-enrolled in 1898 as a student of Gabriel Fauré, but academic problems led to expulsion, over Fauré’s objections, in 1900. Fauré then allowed the young man to audit his class for three years, and the two remained friends. In 1900, Ravel found conviviality with a feisty group of artists known as The Apaches that included Manuel de Falla, Florent Schmitt, Igor Stravinsky, Erik Satie, Jean Cocteau, and André Gide.

Ravel composed his first successful work, Jeux d’eau for piano, in 1901. That same year he made the first of five unsuccessful attempts to win the Prix de Rome for Musical Composition. Each time, he was eliminated in the early rounds of competition. His last attempt was in 1905, after his String Quartet and song cycle Shéhérazade had established him as a composer. That failure ignited “l’affaire Ravel,” a public protest over perceived unfairness to a recognized composer, generational conflict, and the fact that all finalists were students of a Paris Conservatoire professor on the jury. The upshot was the resignation of several Conservatoire professors and the replacement of its president, Theodore Dubois, with Fauré, a victory of sorts for Ravel, who was otherwise not that affected. (To be fair, Ravel violated some competition rules, so his fate was not entirely unjustified.) After l’affaire, Ravel completed Introduction and Allegro and Sonatine. Miroirs included Alborada del gracioso, the first of his “Spanish” works which followed in rapid succession: Rapsodie espagnole, L’heure espagnole, and Gaspard de la nuit. Ravel’s father died in 1908, leaving a distraught Maurice responsible for his mother and brother. From 1909 to 1913, Ravel was occupied with Daphnis et Chloé, Valses nobles et sentimentales, Ma mère l’oye, and Trois poèmes de Stéphane Mallarmé. He also helped form the Societé Musicale Independante, which promoted contemporary music.

When the Great War broke out in 1914, Ravel tried to enlist but was rejected for his age, health, and small size; he fought this decision while finishing his Piano Trio. He was eventually accepted for service as a truck driver and in 1916 went to the front where he saw limited combat. Dysentery and hernia surgery forced a return to Paris where the war, ill health, and his mother's death brought on a depression. After his military discharge and surgery to remove tubercular ganglia from his lung, Ravel became a nomad, moving from residence to residence until 1921 when he regained equilibrium. Even so, those years produced Le tombeau de Couperin, La valse, an orchestration of Alborada del gracioso for the Ballets Russes, and the beginnings of L’enfant et les sortilèges.

Ravel the man was dapper, meticulous and precise—a “dandy” in the eyes of some people. He never married and was extremely close to his mother. A political liberal, he was not religious, and though a patriotic Frenchman, he was not blind to his countrymen’s foibles, e.g., while at the front, he opposed bans on German music in France. He wrote excellent often biting criticism and quickly recognized Stravinsky’s Le sacre du printemps and Debussy’s Pelléas et Melisande for the groundbreakers they were. He was not known as a pedagogue, but Ralph Vaughan Williams gave Ravel credit for teaching him the fine points of orchestration.

Ravel the composer was like Ravel the man. Supposedly, no one saw him composing, and his study never showed a sign of a work in progress.  He is often associated with Debussy, but the two were very different composers. Both are thought of as impressionists, a description each denied (and that Ravel applied only to painting), though Debussy came closer to fitting the term. Ravel was more of a classicist who precisely shaped melodies, rhythms, and structures, while sometimes employing impressionist techniques. “The most perfect of Swiss watchmakers,” proclaimed Stravinsky with partial accuracy after their friendship had cooled (and Ravel’s ancestry did include clockmakers). Ravel was also an eclectic who admired Bach, Mendelssohn, and Schubert, and was heavily influenced by Mozart, Chabrier, Saint-Saêns, Satie, Rimsky-Korsakov (whose orchestration fascinated him), and later, Gershwin and American jazz. He rarely used the whole tone scale (as Debussy did), preferring modes, particularly those close to major and minor. He favored extended chords like ninths and elevenths, often dividing the strings to create them, and avoided leading tones. Though he composed mostly for the piano, Ravel was a brilliant orchestrator who believed orchestration was a vital part of composition. Many of his orchestral works are rescorings of piano music, and he orchestrated several works of other composers, most notably Moussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition. He even considered reworking Debussy’s La Mer.

Daphnis et Chloé                                                                                        

Daphnis et Chloé is based on Lesbian Pastorals of Daphnis and Chloé, a love story set on the Isle of Lesbos by the second century Greek writer Longus, and translated into French in the 16th century by Jacques Amyot. Michel Fokine, a dancer for the Mariinsky Theater in Russia, suggested it as a ballet subject to Sergei Diaghilev, who was about to launch his newly formed Ballets Russes in Paris for a run of commissions that would profoundly shape musical history. Diaghilev approved and engaged Ravel to write the music, Fokine as choreographer, and Leon Bakst as costume designer. The premiere, with the Ballets Russes, was set for Spring 1910.

Ravel set to work on what was his largest and most difficult project. Uncomfortable with the novel’s lusty sensuousness and paganism, he rerooted the story in 18th century French art and poetry, “aiming less at archaism than at remaining faithful to the Greece of my dreams.” Composition was slow: only a piano score emerged in 1910, after which Ravel indulged in a long series of side projects that may have been a response to the immensity of his undertaking. The resulting postponements of the premiere in 1910 and 1911 stressed Ravel to the point where he (unsuccessfully) asked another composer to create the final dance. That the postponements were filled by Stravinsky’s great Firebird and Petrushka added to his anxiety.

Once completed, Daphnis was a troubled production. Fokine did not approve of Ravel’s revisions to his libretto, and it didn’t help that neither spoke the other’s language (“All I can do in Russian is swear,” admitted Ravel). Nor did the choreographer like Bakst’s costumes, which were borrowed from other productions and unsuited to Daphnis. He also accused Diaghilev of shifting badly limited rehearsal time to the production of Debussy’s Prelude à l’après-midi d’un Faune to accommodate Vaclav Nijinsky, who was dancing both works. The orchestral parts were full of mistakes, and the dancers struggled with the rhythms of a work not truly suited for dancing. Frustrated over the delays and unimpressed with the piano rehearsals, Diaghilev threatened to cancel the production. He settled for transferring two of four dates to Faune and had to be persuaded not to schedule Daphnis so early that audiences would miss part of it. (Daphnis was the first of four ballets heard consecutively on one night.)

Daphnis et Chloé finally opened on June 9, 1912, with Pierre Monteux conducting and with Nijinsky and Tamara Karsavina in the title roles. The audience seemed to like it, overshadowed though it was by the super erotic Faune, but critical reaction was mixed. One writer called the music the best from a Diaghilev production thus far. Others were disturbed by the disconnect between story, choreography, and costumes, as well as a perception that the ballet was under-rehearsed. After a more successful 1913 revival, Diaghilev pushed Ravel for a score without chorus. Ravel complied but insisted it not be used in major productions. When Diaghilev employed the chorus-less version for a 1914 London performance and Ravel protested publically, the impresario gave in, but he had lost interest in Daphnis.

Ravel called Daphnis a “symphonie choréographique [written] symphonically according to a strict tonal plan with a few motifs whose development achieves a symphonic homogeneity of style.” It is scored in three continuous parts for a large orchestra, wind machine, and wordless chorus. Many typical ballet devices and “moments” are missing: there are no numbers, e.g., pas de deux, and some parts are difficult to dance. Nor is Daphnis a formal symphony. It has no movements, themes are repeated but not developed, and it is shaped by a story line. Its music is romantic and at times impressionist, with an infusion of Rimsky-Korsakov and Borodin, and it ranges from sensual to lush, from mystical to exciting. (Ravel joked that he completed the final dance by placing Rimsky’s Scheherazade on the piano and copying it.) Stravinsky called it “Ravel’s best work [and] one of the most beautiful products of all French music.”  Today that music is experienced mainly in the concert hall, most commonly as the Second Suite, less often as the First Suite or the complete ballet.

The Story. Daphnis is set in a grotto with grazing sheep amid statues of Pan and three Nymphs. Several themes are immediately stated: a mystical phrase in the horns for the Nymphs, the shepherds’ in the flute, and the love motif in the horn for the young and innocent shepherd Daphnis and his future love Chloé. The motifs are repeated in the oboe, trumpet, and flute, before the stage fills with youths bearing gifts for the Nymphs. After a stately Religious Dance, the oboe sings the shepherds’ theme, the trumpets play a fanfare, and girls dance around Daphnis. A halting string passage signifies the cowherd Dorcon’s clumsy flirtation with Chloé. After muted fanfares in the trumpets, horns, and clarinets, a lively General Dance begins in the orchestra. Dorcon tries to kiss Chloé (flute duet) before he and Daphnis compete in a dance contest with Chloé’s kiss as the prize. Dorcon’s dance is an awkward march, interrupted by laughing woodwinds and mocking trombone glissandos. Daphnis’ is graceful, with rising arpeggios in the horn and trombone. After chattering woodwinds chase Dorcon away, the love theme accompanies the young couple’s innocent embrace. Everyone leaves, save for a dazed Daphnis. The chorus sings the Nymphs’ theme. Lyceion enters to a cadenza in the clarinets. She dances for a confused Daphnis until a short version of the clarinets’ cadenza signals her failure to seduce him. Suddenly, the youths and Chloé race back onto the stage, pursued by pirates who carry off Chloé. Daphnis collapses in despair, and stillness ensues. The three Nymph statues come to life with solos (flute, clarinet, horn) and dance to their theme. Pan appears with a hush in the strings.

Part 2 begins with a mysterious a cappella chorus. Distant instrumental calls signal danger. The scene has shifted to the pirate camp, with pirates running about and then engaging in a savage Dance Guerrière (Dance of War). After things calm, Bryaxis, their leader, orders Chloé to dance. She complies with timid, pitiable grace. Daphnis’ motif enters her mind, and she tries to escape but is twice stopped by punchy trombones. Bryaxis picks her up and is about to carry her off, when suddenly, strange creatures crawl about the stage, the earth opens, and trombones growl menacingly. The pirates flee, leaving Chloé alone, a crown of light on her head. It is night.

Part 3. Daphnis lies asleep. Dawn breaks, rivulets flow through the brook, and birds sing. A slow wandering in the basses finds direction with the entrance of the bassoon and flows up through the strings. The clarinets join in a long beautiful melody as one shepherd passes in the flute and another in the clarinet. The chorus enters with the Nymphs’ theme. Herdsmen waken the sleeping Daphnis who looks for Chloé as the music becomes rhythmically unstable. When she appears, the lovers embrace with a climactic outpouring of their theme. Through some extended string notes, Daphnis sees the light on Chloé’s head and recognizes it as Pan. The long melody from the opening of Part 3 flows up through the strings, reaching a final climax with the brass. After goatherd Lammon’s syncopated oboe intervals explain that Pan saved Chloé, Daphnis and Chloé dance the story of Pan and Syrinx. Nervous wooing in several wind solos induces “Pan” to play a long flute solo while “Syrinx” dances. The couple finally embraces with the flute in its lowest register. Their theme follows, leading to a violin solo, and the reappearance of the opening rivulets in the flutes. Daphnis and Chloé declare their love amid a climactic combining of the Nymphs’ and Shepherds’ themes, and the ballet ends in a wild dance of celebration.

Le tombeau de Couperin

In 1914, Ravel began a suite française for piano, inspired by the Forlane of the fourth of Couperin’s Concerts Royaux (which Ravel arranged for solo piano). The idea germinated during World War I and sprouted in 1917 as Le tombeau de Couperin, a six-movement suite for piano written in Baroque style as an “homage addressed less to Couperin than to 18th century French music in general.” Ravel dedicated each movement to friends killed in the war. Though the word tombeau translates as “tomb” or “grave,” a tombeau is actually a piece or a group of pieces which serve as a memorial. When critics objected to Tombeau’s nonfunereal nature, pianist Marguerite Long, who played the premiere in 1919, replied, “The dead are sad enough, in their eternal silence.” (Long’s husband, musicologist Joseph de Marliave, was memorialized in the Toccata.) Ravel’s 1919 orchestration of four movements for chamber orchestra premiered in 1920. That same year, three of those movements were danced by the Swedish Ballet in Paris.

Tombeau is cleanly structured and transparent, with modal harmonies and seventh chords. It is quite different from Daphnis and typical of later Ravel. The orchestration adds new ornaments, chordal changes, and string harmonics and provides a star turn for the oboist. Prélude, based on French Baroque harpsichord pieces, is a fountain of triplets. Forlane combines Couperin’s sharp rhythms with modern harmony. Menuet’s outer sections are wistful and sad. Its musette is a somber chord progression that trades the resonant sonority of blocked piano chords for lyricism. The outer sections of Rigaudon, based on a Provençal dance, surround a quasi-Spanish pastoral section.  For all the critics’ concern about the piece being upbeat, biographer Gerald Larner’s observation that Tombeau is somewhat aloof and unemotional is well taken, but that does not detract from the work’s lasting charm.

—Roger Hecht

Roger Hecht plays trombone in the Mercury Orchestra, Lowell House Opera, and Bay Colony Brass (where he is also the Operations/Personnel Manager), and is a local freelancer. He is a regular reviewer for American Record Guide, contributed to Classical Music: Listener's Companion, and has written articles on music for the Elgar Society Journal and Positive Feedback magazine. He is a former member of the Syracuse Symphony, Lake George Opera, New Bedford Symphony, and Cape Ann Symphony.

Return to Home Page