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Maurice Ravel (1875-1937)
Piano Works, Vol. 2
Valses nobles et sentimentales
Gaspard de la nuit (Trois poèmes pour piano d'après Aloysius Bertrand)
Le Tombeau de Couperin
From his father, a Swiss engineer, Ravel inherited a delight in precision
and incidentally in mechanical toys, while from his Basque mother he acquired
a familiarity with something of Spanish culture. Born in the village of Ciboure
in the Basque region of France in 1875, he spent his childhood and adolescence
in Paris, starting piano lessons at the age of seven and from the age of fourteen
studying piano in the preparatory piano class of the Conservatoire. He left
the Conservatoire in 1895, after failing to win the necessary prizes, but resumed
studies there three years later under Gabriel Fauré. His repeated failure to
win the Prix de Rome, even when well established as a composer, disqualified
in his fifth attempt in 1905, resulted in a scandal that led to changes in that
august institution, of which Fauré then became director.
Ravel's career continued successfully in the years before 1914 with a series
of works of originality, including important additions to the piano repertoire,
to the repertoire of French song and, with commissions from Diaghilev, to ballet.
During the war he enlisted in 1915 as a driver and the war years left relatively
little time and will for composition, particularly with the death of his mother
in 1917. By 1920, however, he had begun to recover his spirits and resumed work,
with a series of compositions, including an orchestration of La valse,
rejected by Diaghilev, causing a rupture in their relations, and a number of
engagements as a pianist and conductor in concerts of his own works at home
and abroad. All this was brought to an end by his protracted final illness,
attributed to a taxi accident in 1932, which led to his eventual death in 1937.
The Valses nobles et sentimentales were avowedly written in imitation
of Schubert, with the seventh waltz, according to Ravel, the most characteristic.
Completed in 1911, the waltzes were performed at a concert of the Société Musicale
Indépendante by Louis Aubert, to whom they are dedicated, but without any attribution
in the programme, the audience being left to show its discrimination by guessing
which composers had contributed to the recital. The waltzes were variously attributed
to Satie, Kodály or Ravel, although some suspected a hoax and refused to take
the work seriously. At the head of the score is a quotation from Henri de Régnier,
from his novel Les rencontres de Monsieur de Bréot: 'le plaisir
délicieux et toujours nouveau d'une occupation inutile' (the delightful and
always novel pleasure of a useless occupation). The work was orchestrated in
1912 as a ballet, Adélaïde, ou le langage des fleurs, for the Russian
dancer Natasha Trouhanova and was staged in April that year at the Théâtre du
Châtelet. The first waltz is cynically cheerful, followed by a more intimate
waltz, slower and to be played with intense expression. There are harmonic surprises
in the third of the set, which is followed by a waltz of rhythmic contrast.
The gentle fifth of the set leads to a lively sixth and a longer seventh, before
the final Epilogue, a summary and recollection of much that has passed.
Ravel was introduced to the poems of Aloysius Bertrand by the pianist Ricardo
Viñes, who gave the first performance of Ravel's Gaspard de la nuit in
January 1909. Each of the three pieces is preceded, in the score, by the relevant
prose-poem of Bertrand. Before 'Ondine' four lines are quoted from Charles Brugnot:
… Je croyais entendre
Une vague harmonie enchanter mon sommeil,
Et près de moi s'épandre un murmure pareil
Aux chants entrecoupés d'une voix triste et tendre.
(I thought I heard a vague harmony casting a spell on my sleep, and near me
was the murmur of a sad and tender voice, breaking into the songs).
Ondine is the mermaid, in love with a mortal: it is she that is heard in the
drops of water against the window-panes and lit by the light of the moon: each
wave is a water spirit, swimming in the current that leads to her watery palace
at the bottom of the lake. She begs the mortal to take her ring on his finger
and to go with her, as king of the lakes, but he tells her he loves a mortal.
She cries and then, with a burst of laughter, disappears in streams of water
down the blue window-panes. The music, in a demanding enough texture, said by
Ravel to rival in difficulty Balakirev's Islamey, captures the mood of
the poem, evoking the movement of the water and the story that lies hidden in
A quotation from Faust precedes 'Le Gibet': 'Que vois-je remuer autour de
ce gibet?' (What do I see stir around this gibbet?). Bertrand's reply amplifies
this: is it a night-bird that he hears or a sound from the dead man hanging
there, is it a cricket in the moss at the foot of the gibbet, is it a fly buzzing
at the ears of the corpse, is it a snail seizing a hair from his bald head,
or a spider weaving muslin as a cravat for the hanged man? It is the bell that
sounds from the town-walls on the horizon and the corpse of a hanged man that
glows red in the setting sun. The bell is heard tolling as the music begins,
showing a haunted landscape.
Bertrand's poem 'Scarbo' is preceded by lines from the Contes nocturnes
of Hoffmann, known to contemporaries as 'Gespenster Hoffmann', Ghost Hoffmann:
He looked under the bed, in the fire-place, in the bahut; - no-one. He could
not understand how it had entered or how it had escaped. Bertrand goes on to
speculate on the elusive spirit: how many times have I heard and seen Scarbo,
when the moon shines in the sky like a silver coin on a banner of azure! He
has heard his laugh in the corner of the room, his nails scratching at the bed-curtains.
He thought him gone, but the dwarf grew between the moon and him like the bell-tower
of a Gothic cathedral, a golden bell swinging on his pointed bonnet. Soon, though,
his body grew pale and translucent, like the wax of a candle and suddenly he
was no more. The music reflects the activity of the elusive goblin, now here,
now there, and then extinguished, like a light.
Ravel wrote his Le Tombeau de Couperin between 1914 and 1917. It serves,
in its form as a dance suite, as a tribute to François Couperin, the great French
composer of the early eighteenth century, and, more generally, as he claimed,
to the French music of that period, but also as a tribute, in the dedication
of each piece, to friends who fell in the war. It was first performed in Paris
in April 1919 by the pianist Marguerite Long, to the memory of whose husband,
Captain Joseph de Marliave, the final Toccata is dedicated. The work opens with
an E minor Prélude and Fugue. These are followed by a Forlane that bears a more
directly discernible relationship with the work of Couperin. The lively Rigaudon,
with its hand-crossing in true claveciniste style, is followed by an elegant
and evocative Menuet with a musette trio section. The work ends with a rapid
Toccata. Le Tombeau de Couperin formed the basis of a ballet and orchestral
suite, transcribed in 1919.
Ravel wrote earlier versions of his choreographic poem La valse for
piano and for two pianos. It was completed in 1920, but the idea of an 'apotheosis
of the Viennese waltz' had long been with him. It proved unacceptable to Diaghilev
as a ballet, and his rejection of the work ended the relationship with Ravel.
La valse in some senses celebrates a vanished era, in a way that, as
elsewhere in his work, has echoes of Edgar Allan Poe, and is, as Diaghilev perceived,
'the portrait of a dance'. Ravel explained the narrative evoked: Through swirling
clouds, waltzing couples can be made out: the clouds gradually disperse, revealing
a great hall, with a whirling crowd of dancers: the scene is gradually illuminated,
with the chandeliers bursting into light, revealing an Imperial court of about