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ClassicsOnline Home » RAVEL: Bolero / Daphnis et Chloe / Piano Concerto / Ma mere l'oye
Maurice Ravel (1875 1937)
Ma mere l'oye
Tzigane, rapsodie de concert
Piano Concerto in G major
Daphnis et Chloé, Suite No.2
Maurice Ravel, in common with other great composers, uses a musical language that is instantly recognisable, whether in the sparer textures of music that recalls classical and earlier traditions, in his innovative writing for the piano or his colourful use of the modern orchestra. He was born in Ciboure in the Basses Pyrenées in 1875, the son of an engineer of Swiss ancestry and a mother who carne from the Basque country. From his father he acquired an interest in things mechanical and a certain meticulous precision in his music and in his personal habits, while from his mother he inherited an affinity with Spain and a familiarity with the language of that country, an element reflected in some of his compositions.
Ravel entered the Paris Conservatoire in 1889, but was to fail to win there the distinction and the necessary prizes that his abilities deserved. He withdrew in 1895 but returned in 1897 to study composition with Gabriel Fauré, a sympathetic teacher, who had succeeded Massenet at the Conservatoire the year before, after the death of his irnplacable opponent Ambroise Thomas.
By the early years of the present century Ravel had begun to earn a reputation for himself as a composer, in spite of the hostility of certain critics. He was to fail, however, to win the important Prix de Rome, the rejection of his fina1 entry in 1905 causing a public scandal that led to the resignation of the director of the Conservatoire, who was succeeded by Fauré. Instead he continued to gain ground against his opponents in the musical and critical establishment, and in 1909 was commissioned by the Russian impresario Sergey Dyagilev to write the score for the ballet Daphnis et Chloé, staged in 1912.
During the war years Ravel served as a transport driver, his lack of weight excluding him from the more active form of military service he would have preferred. Illness and the death of his mother in 1916 both diminished his activity as a composer, but by 1920 he had completed, at the prompting of Dyagilev, the choreographic poem La Valse and had started work on the operatic collaboration with Colette that resulted in the delightful L'enfant et les sortileges, in which elements of Ravel's various interests combine.
The death of Debussy in 1918, followed six years later by the death of his teacher Fauré, left Ravel as the leading French composer in the eyes of his contemporaries. There were to be various commissions and the establishment of an international reputation that brought him honour abroad and the offer of the Legion d'honneur at home, a distinction he rejected. His career was tragically shortened by the increasingly debilitating effects of what was later diagnosed as Pick's disease. He died in 1937 after an unsuccessful brain operation.
Ma mere l' oye was originally written as a suite of Mother Goose nursery tales for piano duet to entertain the children of Ravel's friend Cipa Godebski. It was orchestrated and extended as a ballet score in 1911, the year after its composition. The suite opens with Sleeping Beauty, followed by Hop-o'-my-thumb, with his trail of breadcrumbs leading through the forest. Laideronette is Empress of tiny oriental insect-musicians. Thereafter Beauty converses with the Beast, and the work ends in a fairy garden.
The famous Tzigane was written in 1924 for the Hungarian violinist Jelly d'Aranyi, whose own improvised additions the composer added to the completed work. Ravel reportedly remarked that he had no idea what she was doing, as she played the piece, but he liked it. The Tzigane remains a show-piece of the violin repertoire, whether in the version for violin and orchestra or in its original form, for violin and piano, designed by the composer to test the musical and technical ability of any performer and later described by one of Ravel's friends as a violinist's minefield. The work captures the spirit of gypsy improvisation, its art successfully concea1ing art.
The G major Concerto, at first conceived as a Basque Rhapsody, was dedicated to Marguerite Long, who was the soloist in the first performance at the Salle Pleyel in Paris on 14th January 1933. Originally conceived as a Divertissement for Ravel's own concert drum, cymbals, side-drum, gong, wood-block and whip. Ravel claimed to have taken the slow movement of Mozart's Clarinet Quintet as a model for his Adagio, and for the composition of the whole work, which took him some time, made a close study of scores of concertos by Mozart and Saint-Saëns. The jazz element of the first movement, with suggestions of Gershwin, yet fully absorbed into Ravel's own idiom, leads to the beautiful and nostalgic piano solo that starts the second movement. The motor rhythms of the last movement and the lively syncopation complete a concerto of elegance, brilliance and wit.
The symphonie choreographique Daphnis et Chloé is based on the Hellenistic novel by Longus, a Greco-Roman writer about whom nothing is known. His pastoral romance, set on the island of Lesbos, deals with the love, forced parting and final happiness of the shepherd Daphnis and the shepherdess Chloé, abducted by pirates, but eventually united, again with Daphnis, their union a subject of general rejoicing, under the inspiration of the shepherd god Pan. Ravel drew two orchestral suites from the original score, the second of them in 1912, the year in which Dyagilev's Ballets russes performed the work at the Theatre du Chatelet in Paris, with designs by Bakst, choreography by Fokin and the two title roles danced by Karsavina and Nijinsky. The scandal surrounding the latter's performance in his ballet using Debussy's pastoral L'apres-midi d'un faune overshadowed Ravel's ballet, which lacked the necessary ingredients of a succès de scandale, while celebrating again a long-vanished world, evoked in vivid and moving orchestral colours, subtly enhanced by the use of an added chorus.
Ravel wrote the orchestral tour de force Boléro in 1928 for the dancer Ida Rubinstein, describing it on one occasion as an orchestrated crescendo and on another as "une blague" and yet again as "vide de musique". It is based on the insistent drum rhythm of an invented Spanish dance and won immediate popularity.
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