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ClassicsOnline Home » RAVEL, M.: Chansons (Songs) (Millot, Mula, Brua, Naouri, Theruel)
Maurice Ravel (1875-1937)
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 1875 in
the small coastal village of Ciboure in the Basque region of France, he spent
his childhood and adolescence principally in Paris, starting piano lessons at
the age of seven and from the age of fourteen studying the piano in the preparatory
piano class of the Conservatoire. In 1895 he left the Conservatoire, after failing
to win the prizes necessary for promotion, but resumed studies there three years
later under Gabriel Fauré. His repeated failure to win the important Prix
de Rome, even when well enough established as a composer, disqualified at
his fifth attempt in 1905, resulted in a scandal that led to changes in the
Conservatoire, of which Fauré 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 body 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 or 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 his choreographic poem La valse, rejected by Diaghilev and the cause
of a rupture in their relations. He undertook a number of engagements as a pianist
and conductor in concerts of his own works, in France 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.
Ravel left some 39 songs, a dozen of which are arrangements
of folk-songs. Although any division of Ravel's work into periods of supposed
development may seem arbitrary with a composer whose essential style seems,
in other respects, to have been formed so early, it is convenient, at least,
to take together the earlier songs, settings of individual poems, the composition
of which coincides more or less with the composer's association with the Conservatoire.
A second group follows the composition of the cycle with orchestra, Shéhérazade,
in 1903 and ends with the Chants populaires of 1910. This is followed
in 1913 by the Trois poèmes de Stéphane Mallarmé, for voice and instrumental
ensemble, not included here, leading to the final Don Quichotte à Dulcinée.
The earliest song is the 'Ballade de la reine morte d'aimer'
(The Ballade of the Queen who died for love) [CD 2 / Track 6], a setting of
a poem by Roland de Marès, suggesting in its reference to Thule the ballad of
the King of Thule in Goethe's Faust. The archaising tendency of the text
is matched by Ravel's setting in an archaic style that he was soon to explore
elsewhere, with elements of illustration in the sound of the bells that announce
the death of the queen. There is something sinister about the Verlaine setting
of 1895, 'Un grand sommeil noir' (A great black sleep) [1/17], with its menacing
accompaniment and agonized climax. The pianist Alfred Cortot remembered his
fellow-student as 'a sarcastic, argumentative and aloof young man, who used
to read Mallarmé and visit Erik Satie'. For his first published song, 'Sainte'
(Saint) [2/13], written in 1896, Ravel turned to Mallarmé, the source of later
significant inspiration. It has been suggested that the setting owes something
to Satie, in its accompaniment of chords and perhaps in its mood and direction
liturgiquement, which suits a poem that gently contemplates St Cecilia.
It was first performed in 1907.
It was in 1898 that Ravel wrote his setting of Leconte de
Lisle's 'Chanson du rouet' (Song of the Spinning-Wheel) [1/6], a song that cannot
help but recall Schubert's setting of Gretchen's spinning-song from Goethe's
Faust. The piano echoes the movement of the treadle and the wheel, with
a final allusion, in the bass, to the Dies irae when death is mentioned.
The same period brought the Deux épigrammes de Clément Marot (Two Epigrams
of Clément Marot) [1/10-11], sixteenth-century texts that invited archaism.
This is suggested by the open fifths of the accompaniment of the first song,
with reflections of the spinet in the piano figuration of the second. The group
of early songs ends with the 1903 setting of an indifferent poem by the pseudonymous
Paul Gravollet, 'Manteau de fleurs' (Mantle of Flowers) [1/18] in which Ravel
effectively prevails over any defects in the text.
The short cycle Shéhérazade, settings of three poems
from the collection of that name by his friend Tristan Klingsor, originally
with orchestra and not included here, opens a new period in Ravel's songs. Between
1904 and 1906 he set five Greek folk-songs, here sung, as at the first performance,
in Greek, but more often performed with the translation by Michel Calvocoressi.
Only the third and fourth of the original set were published, with three further
songs added for the subsequent publication. The first group of songs were set
very quickly to illustrate a lecture and the whole set, with the newly added
songs, was first performed at a lecture-recital by Calvocoressi. The Cinq
mélodies populaires grecques [1/12-16] is Ravel's first venture into the
harmonization of folk-songs. In 1909 he set another Greek folk-song, Tripatos
[2/7], before turning the following year to a group of songs in Spanish, Limousin
French, Scottish, Italian and Yiddish, the Chants populaires [1/1-5], with apt
harmonizations and piano accompaniments that enhance the melodies.
Ravel wrote his own words for the charming 'Noël des jouets'
(The Toys' Christmas) [1/7] of 1905, with its child-like wonder at the figures
of the crib. The piano suggests the bells of Christmas, with a vocal line that
seems to prefigure both the Histoires naturelles [2/1-5] of 1906 and
the later collaboration with Colette, L'enfant et les sortilèges. The
first of these is a successful attempt to set prose rather than verse. Jules
Renard, author of the famous novel of unhappy childhood, Poil de carotte,
turned from verse to the writing of prose sketches, at their most successful
in the poetic observation of nature depicted in Histoires naturelles,
a collection of prose-poems illustrated by Toulouse-Lautrec, Bonnard and others.
Ravel sought to interpret these texts in musical terms, the vocal line largely
following the rhythms and intonations of the words. Renard, who enjoyed a very
considerable reputation, had doubts about the need for musical intervention,
but was persuaded to hear the first performance of Ravel's work, with its echoes,
perceived by the critic Emile Vuillermoz, of Ravel's own spoken intonations.
The middle period of Ravel's songs includes a setting in 1906
of 'Les grands vents venus d'outremer' (The great winds that come from beyond
the sea) [2/12], a poem by the poet and novelist Henri de Régnier. The turbulence
evoked is reflected in the setting, as the winter winds blow, leading to the
bleak ending. 'Sur l'herbe' (On the grass) [2/14) sets an evocative poem from
Verlaine's Fêtes galantes, with its snatches of conversation in an idealised
past world of Watteau. The 'Vocalise' [2/16], a study in the form of a habanera,
was commissioned for the Paris Conservatoire and later won wider fame in various
Ravel's Deux mélodies hébraïques (Two Jewish Songs)
[1/8-9] include the important Aramaic Kaddish text, the cantor's melismatic
chant sparely supported by the piano. The second song, 'L'énigme éternelle'
(The Eternal Enigma) is in Yiddish and of a very different kind, but imparting
an air of mystery. The Trois chansons (Three Songs) [2/8-10] of 1914-15
were adapted as solo songs by the composer from his four-part original unaccompanied
settings of the same date. The words are by the composer and refer obliquely
to the war in the birds of paradise, with their blue, white and red colours,
the last bringing a soldier's death. 'Nicolette' has a simple narrative, illustrated
by the piano, and the final Ronde is a comic song.
'Ronsard à son âme' (Ronsard to his soul) [2/11] of 1923-24
was Ravel's contribution to a tribute to Ronsard, the Tombeau de Ronsard,
for which a number of leading composers provided settings. The flavour of the
period is reflected in the open intervals of the accompaniment, with its suggestions
of organum, recalling the earlier of the two Marot songs. The evocative little
setting of 'Rêves' (Dreams) [2/15], a poem by Léon-Paul Fargue, was written
Ravel completed his Chansons madécasses (Madagascan
Songs) [2/17-19] in 1926, settings of three poems allegedly translated but possibly
written by the Creole poet Evariste-Désiré de Forges, Vicomte de Parny, and
published in 1787. For voice, flute, cello and piano in their original version,
the songs were written in response to a commission from Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge
and reflect an eroticism that matches the texts but is unusual in Ravel. This
is particularly evident in the first song, 'Nahandove'. The cautionary 'Aoua!'
and the final 'Il est doux' are bitonal, the latter expressive of sultry languor.
The three songs of Don Quichotte à Dulcinée (Don Quixote
to Dulcinea) [1/20-22] were written in 1932-33 to texts by Paul Morand. They
were originally intended for the great Russian singer Challapin in a film about
Cervantes, but not used for that purpose. In this final work Ravel returns to
Spain, basing each of the songs on a Spanish or Basque dance rhythm. The extravagant
promises of 'Chanson romanesque' are followed by the solemn prayer to St Michael
of 'Chanson épique' and the final more boisterous celebration of 'Chanson à
boire' (Drinking Song).
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RAVEL, M.: Chansons (Songs) (Millot, Mula, Brua, ...