The Galaxy – Reveling in Ravel

Photographie du compositeur français Maurice Ravel

Photographie du compositeur français Maurice Ravel (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It has been a while since I’ve posted my playlists – truly unforgivable, since I’ve been playing some new music in recent weeks.  But it is in fact the new music that calls me – beckons me – back to the blog, as it is too much for me not to share.


Tonight we celebrate the birthday of Maurice Ravel.  Ravel is a truly interesting composer.  His output was varied – he wrote some vocal music, and he wrote some piano music, but his primary interest was in the colors of the orchestra.  His orchestral music was extraordinary – stories that he found unique ways to tell.  His orchestral voice was quite individualistic, and one can often tell just by listening to his orchestrations that a work was his.  While his music was unmistakeably French, he was intrigued by ideas from other places, and found ways to insert those concepts into his pieces, with a number of his greatest works bearing Spanish motifs.


Set design by Léon Bakst for the world premiere of the ballet Daphnis et Chloë (music by Ravel), Paris 1912.

Set design by Léon Bakst for the world premiere of the ballet Daphnis et Chloë (music by Ravel), Paris 1912.

Such a work is the piece that we began the night with.  Daphnis et Chloé, a ballet, was a commission from Sergei Diaghilev (you may remember him as the choreographer behind Stravinsky‘s three legendary ballets).  Ravel began the work in 1909, and it was premiered on June 8, 1912, with Pierre Monteux conducting.  At almost an hour in length, it is Ravel’s longest piece of music, and was considered by his contemporaries as one of his better compositions.  Tonight’s recording is an interesting document, a 1955 live recording by the Concertgebouw Amsterdam as conducted by Pierre Monteux, who had conducted the premiere.

Portrait of Ida Rubenstein

Portrait of Ida Rubenstein, inspiration for Ravel’s Bolero (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Ravel’s most popular work is easily Bolero.  However, unlike many works which enter the popular consciousness, Bolero is an absolutely amazing piece of music.  Ravel wrote Bolero in 1928 for the ballerina Ida Rubenstein, and set it up to tell the story of a woman who suddenly begins to dance a bolero in a dimly lit Spanish cafe.  Other patrons in the cafe become caught up in the infectious rhythm, dancing like marionettes until the final, “orgiastic” climax stops them in their tracks.  I personally find the orchestration (essentially played at an uninterrupted, unyielding crescendo) quite brilliant, a compelling example of Ravel’s brilliance (along with the aforementioned Daphnis et Chloe) in his orchestral arrangements.  Tonight’s recording is a 1960 recording by the Philadelphia Orchestra under Eugene Ormandy.

English: Pierre Monteux, conductor of the Ball...

English: Pierre Monteux, conductor of the Ballets Russes, who premiered many works by Ravel and Debussy (Photo by Le Monde Musical) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Valses nobles et sentimentales is a 1912 composition that Ravel intended to echo the style of Franz Schubert.  Like with many of his works, Ravel initially wrote the Valses for piano, and the work was premiered as a piano work in 1911 by Louis Albert to catcalls.  Ravel orchestrated the Valses the following year.  Although Schubert actually wrote sets of waltzes that were grouped as “noble” and “sentimental”, Ravel does not attempt to distinguish between the two in his composition.  Tonight we heard a 1963 recording by the Philadelphia Orchestra, this time under Charles Munch.

We closed tonight’s show with two sets of songs (in the French, “chansons”) that Ravel set to different languages.  The first set was his Chants Populaires, a collection of four songs that he set to four different languages – French, Spanish, Italian, and Hebrew.  As if he wanted to further underscore his interest in the Hebrew language, we also heard another set of songs set to Hebrew, his Deux Mélodies Hébraïques.  In both instances, the songs were performed by the excellent Italian mezzo-soprano Cecilia Bartoli, with accompaniment by Myung-Whun Chung.


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