Ravel: Alborada del gracioso

Alborada del gracioso

Maurice Ravel was born March 7, 1875, in Ciboure, Basses–Pyrenées, France, and died December 28, 1937, in Paris. He composed Alborada del gracioso in 1904–05, for solo piano, and transcribed it for orchestra in 1918. It was premiered in its original form on January 6, 1906, at the Salle Erard in Paris, played by pianist Ricardo Viñes; in its orchestral form, it was first played on May 17, 1919, with Rhené–Baton conducting the Pasdeloup Orchestra in Paris. The first San Francisco Symphony performances, in April 1936, were led by Pierre Monteux; the most recent performances, in October 2005, were led by Peter Oundjian. Ravel’s orchestral version calls for three flutes (third doubling piccolo), two oboes and English horn, two clarinets, two bassoons and contrabassoon, four horns, two trumpets, three trombones, tuba, timpani, triangle, crotales, tambourine, xylophone, castanets, snare drum, cymbals, bass drum, two harps, and strings. Performance time: about seven minutes.

The Spanish composer Manuel de Falla arrived for a residence in Paris in the summer of 1907 and immediately asked his compatriot Ricardo Viñes, the Catalan pianist and a close friend of Maurice Ravel’s, to introduce him to his French idol. The meeting was arranged, and Falla went to hear Ravel and Viñes read through Ravel’s newly composed Rapsodie espagnole in its version for piano four–hands. “The Rapsodie . . . surprised me because of its Spanish character,” Falla later wrote:

But how was I to account for the subtly genuine Spanishness of Ravel, knowing, because he had told me so, that the only link he had with my country was to have been born near the border! The mystery was soon explained: Ravel’s was a Spain he had felt in an idealized way through his mother. She was a lady of exquisite conversation. She spoke fluent Spanish, which I enjoyed so much when she evoked the years of her youth, spent in Madrid, an epoch earlier than mine, but traces of its habits that were familiar to me still remained. Then I understood with what fascination her son must have listened to these memories that were undoubtedly intensified by the additional force all reminiscence gets from the song or dance theme inseparably connected with it.

The Rapsodie espagnole Falla heard on the day the two composers made each other’s acquaintance was not Ravel’s first flirtation with the Spanish style, nor would it be his last. In 1904–05 he had produced his five–movement piano suite Miroirs, of which the fourth movement was titled, in Spanish, Alborada del gracioso. The critic M.D. Calvocoressi, to whom this movement was dedicated, wrote of it with great admiration in a review, describing it as “a big independent scherzo in the manner of Chopin and Balakirev.” He continued, “The ‘humor,’ the frank and vivacious fantasy of ‘Alborada’ merit the highest praise.”

For Ravel, Spanish flavor often goes hand in hand with good humor, as in his comic opera L’heure espagnole (1907–09) and his late orchestral song cycle Don Quichotte à Dulcinée (1932–33). Elsewhere it may strike a more mysterious tone, most famously in his Boléro (1928). Alborada del gracioso is of the high–spirited variety, right from the guitar–like strumming motif at its beginning. Ravel’s friend and biographer Roland–Manuel regretted that pianists rarely played the complete Miroirs cycle, but at least he was pleased about their “keeping in their repertory the Alborada del Gracioso, where the dry and biting virtuosity is contrasted, Spanish–wise, with the swooning flow and the love–lorn melodic line which interrupts the angry buzzing of guitars.”

The title seems on the obscure side, and it is often translated (not inaccurately) as “Morning Song of the Jester.” An alborada is a song sung at dawn, and a gracioso is a humorous or amusingly entertaining person; the musicologist and philosopher Vladimir Jankélévitch spoke of Ravel’s gracioso as a sort of “Andalusian Petrushka.” In 1907, responding to a query about the meaning of the title, Ravel responded: “I understand your bafflement over how to translate the title ‘Alborada del gracioso.’ That is precisely why I decided not to translate it. The fact is that the gracioso of Spanish comedy is a rather special character and one which, so far as I know, is not found in any other theatrical tradition. We do have an equivalent, though, in the French theater: Beaumarchais’ Figaro. But he’s more philosophical, less well–meaning than his Spanish ancestor.”

On the face of it, Alborada del gracioso presents itself as a forthright character piece of perhaps eight minutes in duration. In fact, it is crafted with precise finesse. It is reported that he once explained to his pupil Maurice Delage that its structure was “as strict as that of a Bach fugue.” The pianist–scholar Roy Howat has put forth an analysis of this work that clarifies how its principal motifs are introduced and expanded according to meticulous mathematical proportions, a process that ultimately leads to a lay–out rich in such proportions as the Fibonacci series, the Lucas series, and the Golden Section. “This proportional structure extends throughout the piece,” he writes, “and is even allowed for in Ravel’s changed dimensions in the orchestral version; it also adds an interesting gloss to his repeated mention of a childhood liking for mathematics.”

—James M. Keller

An earlier version of this note appeared in the programs of the New York Philharmonic and is used with permission.

More About the Music
Recordings: Charles Dutoit conducting the Orchestre symphonique de Montréal (Decca) | Leonard Slatkin conducting the Orchestre national de Lyon (Naxos) | Of historical interest, Pierre Monteux conducting the San Francisco Symphony in 1947 (RCA Victor)

Reading: Ravel: Man and Musician, by Arbie Orenstein (Dover) | A Ravel Reader, edited by Orenstein (Columbia University Press) | The Cambridge Companion to Ravel, edited by Deborah Mawer (Cambridge) | Ravel According to Ravel, by Vlado Perlemuter with Hélène Jourdan–Morhange (Kahn & Averill) | Reflections: The Piano Music of Maurice Ravel, by Paul Roberts (Amadeus Press) | Maurice Ravel, by Roland–Manuel (Dover) | Richard Langham Smith’s article “Ravel’s Operatic Spectacles” in The Cambridge Companion to Ravel, edited by Deborah Mawer (Cambridge)

(June 2015)