Joseph Maurice Ravel was born in Ciboure near Saint-Jean-de-Luz, Basses-Pyrénées, on March 7, 1875, and died in Paris on December 28, 1937. He began the Concerto for the Left Hand at the end of 1929 on commission from Paul Wittgenstein and completed the work in the fall of 1930. Wittgenstein gave the first performance on January 5, 1932, with Robert Heger and the Vienna Symphony. He was also the soloist at the United States premiere on November 9, 1934, with Serge Koussevitzky and the Boston Symphony. In February 1943, with Pierre Monteux conducting, Maxim Shapiro gave the first San Francisco Symphony performances. The work was played here most recently in June 2010 by Yuja Wang with Michael Tilson Thomas conducting. The orchestra consists of three flutes (third doubling piccolo), two oboes and English horn, three clarinets with E-flat clarinet and bass clarinet, two bassoons and contrabassoon, four horns, three trumpets, three trombones, tuba, timpani, triangle, snare drum, cymbals, bass drum, wood block, tam-tam, harp, and strings. Performance time: about twenty minutes.
Though sketches for material used in La Valse go back as far as 1906, the work was composed only in 1919-20. Camille Chevillard conducted the Lamoureux Orchestra of Paris on December 12, 1920, in the premiere of the orchestral version. Alfred Hertz led the first North American performances of La Valse with the San Francisco Symphony in October 1921. The work was played here most recently in January 2010 under the direction of Michael Tilson Thomas. The score calls for two flutes and piccolo, two oboes and English horn, two clarinets and bass clarinet, two bassoons and contrabassoon, four horns, three trumpets, three trombones, tuba, timpani, bass drum, cymbals, antique cymbals, castanets, tam-tam, triangle, snare drum, celesta, bells, two harps, and strings. Performance time: about thirteen minutes.
World War I changed the face of Europe and erased many assumptions of Western civilization. Ravel no longer cared to write pictorial music, and his sound had become more sharply sculpted. He still loved challenge and economy. No wonder that, in 1929, when Paul Wittgenstein asked him for a piano concerto for left hand alone, Ravel was enchanted.
Wittgenstein was brother of the famous Ludwig, author of the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus and the Philosophical Investigations. Paul served in the Austrian army on the Russian front and lost his right arm in the first months of the 1914 war. Afterward, the Wittgenstein family fortune enabled him to commission more than a dozen works for piano left-hand, including compositions by Hindemith, Franz Schmidt, and Erich Wolfgang Korngold.
Ravel’s concerto is a masterpiece that Wittgenstein came to regard as “a great work,” but his first encounter with it was unhappy. “I wasn’t overwhelmed by the composition,” Wittgenstein said many years later. “I suppose Ravel was disappointed, and I was sorry, but I had never learned to pretend.”
Reviewing the Left-Hand Concerto in La Revue musicale, Henry Prunières regretted that “the author of Daphnis” had so seldom chosen “to let us observe what he was guarding in his heart instead of encouraging the legend that his brain alone invented these admirable sonorous phantasmagoria. From the opening measures we are plunged into a world into which Ravel has but rarely guided us.” We are probably more inclined today than our counterparts in 1932 to look for that which is dark. At any rate, we are ready to perceive this work—one of the two or three greatest among twentieth-century piano concertos—as a singularly powerful distillation of Ravel’s sinister side.
Ravel establishes the climate in the opening seconds. Cellos and basses send up a dissonant thundercloud, against which the contrabassoon plays a solemn theme, followed by low horns with a melody that suggests the “jazz elements” Ravel said he had included in this music. Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue,which we hear later in this program,had already brought jazz into the concert hall, and it was only six years old when Ravel’s concerto was introduced. (Ravel, who admired his American contemporary, is reported to have declined Gershwin’s request for lessons by asking him why he would want to be a second-rate Ravel when he could be a first-rate Gershwin.)
In a concerto for left hand we have the suspense that grows from the question, “How in the world is this going to work?” Not to worry. The piano’s grand entrée is capped by a glissando from the bottom A on the keyboard to the top D. Altogether, it gives Ravel manifest pleasure to write for one hand as though it were three.
To the ideas already presented, Ravel adds an expressive lyric melody for the piano and a crackling scherzo. He deploys his ideas powerfully, simply, and with concentration. This is the shortest concerto in the standard repertory. The color, gray and glare, is distinctive, the scoring astonishingly inventive. A passage in the scherzo for flutes, plucked violins and violas, harp, and piano offers another example of Ravel’s delight in mimicry, for it is the harp that plays the “one-finger” piano tune while the piano plays harp music. Ravel saves for his cadenza his most eye-popping device, a soprano and tenor duet with an accompaniment in brilliant thirty-second-notes sweeping between them. One more fierce orchestral crescendo, then a four-second reminder of the scherzo, bring the music to its brusquely furious end.
The piece that became La Valse was to have been a waltz portrait of unalloyed affection. As early as 1906, Ravel planned a tribute to Johann Strauss to be called Wien. For many reasons he kept getting distracted from the project, and the experience of the 1914-18 war made it impossible for him to retrieve the spirit of the original idea. To be sure, he declined to join a National League for the Defense of French Music, one of whose purposes was to ban music by living German and Austrian composers; nonetheless, early in the war he had written to his friend Cipa Godewski: “And now, if you wish, Vive la France! but above all down with Germany and Austria! or at least what those two nations stand for at the present time.” When, late in 1919, he began work on the score, the world had become a different place. Waltzing Vienna was no longer to be seen in quite the same way, and so La Valse became a bitter and ferocious fantasy, a terrifying tone poem that helped define a new language of musical nightmare.
Ravel completed La Valse on commission from Serge Diaghilev for his Ballets Russes. But when Ravel played it for him, the impresario saw no dance possibilities in it. The composer was offended, and this split counted for more than the memory of the success of Daphnis et Chloé in 1912. Ravel and Diaghilev never collaborated again. Still, Ravel published the score as a poème chorégraphique, and there is a prefatory note with a hint of a scenario: “Swirling clouds afford glimpses, through rifts, of waltzing couples. The clouds scatter little by little; one can distinguish an immense hall with a whirling crowd. The scene grows progressively brighter. The light of the chandeliers bursts forth at the fortissimo. An imperial court, about 1855.” Ravel indicates specific musical cues for the scattering of the clouds (the slow tune for divided violas and bassoons) and for the full lighting of the chandeliers. Among the musical ghosts that spin about this imperial ballroom are the fourth and seventh of his Valses nobles et sentimentales.
Michael Steinberg, the San Francisco Symphony’s program annotator from 1979 to 1999 and a contributing writer to our program book until his death in 2009, was one of the nation’s pre-eminent writers on music. We are privileged to continue publishing his program notes. His books are available at the Symphony Store in Davies Symphony Hall.
More About the Music
Recordings: For the Concerto—Krystian Zimerman, with Pierre Boulez conducting the London Symphony (Deutsche Grammophon) | Jean-Yves Thibaudet, with Charles Dutoit conducting the Montreal Symphony (Decca) | Monique Haas, with Paul Paray conducting the Orchestre Nationale de France (Deutsche Grammophon)
For La Valse—Charles Dutoit conducting the Montreal Symphony Orchestra (Decca) | Seiji Ozawa conducting the Boston Symphony Orchestra (Deutsche Grammophon) | Ernest Ansermet conducting L’Orchestre de la Suisse Romande (Decca) | Claudio Abbado conducting the London Symphony Orchestra (Deutsche Grammophon).
Reading: Ravel: Man and Musician, by Arbie Orenstein (Dover) | A Ravel Reader, edited by Orenstein (Columbia University Press) | Ravel Remembered,by Roger Nichols (Norton) | The Cambridge Companion to Ravel, edited by Deborah Mawer (Cambridge)