Ravel: L’heure espagnole

L’heure espagnole (The Spanish Hour) 

Maurice Ravel was born March 7, 1875, in Ciboure, Basses-Pyrenées, France, and died December 28, 1937, in Paris. Maurice Ravel was born March 7, 1875, in Ciboure, Basses-Pyrenées, France, and died December 28, 1937, in Paris. Ravel composed L’heure espagnole, to a libretto by Franc-Nohain, in 1907—he signed off on the vocal score that October—and refined the full score through 1909. The work was premiered May 19, 1911, at the Opéra-Comique (Salle Favart) in Paris, with François Ruhlmann conducting, and with a cast that featured Geneviève Vix (Concepcion, a soprano or mezzo-soprano), Jean Périer (Ramiro, a “baryton-Martin,” a light baritone), M. Delvoye (Don Inigo Gomez, a “buffo” bass), M. Coulomb (Gonzalve, a tenor), and Maurice Cazeneuve (Torquemada, a tenor). These are the first San Francisco Symphony performances. The work bears a dedication to Mme. Jean Cruppi. In addition to the five singers, the score calls for two flutes and piccolo, two oboes and English horn, two clarinets and bass clarinet, two bassoons and sarrusophone (a double-reed instrument built of brass, once popular in France but today generally replaced by a contrabassoon, as it is here), four horns, two trumpets, three trombones, tuba, timpani, snare drum, bass drum, cymbals, spring, tambourine, tam-tam, triangle, castanets, ratchet, whip, sleigh bells, tubular bells, glockenspiel, three clock pendulums, xylophone, celesta, two harps, and strings. Performance time: about fifty-two minutes.

Ravel was very much entrenched in his “Spanish phase” when he composed his one-act comic opera L’heure espagnole in 1907, the same year as his Rapsodie espagnole and a year after his Alborada del gracioso. The stage comedy L’heure espagnole, by the minor poet and operetta librettist Franc-Nohain (the pen-name of Maurice-étienne Legrand), had been warmly greeted when it was unveiled at the Odéon Theatre in Paris in 1904 as a curtain-raiser preceding a longer play. By then, Ravel had worked tentatively on several operatic projects, bringing none of them near completion. L’heure espagnole seemed more in line with his personal dramatic taste. He found its dry humor and removed emotional climate compatible, and the author was happy to grant him permission to use his play for a musical setting. Ravel kept Franc-Nohain’s text mostly intact, effecting only small cuts as he molded it into the one-act bagatelle he had in mind.

Ravel worked quickly, writing the whole piece in about six months. As soon as he completed the vocal score, in October 1907, he submitted it to Albert Carré, head of the Opéra-Comique. Aghast at the licentiousness of its double-entendres, Carré at first refused to consider presenting the work to his public. Eventually he was won to the cause—at least so he said—and announced that the piece would be offered on a double-bill with Richard Strauss’s Feuersnot. But he still dragged his feet, coming up with a stream of excuses about why it was never the right time to realize the production he had promised. Ravel forged on, completing his orchestral score in 1909. The following year, a few bits of the opera were given in a concert performance, after which a reviewer asked in print, “When will L’heure espagnole be performed at the Opéra-Comique?” Carré’s delays dragged on nonetheless. Finally Madame Jean Cruppi, the wife of the Minister of Commerce and Industry of the French Republic, interceded on Ravel’s behalf and pressured Carré to make good on his promise. But for this coercion, the opera surely would have sat unproduced indefinitely. Ravel recognized her beneficence by dedicating this work to her, and also his song “Noël des jouets.” Her son, Jean Cruppi fils, died during World War I, and to him Ravel dedicated the Fugue of the piano suite Le tombeau de Couperin.

On May 17, 1911—two days before the premiere—Ravel engaged in a bit of public relations to deflect objections that might be raised to his opera. That day the newspaper Le Figaro printed a lengthy letter from him:

What have I attempted to do in writing L’heure espagnole? It is rather ambitious: to regenerate the Italian opera buffa—the principle only. This work is not conceived of in traditional form. Like its ancestor, its only direct ancestor, Musorgsky’s Marriage, which is a faithful interpretation of Gogol’s play, L’heure espagnole is a musical comedy. . . . Only the concluding quintet, by its general layout, its vocalises and vocal effects, might recall the usual repertory ensembles. Except for this quintet, one finds mostly ordinary declamation rather than singing. The French language, like any other, has its own accents and musical inflections, and I do not see why one should not take advantage of these qualities in order to arrive at correct prosody. The spirit of the work is frankly humoristic. It is through the music above all, the harmony, rhythm, and orchestration, that I wished to express irony, and not, as in an operetta, by an arbitrary and comical accumulation of words. I was thinking of a humorous musical work for some time, and the modern orchestra seemed perfectly adapted to underline and exaggerate comic effects. . . . Many things in this work attracted me, the mixture of familiar conversation and intentionally absurd lyricism, and the atmosphere of unusual and amusing noises which surround the characters in this clockmaker’s shop. Finally, the opportunities for making use of the picturesque rhythms of Spanish music.

Carré had by then dropped Feuersnot from his plans, and L’heure espagnole accordingly was given as the conclusion of an evening that began with Massenet’s Thérèse, in its Paris premiere (its world premiere had occurred in 1907, in Monte-Carlo), a two-act opera about a love triangle during the French Revolution that concludes with the heroine and her husband being marched to the guillotine. In such a context, L’heure espagnole must have seemed almost shockingly frivolous.

The opening cast was distinguished; audiences would have known the female singer, Geneviève Vix, as a notable Carmen and Manon, and they would have remembered Jean Périer (Ramiro) and the baritone Hector Dufranne as the singers who had created the roles of Pelléas and Golaud in Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande, in 1902 (another Carré production, of which Ravel had attended all fourteen performances during that initial run). In the event, the audience afforded L’heure espagnole a mixed reception, although the double-bill ran for nine performances. The critics were divided. The most outraged was Gaston Carraud, in La Liberté, who denounced the libretto as “mildly pornographic vaudeville.” When Franc-Nohain objected to this, pointing out that his play with essentially the very same words had run for more than a hundred performances at the Odéon, Carraud apologized in print, allowing that he had characterized the piece injudiciously. Among those who commented on the work from a musical standpoint, Gabriel Fauré found it entirely admirable, commending the creativity of Ravel’s harmony and orchestration. The majority opinion, however, was voiced by Emile Vuillermoz in the Revue musicale de la S.I.M.: “Ravel knows the unknowable, molds the imponderable, and juggles with atoms and ions. He creates colors and perfumes. He is a painter, goldsmith, and jeweler.” And yet, the piece seemed not to rise above its astonishing details, and head was allowed to dominate over heart. “In the name of logic,” wrote Vuillermoz, “Ravel removes from the musical language not only its internationalism and its universality, but also its simple humanity.” Reynaldo Hahn described it as “a sort of transcendent jujitsu.”

The conductor Manuel Rosenthal, a champion of Ravel’s music, was probably correct in viewing L’heure espagnole as a wry commentary on over-inflated Symbolist plays and operas that were reigning in the realm of serious theatre (Pelléas et Mélisande among them). “One hypothesis,” he suggested, “is that Franc-Nohain is lampooning the theatrical formality of Symbolist sub-products no less than Maeterlinck’s megalomania. The text of L’heure espagnole is conceived so as to subject the ‘grand style’ he is deriding to a basic incongruity which underlines the emptiness of the vibrant sentences, spoken as they are in sepulchral tones. The result offers such memorable lines as ‘I remain faithful and pure a few steps away from the Estremadura.’ . . . The music takes pleasure in mingling truisms and grandiloquence in an incredible mixture of erudite allusions and Hispanic trifles. There comes out of this a form of musical humor that can be heard nowhere else.” World War I would come and go before audiences embraced L’heure espagnole. It gradually crept into the international repertory, being produced at London’s Covent Garden in 1919, in Chicago and New York in 1920, in Brussels in 1921, and onward through the world’s operatic capitals from there. In 1928 (possibly 1929) it was recorded under the composer’s supervision.

James M. Keller

Torquemada, a clockmaker
Concepcion, his wife
Gonzalve, a poet
Ramiro, a muleteer
Don Inigo Gomez, a banker

Time: Eighteenth Century
Place: Toledo, Spain

Torquemada, a Spanish Clockmaker, is seated in front of his shop when Ramiro, a muleteer in the government employ, enters to have his watch repaired. While Torquemada is working on the watch, Concepcion, his wife, comes in to remind him that he has forgotten his regular weekly task, that of regulating the municipal clocks. He leaves in haste, asking Ramiro to wait for his watch until he returns.

Concepcion is very much disturbed by Ramiro's remaining in the shop, and is thinking how to get rid of him, as she is awaiting Gonzalve, an ardent admirer of hers. There are two large Catalan clocks in the shop that Concepcion has been anxious to have for her own room. She decides to make use of Ramiro by getting him to carry one of the clocks into her room, thereby getting rid of him for some time, so that she can remain alone with Gonzalve. Ramiro leaves with the clock on his shoulder, just as Gonzalve enters. Gonzalve begins to recite poetry to Concepcion, and to get him up into her room without Ramiro's knowledge, she hides him in the other clock. When Ramiro returns, she sends him back for the first clock, so as to make room for the clock in which Gonzalve is hidden. Ramiro goes back and forth from the shop to her room with the clocks on his shoulder, without uttering a word of protest, and Concepcion marvels at his patience, and admires his strength very much. Don Inigo Gomez, another admirer of Concepcion, now enters and also makes love to her, but she repulses him. Inigo conceals himself in the other clock, much to the dismay of Concepcion, when she discovers it. She becomes very much bored by her two lovers, and invites Ramiro to her room, leaving the other two hidden in the clocks.

While she is gone with Ramiro, and just as Gonzalve and Inigo are about to leave their hiding places, Torquemada returns. They explain that they are anxious to buy the clocks and have been examining them, and they each buy one of the clocks.


More About the Music
Recordings: Lorin Maazel conducting the French National Radio Orchestra, with Jane Berbié (mezzo-soprano), Michel Sénéchal (tenor), Jean Giraudeau (tenor), Gabriel Bacquier (baritone), José van Dam (bass) (Deutsche Grammophon, re-released by ArkivMusic) | Of historical interest, the 1928/29 composer-supervised recording conducted by Georges Truc, with Jeanne Krieger (soprano), Raoul Gilles (tenor), Louis Arnoult (tenor), J. Aubert (baritone), and Hector Dufranne (bass) (VAI or Pearl)

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)