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Program Notes

Each week, thousands of San Francisco Symphony concert-goers open their programs to read about the drama, the passion, and the inspiration behind the music they’re hearing. You can read our critically acclaimed program notes online one week prior to select concerts.
Maurice Ravel

BORN: March 7, 1875. Ciboure, Basses-Pyrenées, France

DIED: December 28, 1937. Paris

COMPOSED: 1913 through August 27, 1914

WORLD PREMIERE: January 14, 1914, at the Salle Érard in Paris, with Désiré-Émile Inghelbrecht conducting an instrumental ensemble and soprano Rose Féart

SFS PERFORMANCES: FIRST AND ONLY—November 1972. Soprano Jeannette Walters was soloist. Leon Fleischer conducted  

INSTRUMENTATION: 2 flutes (1 doubling piccolo), 2 clarinets (1 doubling bass clarinet), piano, and string quartet, in addition to the solo soprano

DURATION: About 11 mins
 
THE BACKSTORY Rimbaud’s Les Illuminations was published in 1886, twice—in the May–June issue of a Parisian literary journal (at Verlaine’s instigation) and then in book form that October. Rimbaud never saw either. He had stopped writing at the age of twenty-one, traveled to various foreign climes, and was working as an arms dealer in Abyssinia (Ethiopia) when the poems were printed. The journal identified the author as “the late Arthur Rimbaud,” jumping the gun by five years. In between those two editions of Les Illuminations the French literary world was bedazzled by another piece of writing, “Le Symbolisme” (a.k.a. the Symbolist Manifesto), a short essay penned by the poet and critic Jean Moréas and printed that September in the newspaper Le Figaro. His intent was at least partly to defend several of the younger French writers whose work was being condemned as decadent. He argued that all literary styles have their day and then become exhausted from repetition and overuse. The era of Romanticism was now over, he proclaimed, and it was being replaced by a “current movement” to which the poets Charles Baudelaire and Théodore de Banville stood as forerunners and which was represented in full flower by Verlaine and Stéphane Mallarmé (who “subdivides the sense of mystery”). Before long, Rimbaud (in absentia) would be among those grafted into the club.

The Symbolists had no tolerance for naturalistic description or play-by-play narrative. Instead, they viewed their subjects from a distance—or, as Moréas put it, “The idea…must not deprive itself of the rich overlay of peripheral analogy, since the essential characteristic of Symbolist art consists in never approaching the concentrated kernel of the idea in itself.” Theirs was an art of allusion and metaphor in which one object or idea might serve as a stand-in for another; the selective description of one object might illuminate how we view the other. Words themselves might take on secret lives of their own, with puns and wordplay expanding the webs of meaning they cast. Moréas again: “Symbolism needs to assume a standardized and complex style—of unpolluted terms, of clearly-blocked rhythms alternating with rhythms of undulating lapses; of weighty redundancies, mysterious ellipses, unexpected pauses…” Reading Symbolist poetry demands commitment, contemplation, and resignation to ambiguity. It may not be clear what the immediate image alludes to—which is to say, what the subject of the poem is. Symbolism presents puzzles, but not always solutions.

If poets were central to verbalizing the tenets of Symbolism, artists of other stripes soon fell into line behind them. Tentacles reached out to encompass figures of widely diverse styles who at least sometimes reflected the Symbolist ethic—painters like Gustave Moreau, Odilon Redon, Gustav Klimt, and Edvard Munch; playwrights like Maurice Maeterlinck; composers like Claude Debussy and Arnold Schoenberg. Everyone viewed Stéphane Mallarmé (1842–98) as one of the central Symbolists, and he was often considered the quintessential representative of that persuasion. “Mallarmé’s work has come to represent a ne plus ultra of the self-absorbed literary imagination,” observed the late literary scholar Malcolm Bowie. “Academic critics have responded to the famous obscurity or ‘difficulty’ of his writing with a multitude of competing interpretations, and in the process have conferred on his slender corpus of poems an atmosphere of strenuous cerebration.” And yet, he argues,

Mallarmé needs not be out of reach. “He writes about sexual desire, parenthood, and friendship, about ceremonious social conduct and the anxieties of the isolated individual, about the ordinary life of the senses and the daily presence of pain and death in human affairs. The arresting diction in which he handles these fundamental experiences is at certain times plain and lucid, and has at others an air of ecstatic incantation.”
Mallarmé was first represented in Maurice Ravel’s work-list through the song “Sainte,” from 1896; the composer’s friend, pupil, champion, and biographer Roland-Manuel felt that it showed “a double attraction towards the icy purity of Mallarmé’s poems and the esoteric harmonies of Satie.” In 1913, Ravel worked briefly on a project with Igor Stravinsky (orchestrations for a Diaghilev production of Mussorgsky’s unfinished opera Khovanshchina), and in the course of that he became acquainted with Stravinsky’s Poèmes de la lyrique japonaise, for voice and an ensemble of two flutes, two clarinets, piano, and strings—which, Stravinsky explained, had been inspired in turn by Schoenberg’s Pierrot lunaire, for voice with flute (doubling piccolo), clarinet (doubling bass clarinet), violin (doubling viola), cello, and percussion. Pierrot lunaire would be a hugely influential piece in general, but Ravel had yet to hear it. Still, wrote Roland-Manuel, “in this way Pierrot lunaire, known only by report, and some of Schoenberg’s piano pieces, spurred Ravel to undertake the Trois poèmes de Stéphane Mallarmé,” in which, Ravel later wrote, “I wanted to transcribe Mallarmé’s poetry into music, especially that preciosity so full of meaning and characteristic of him.” Few music lovers are likely to think of Ravel and Schoenberg as kindred souls; but even if he did not adopt Schoenberg’s particular brand of atonality, Ravel admired Schoenberg immensely, citing him on multiple occasions as the most important living composer. “If my music doesn’t completely sound like Schoenberg’s,” he stated in a 1931 interview, “it’s because I am less afraid of the element of charm, which he avoids to the point of asceticism and martyrdom.”

THE MUSIC Ravel’s settings are short, the three together running about eleven minutes. “Soupir,” a love song drawing on imagery from an expiring garden in autumn, opens with the strings playing rapid, brittle arpeggios in harmonics, an example of the “iciness” Roland-Manuel cited. The sonorities change through the song’s episodes, first with the singer and the flute entering dreamily, then with the string quartet taking a full-voiced role, finally with piano adding its timbre before the strings again turn frigid at the movement’s end. The piano similarly sits out the first part of “Placet futile,” making its presence known through a glimmering entrance a third the way through, at the point where the singer, contemplating the bucolic picture on a cup of Sèvres porcelain, asks the shepherdess-princess painted on the cup to accept his (or her) love. Ravel’s setting, which somewhat prefigures his writing in his later opera L’Enfant et les sortilèges, provides a particularly exquisite center in a cycle that is almost excruciatingly elegant throughout. Imagery of sex, procreation, and death stand at the heart of the final song, the sonnet “Surgi de la croupe et du bond,” for which Ravel writes sustained, haunted music. Here he interjects a novel sound, following Schoenberg’s lead by having one of the flutists switch to piccolo and a clarinetist to bass clarinet.

In a 1927 interview for the New York Times, journalist Olin Downes begged Ravel to elucidate the poems he set here. “Useless to explain,” Ravel responded. “The poetry speaks to you or it does not. It is very obscure, and if it once seizes you—marvelous! I consider Mallarmé not merely the greatest French poet, but the only French poet, since he made the French language, not designed for poetry, poetical. It is a feat in which he stands alone.…He released winged thoughts, subconscious reveries, from their prisons.”—James M. Keller  

Three Poems of Stephane Mallarme-Text and Translation by Julia Bullock