Maurice Ravel (1875–1937) was in a rut. As of early 1924 he hadn’t produced a new composition in a year. His current project, a sonata for violin and piano, was crawling along. But there was a solution to his paralysis. Two years earlier he had attended a private recital in England, in which the Hungarian violinist Jelly d’Arányi performed
Béla Bartók’s First Violin Sonata with the composer at the piano. Intrigued by both piece and performer, Ravel asked d’Arányi to play Gypsy pieces for him, which she did well into the wee hours.
A painstakingly slow writer as a rule, Ravel could zip right along when the spirit moved him. In April 1924 he became so moved and produced Tzigane (Gypsy) for d’Arányi in just a few days, barely in time for the scheduled April 26 premiere. Fortunately, d’Arányi was a quick study, and the performance was a rousing success. Ravel’s original version was for violin and piano with optional luthéal, an attachment that could produce sounds remarkably like the Hungarian cimbalon. That one’s a curiosity, but both the non-luthéal violin and piano original and violin and the later orchestra version are beloved repertory staples.
There were some who wondered Tzigane might be satirical, given its spot-on evocation of virtuoso gypsy salon pieces from Liszt, Joachim, Hubay, and the like. Others took aim at what they heard as artificiality. But Ravel meant every note of the dazzling virtuoso pastiche. “Doesn’t it ever occur to these people that I can be ‘artificial’ by nature?” he replied.—Scott Foglesong
Scott Foglesong is a Contributing Writer to the San Francisco Symphony program book.