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Program Notes

Maurice Joseph Ravel

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

DIED: December 28, 1937. Paris

COMPOSED: 1922–24

WORLD PREMIERE: April 26, 1924. Jelly d’Arányi and Henri Gil-Marchex performed the original version for violin and piano at Aeolian Hall in London. D’Arányi premiered Ravel’s orchestral version on November 30, 1924 in Paris with Gabriel Pierné and the Colonne Orchestra

INSTRUMENTATION: 2 flutes and piccolo, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, trumpet, triangle, bell on F-sharp, suspended cymbal, celesta, harp, and strings

DURATION: About 9 mins

Like Chausson’s Poème, and Saint-Saëns’s Introduction and Rondo capriccioso, Tzigane celebrates the artistry and temperament of a particular performer. “What a personality and what a born violinist!” wrote the conductor Sir Henry J. Wood about Jelly d’Arányi (1893–1966). “The [London] Promenade audience was completely carried away by her fire and dash. Yet, when a concerto demands it, she can be the classical of the classical.” Fire and dash irradiate the famous pieces written for her—Tzigane, the two sonatas for violin and piano by Béla Bartók, and the Concerto in D minor of Ralph Vaughan Williams. The adventurous d’Arányi was quick to take Ravel’s exceedingly difficult Sonata for Violin and Cello into her repertory, and the composer heard her play it with the Dutch cellist Hans Kindler at a private musicale in London in July 1922, just three months after its premiere. According to the account that Gaby Casadesus gave to Ravel’s biographer Arbie Orenstein, “late in the evening Ravel asked the Hungarian violinist to play some Gypsy melodies. After Mlle. d’Arányi obliged, the composer asked for one more melody, and then another. The Gypsy melodies continued until about 5 a.m., with everyone exhausted except the violinist and the composer. That evening,” adds Orenstein, “was to mark the initial gestation of Tzigane.” Gestation took almost two years, quiet years in which Ravel finished his orchestration of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, completed the Berceuse sur le nom de Gabriel Fauré and the song “Ronsard à son âme,” and worked on the Violin Sonata and his masterpiece, the opera L’Enfant et les sortilèges. When d’Arányi introduced Tzigane at the Aeolian Hall in London, she created a sensation with it.

The way Tzigane begins is a distillation of what happened at that party in London in the summer of 1922—recollection, improvisation, explosions of exuberant virtuosity, all for violin alone. The harp, egged on by the violin’s sliding harmonies, tries a cadenza, too, and that opens the door for the whirlwind of peppery, seductive dance-tunes in the second part of Ravel’s rhapsody. Almost needless to say, the presentation of these tunes is a feast of challenges to the soloist.—Michael Steinberg

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.

(September 2019)