Ravel: Rapsodie Espagnole

Maurice Ravel was born in Ciboure, Basses-Pyrenées, France, on March 7, 1875, and died in Paris on December 28, 1937. He composed his Rapsodie espagnole in October 1907 and completed the orchestration the following February. The piece was first played on March 28, 1908, with Edouard Colonne leading a performance by the Concerts Colonne in Paris. Frederick Stock and the Theodore Thomas Orchestra, soon to be renamed the Chicago Symphony, gave the first North American performance of the Rapsodie espagnole in November 1909. Alfred Hertz conducted the first San Francisco Symphony performances in October 1923; the most recent performances, in October 2010, were conducted by Michael Tilson Thomas. The score calls for an orchestra of two flutes and two piccolos, two oboes and English horn, two clarinets and bass clarinet, three bassoons, 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, three trumpets, three trombones, tuba, timpani, bass drum, cymbals, triangle, tambourine, castanets, snare drum, tam-tam, xylophone, celesta, two harps, and of strings. Performance time: about fifteen minutes.

The Spanish composer Manuel de Falla, arriving in Paris in the summer of 1907, immediately asked his compatriot Ricardo Viñes, the Catalan pianist and a close friend of Ravel’s, to introduce him to his French idol. The meeting was arranged, and Falla went to hear Ravel and Viñes read through the newly composed Rapsodie espagnole in its version for piano four-hands. “The Rapsodie . . . surprised me because of its Spanish character,” he later wrote. “But how was I to account for the subtly genuine Spanishness of Ravel, knowing, because he had told me so, that the only link he had with my country was to have been born near the border! The mystery was soon explained: Ravel’s was a Spain he had felt in an idealized way through his mother. She was a lady of exquisite conversation. She spoke fluent Spanish, which I enjoyed so much when she evoked the years of her youth, spent in Madrid, an epoch earlier than mine, but traces of its habits that were familiar to me still remained. Then I understood with what fascination her son must have listened to these memories that were undoubtedly intensified by the additional force all reminiscence gets from the song or dance theme inseparably connected with it.”

Even if the opening movement were not explicitly titled “Prelude to Night,” listeners would be likely to sense something in these tones that invokes deepening darkness and mystery. Right at the outset we encounter emotional ambivalence—perhaps some anticipation of danger—in the muted strings’ incessant repetition of a descending four-note motif, and the tremolos of high-pitched violins (divided into four parts) suggest slight shivers as evening gives way to darkness. But the night is as beautiful as it is frightening. Perhaps the ravishing burst of color highlighted by harp and upward-surging strings represents the heady fragrance of a moonflower, or the little cadenza for two clarinets the sudden flight of a nocturnal moth. One is not always comfortable ascribing such extra-musical meaning to compositions, but the temptation is great in a work such as this, which justifies its composer’s reputation as a musical Impressionist. This is music at once coolly intellectual and passionately sensuous.

The second movement, Malagueña, proceeds from the opening movement following just a pause for breath. Double basses (playing pizzicato) establish the underlying rhythm, and cellos strum above on offbeats, pretending to be guitars. Despite the tempo marking of Assez vif (Quite fast) and an energetic tattoo from the muted trumpet, this movement turns out to be far less impetuous than one might anticipate from a dance movement. By the end, the vigor that has been built up is dispelled in a languorous solo for the English horn; and then this miniature movement simply evaporates.

Falla claimed that “when [Ravel] wanted to characterize Spain musically, he showed a predilection for the habanera, the song most in vogue when his mother lived in Madrid.” This Habanera—slow and seductive—began life as a work for two pianos in 1895, but it comes across as infinitely more evocative in this orchestrated version.

The Habanera’s spirit is perfectly summed up in its tempo heading, “Rather slow, and with a weary rhythm.” The quotation from Baudelaire that the composer inscribed in the original two-piano version seems fully apropos to this reincarnation: “In the perfumed land that the sun caresses.”

The tension built up through the restraint of the first three movements is released with passionate abandon in the finale. Ravel’s pulsating rhythms combine with full-bodied instrumentation to evoke the vigor of a celebration. Even here, a nostalgic English horn melody makes its way into the proceedings, but on the whole we glimpse a busy gathering in which disparate songs and other sensations compete for our attention.

James M. Keller

More About the Music
Recordings: Charles Dutoit conducting the Montreal Symphony Orchestra (Decca)  |  Jean Martinon conducting the Orchestre de Paris (EMI Classics) |  Claudio Abbado conducting the London Symphony Orchestra (Deutsche Grammophon)  |  Pierre Boulez conducting the Berlin Philharmonic (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)  |  Maurice Ravel, by Roland-Manuel (Dover)  |  The Cambridge Companion to Ravel, edited by Deborah Mawer (Cambridge)