Ravel: Alborada del gracioso 

Maurice Ravel

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

DIED: December 28, 1937, Paris

COMPOSED: 1904-05, for solo piano; transcribed for orchestra in 1918

WORLD PREMIERE: Piano version: January 6, 1906, at the Salle Érard in Paris, with Ricardo Viñes; Orchestral version: May 17, 1919, with Rhené-Baton conducting the Pasdeloup Orchestra in Paris

SFS PERFORMANCES: FIRST—April 1936. Pierre Monteux conducted. MOST RECENT—June 2015. Charles Dutoit conducted

INSTRUMENTATION: 3 flutes (3rd doubling piccolo), 2 oboes and English horn, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons and contrabassoon, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, triangle, crotales, tambourine, xylophone, castanets, snare drum, cymbals, bass drum, 2 harps, and strings

DURATION: About 8 mins

THE BACKSTORY The Spanish composer Manuel de Falla arrived for a residence in Paris in the summer of 1907 and immediately asked his compatriot Ricardo Viñes, the Catalan pianist and a close friend of Maurice Ravel’s, to introduce him to his French idol. The meeting was arranged, and Falla went to hear Ravel and Viñes read through Ravel’s newly composed Rapsodie espagnole in its version for piano four-hands. “The Rapsodie . . .  surprised me because of its Spanish character,” Falla 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.

THE MUSIC The Rapsodie espagnole Falla heard on the day the two composers made each other’s acquaintance was not Ravel’s first flirtation with the Spanish style, nor would it be his last. In 1904-05 he had produced his five-movement piano suite Miroirs, of which the fourth movement was titled, in Spanish, Alborada del gracioso. For Ravel, Spanish flavor often goes hand in hand with good humor. Elsewhere it may strike a more mysterious tone, most famously in his Boléro (1928). Alborada del gracioso is of the high-spirited variety, right from the guitar-like strumming motif at its beginning.  

The title seems on the obscure side, and it is often translated (not inaccurately) as “Morning Song of the Jester.” An alborada is a song sung at dawn, and a gracioso is a humorous or amusingly entertaining person; the musicologist and philosopher Vladimir Jankélévitch spoke of Ravel’s gracioso as a sort of “Andalusian Petrushka.” In 1907, responding to a query about the meaning of the title, Ravel responded: “I understand your bafflement over how to translate the title ‘Alborada del gracioso.’ That is precisely why I decided not to translate it. The fact is that the gracioso of Spanish comedy is a rather special character and one which, so far as I know, is not found in any other theatrical tradition. We do have an equivalent, though, in the French theater: Beaumarchais’ Figaro. But he’s more philosophical, less well-meaning than his Spanish ancestor.”

On the face of it, Alborada del gracioso presents itself as a short, forthright character. In fact, it is crafted with precise finesse. It is reported that Ravel once explained to his pupil Maurice Delage that its structure was “as strict as that of a Bach fugue.”

James M. Keller

More about the music

Recordings: Alborada del gracioso Pierre Monteux and the San Francisco Symphony (RCA Victor Gold Seal)  |  Leonard Slatkin with the Orchestre National de Lyon (Naxos) 

Online: For more on Ravel’s 1928 US tour, visit sfsymphony.org/ravelexhibit

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)