Ravel: Piano Concerto in G major

JOSEPH‑MAURICE RAVEL

BORN: March 7, 1875. Ciboure near Saint‑Jean‑de-Luz, Basses‑Pyrénées

DIED: December 28, 1937. Paris

COMPOSED: 1929-31

WORLD PREMIERE: January 14, 1932. Marguerite Long was soloist at a concert of the Lamoureux Orchestra in Paris 

US PREMIERE:  April 22, 1932, in simultaneous performances. Sylvan Levin was soloist with the Philadelphia Orchestra under Leopold Stokowski’s direction, and Jesús María Sanromá was the pianist with the Boston Symphony conducted by Serge Koussevitzky.

SFS PERFORMANCES: FIRST—February 1953. Nicole Henriot was the soloist and Massimo Freccia conducted. MOST RECENT—January 2017. Jean-Yves Thibaudet was the pianist and Lionel Bringuier conducted

INSTRUMENTATION: Piccolo, flute, oboe, English horn, B‑flat and E‑flat clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, trumpet, trombone, timpani, triangle, snare drum, cymbals, bass drum, tam‑tam, wood block, whip, harp, and strings

DURATION: About 20 mins

THE BACKSTORY As work on the Piano Concerto neared completion in the summer of 1931, Ravel said that it was

written very much in the same spirit as those [concertos] of Mozart and Saint‑Saëns. The music of a concerto should, in my opinion, be lighthearted and brilliant, and not aim at profundity or at dramatic effects. It has been said of certain classics that their concertos were written not “for” but “against” the piano. I heartily agree. I had intended to title this concerto “Divertissement.” Then it occurred to me that there was no need to do so because the title “Concerto” should be sufficiently clear.

Here Ravel expresses a strange notion of what the specific gravity of a concerto should be. While we should always read composers' letters, memoirs, program notes, and so on, we need to be circumspect about evaluating them. And Maurice Ravel, we might remember, was a man fascinated by masks. Ravel’s Basque heritage formed his personality. He was not, he insisted, cold and unemotional, "but I am Basque, and while the Basques feel deeply they seldom show it, and then only to a very few."

Pierre‑Joseph Ravel, the composer’s father, was a deeply musical engineer who contributed significantly to the development of the two‑stroke internal combustion motor remembered fondly by 1960s Saab owners. Maurice, his eldest son, became a musician enchanted by elegantly functioning machines. He was charming, shy, dandified, and of the most delicate build. Marguerite Long recalled how once, on their concerto tour, he forgot to pack his patent‑leather shoes and how difficult it was to find any in his size. A lifelong bachelor not known to have had any close personal attachment, Ravel loved children: Mother Goose and his operatic collaboration with Colette, L’Enfant et les sortilèges (The Child and the Magic Spells—which will be presented by the SFS in semi-staged performances June 27, 29-30), are miraculously perceptive and loving masterpieces for and about children.

The prelude to his other opera, L’Heure espagnole (Spanish Time), depicts a clockmaker's shop and is a delicious love letter to devices with moving parts that whir and tick and buzz and clack. The late musicologist Stephen Parkany has pointed out that Ravel’s G major Concerto also begins like some wondrous contraption in a toy shop: A percussionist releases the wound‑up spring of the slapstick.

THE MUSIC The piano is there, right from the beginning, contributing to the buzz against which the piccolo cheerfully whistles the first, jaunty tune. After a while, the piano comes to the fore with a languid theme that reminds us that the first intention behind this work had been to charm American audiences. Like many “classical” musicians at that time, Ravel was smitten with what he knew of jazz, which he had heard during his North American tour of 1928. Diverse blue twists, some of them reminiscent of Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue, are seductively prominent in the first movement of the G major Concerto. Spanish flavoring comes in as well. The master of the Rapsodie espagnole, L’Heure espagnole, and Boléro had probably lifted some of the concerto from Zaspiak bat, a rhapsody to his Basque homeland. Toward the end, the harp subtly suggests that a solo passage might be in order, an idea the piano embraces with enthusiasm, after which the music moves swiftly to a conclusion both bright and firm.

The Adagio is the reason we not only delight in this concerto but truly love it. The piano, alone, spins out a long, long melody over a kind of slow waltz bass that manages to be incredibly gentle even while it moves in constant cross‑rhythm against the song in the right hand. When this melody is rounded off, a flute and then other woodwinds softly make their presence known. Eventually the English horn steps forward to sing the serene melody, while the piano decorates it with fanciful garlands. At some early stage, Ravel had told Marguerite Long that the concerto would end softly, with trills. He changed his mind about that, but at least the idea of expressive trills stayed in his mind, as we can hear in this Adagio and, for that matter, in the quiet part of the first‑movement cadenza. What surprises us is to learn that Ravel’s Adagio, which sounds so spontaneous and has so natural a flow, cost him endless trouble. He squeezed it out, he said, painfully, a bar or two at a time, and it came as close as any project he ever undertook to carrying him to the edge of despair.

The brief and irresistible finale completely lives up to Ravel's “lighthearted and brilliant” concerto ideal. Variously, Ravel alludes to the first movement. The piano figurations at the beginning are similar, although the pianist has now abandoned any notion of being an accompanist or chamber‑music partner and is unmistakably out front in the most soloistic manner possible. Wind solos speak in beguiling foreign accents, which is to say in foreign keys. There are startling trombone smears, and the bassoon is given a particularly demanding virtuoso bit. A crack of percussion carries our minds back to the concerto's opening, and the final bang is colored by the same bass drum thump that ended the first movement.—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 nations’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.

(April 2019)