Ravel: Shéhérazade

Shéhérazade, Three Poems of Tristan Klingsor for Voice and Orchestra

MAURICE RAVEL
BORN: March 7, 1875. Ciboure, Basses-Pyrenées, France
DIED: December 28, 1937. Paris

COMPOSED: 1903

WORLD PREMIERE: May 17, 1904. Mezzo-soprano Jane Hatto was soloist, with Alfred Cortot (the famous pianist) conducting, at a concert of the Société Nationale de Musique in Paris. Its Asie movement is dedicated to Mlle. Hatto, La Flûte enchantée to Mme. René de Saint-Marceaux (a Parisian socialite), and L’Indifférent to Mme. Sigismond Bardac (who would become the second Mrs. Claude Debussy)

SFS PERFORMANCES: FIRST—February 1928. Soprano Lisa Roma was soloist, the composer conducted. MOST RECENT—September 2007. Soprano Renée Fleming was soloist at the SFS Opening Gala, and soprano Jessica Rivera was soloist at the SFS All San Francisco community concert the next day. Michael Tilson Thomas conducted both performances

INSTRUMENTATION: 2 flutes and piccolo, 2 oboes and English horn, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, triangle, tambourine, snare drum, cymbals, bass drum, tam-tam, glockenspiel, celesta, 2 harps, and strings

DURATION: About 19 mins

THE BACKSTORY  A taste for the exotic surfaces often in Ravel’s oeuvre. He was fourteen years old in 1889, when the Great Exhibition astonished le tout Paris with such musical attractions as a Javanese gamelan, a Hungarian gypsy ensemble, and a troupe of Annamite dancers from Vietnam. If Debussy was the first major composer to incorporate some of those newly heard sounds into his compositions, Ravel would not be far behind. Several works of earthy Spanish inspiration—the Rapsodie espagnole, the opera L’Heure espagnole, and the ever-popular Boléro—suggest the lure Iberia exerted on Ravel, but locales still more distant also inspired him. Among his earliest exercises in exoticism was the orchestral song cycle Shéhérazade, which Ravel said reflected not only the influence of Debussy but also his own deep-seated fascination for the Orient. Exoticism would later infuse other Ravel compositions, including the ballet Ma Mère l’Oÿe (Mother Goose) of 1908-10, with its hexatonic scale magically evoking the Far East; the Chanson hébraïque (1910) and Deux mélodies hébraïques (1914); Tzigane for violin and orchestra (1924), with its Romany tinge; and the Chansons madécasses (1925-26), a song cycle to poems that presumably originated in Madagascar. In 1910, Ravel produced a thoroughly multicultural collection for a competition announced by the House of Song in Moscow—the Chants populaires, consisting of seven harmonizations of songs in Spanish, French, Italian, Hebrew, Scottish, Flemish, and Russian.

Shéhérazade evolved out of the composer’s intention to write an opera based on the Sinbad episode from the Arabian Nights. He never finished the opera, but he did complete its Overture, which was performed at a concert of the Société Nationale in Paris on May 27, 1899, to mild success. That piece was never published, but Ravel recycled some of its material into the song cycle he composed four years later—at least so says Ravel’s pupil and biographer Roland-Manuel, who was privy to what the earlier score sounded like.

THE MUSIC  Ravel’s Shéhérazade owes its existence to Ravel’s affiliation with Les Apaches, a high-spirited group of Parisian writers, musicians, and artists who, from the turn of the century until the onset of World War I, would gather on Saturday evenings to share their latest work, discuss cultural events of the moment, and do whatever else creative types do on Saturday nights. Apaches member Tristan Klingsor had just published a volume of symbolist poems titled Shéhérazade, and Ravel pounced on three for his rather mysterious settings, in which the composer himself observed that “the influence of Debussy is fairly obvious.” “Here again,” he said, “I yielded to the profound attraction that the East has always held for me since my childhood.”

Tristan Klingsor (1874-1966) was given the name Arthur Justin Léon Leclère but created his pseudonym by cobbling together the names of two Wagnerian characters— one a hero, the other a villain. Shortly after his death, he was described by the Encyclopédie Larousse as an “amiable dilettante” and by The Penguin Companion to European Literature as “a curious survival from the age of literary gentlemen who relied on the appeal of limited editions on thick paper.” His artistic interests were broad. He published not only collections of poetry but also essays and criticism, including art-appreciation books on Leonardo, Holbein, Chardin, and Cézanne. He also dabbled in painting (some canvases were exhibited professionally) and musical composition (a selection of his Ravelian piano pieces was for a while available on CD).  Of Ravel’s Shéhérazade settings Klingsor wrote: “His love of difficulty led him to choose, in addition to L’Indifférent and La Flûte enchantée, one which, by reason of its length and narrative form, seemed the least suited for his purpose: Asie. The fact is that he was just at that time extremely preoccupied with the problem of adapting music to speech, heightening its accents and inflexions and magnifying them by transforming them into melody; and to assist him to carry out his project he asked me to read the poems out loud to him.”

From the outset, Ravel’s Shéhérazade has been in the domain of sopranos (or mezzo-sopranos with a comfortable upper range), but in 1965 the late baritone Martial Singher wrote to the Ravel scholar Arbie Orenstein that the composer had something quite different in mind: “I had remarked to Ravel that the texts of those songs were certainly meant for a man. He confirmed (this must have happened about 1935) that he had had in mind a male voice when writing them, but that only women singers with strong musical backgrounds had been interested in them. By the time I felt strong enough to sing them [in 1938], Ravel was dead, and I have always regretted to have failed giving him the joy to hear them sung as he had originally planned.”

James M. Keller

James M. Keller is Program Annotator of the San Francisco Symphony and New York Philharmonic. His book Chamber Music: A Listener’s Guide, published in 2011 by Oxford University Press, is also available as an e-book and an Oxford paperback.

MORE ABOUT THE MUSIC
Recordings:
Susan Graham, with Yan Pascal Tortelier conducting the BBC Symphony Orchestra (Warner Classics) and with Seiji Ozawa conducting the Saito Kinen Orchestra (Decca)  |  Linda Finnie, with Yan Pascal Tortelier conducting the Ulster Orchestra (Chandos)  |  Régine Crespin, with Ernest Ansermet conducting the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande (Decca Originals)

Reading: Ravel: Man and Musician, by Arbie Orenstein (Dover)  |  A Ravel Reader, edited by Orenstein (Columbia University Press)  |  Maurice Ravel, by Roland-Manuel (Dover)  |  Ravel Remembered, by Roger Nichols (Norton)  |  The Cambridge Companion to Ravel, edited by Deborah Mawer (Cambridge)

(April 2018)