Our music this week is the Piano Trio of Maurice Ravel, a French composer from the late 19th/early 20th century.
Ravel wrote this work in the French Basque town of Saint-Jean-de-Luz, where he was raised. He desired that the piano trio be “Basque in coloring,” and – true to his word – he based the initial theme on a folk tune he heard while sitting at his favorite Basque café. He was almost finished with the work when World War I broke out. He enlisted in the French army in August of 1914, where he worked as a medical aide and truck driver for the 13th Artillery Regiment.
The piano trio is a notoriously difficult musical medium to write for. These three instruments – piano, cello, and violin – have such radically different sonorities and sound production capabilities that the composer must work hard to appropriately balance them. The piano’s sound, which is obviously the largest of the three, cannot overwhelm the stringed instruments; the upper registers of the violin cannot overshadow the other two; and both of them are in constant danger of overshadowing the dark, rich tones of the cello. Ravel’s approach to this balancing issue was to use special effects: trills, tremolos, harmonics, glissandos (slides up and down the fingerboard), and arpeggios. He also made sure to keep the violin and cello lines two octaves apart whenever possible (to highlight their different registers) and usually placed the pianist’s left-hand line directly in the middle of that two-octave stretch. This trio therefore showcases both the distinctive French style and compositional genius of Ravel.
Our music for this week is La Valse by Maurice Ravel, performed by the Orchestre Nationale de France with the legendary Leonard Bernstein conducting.
Ravel initially composed La Valse as a piano duet for his friend Arnold Schoenberg (whose music we’ve heard a couple times before here at TWM). He had often thought of turning it into an orchestral work, but World War I interrupted those efforts. After serving as a driver in the French motor transport corps in the war, Ravel returned to composing in the 1920s. In 1928, he collaborated with ballet choreographer Ida Rubenstein to transpose it for orchestra and create a ballet set in “an imperial court, about 1855.”
One can hear the nostalgic grandeur of the mid-19th century Viennese waltz era combined with the “movie music” modernity of Ravel’s contemporary context. However, the ending of the piece is particularly un-Viennese. Ominous timpani, Brahms-like slides in the strings and brass, and frenetic trumpet lines combine to form an intense and shocking finale. One wonders if this is a result of Ravel’s experiences in World War I and his misgivings about the upper-class “waltz culture” that had contributed to World War I.
As we near the final weeks of our countdown, the music for this week is Bolero by the French composer Maurice Ravel. This piece is an absolute requirement for any list of the greatest hits in classical music. Some have estimated that it is the world’s most frequently performed piece of music. Legend has it that George Lucas even thought about making it the theme tune for Star Wars.
You will notice the repetitive nature of the piece immediately. It has only one theme that is repeated over and over, with increasingly complex orchestration each time. Ravel had come across this idea while swimming on holiday and overhearing a street-side pianist developing a series of variations on a single theme. Bolero was Ravel’s way of using that idea on an orchestral scale. The piece begins with a single snare drum line – which never ceases – and builds from C Major to E Major (listen for the fantastically powerful key change) and concludes with a soaring display of sound.
As we have seen with many great composers, Ravel disliked Bolero. When a listener at the premier of the work shouted, “This is the work of a madman!” Ravel was heard to have muttered, “That person has understood.” He later said that “there is nothing musical” in Bolero and that it was no better than a composition student’s practice exercise. Nonetheless, Bolero has stood the test of time and remains one of the most memorable and popular pieces of music ever written.
I mentioned in last week’s email that Claude Debussy was one of the primary influences on Ravel’s musical development. Debussy’s place in French Impressionist music can hardly be overstated. In many ways, Debussy created the foundation for Ravel’s success. I thought it might therefore be good for us to listen to some Debussy in order to better understand Ravel’s music.
This composition is titled “La Cathedrale Engloutie,” meaning “The Sunken Cathedral.” It is a perfect example of what Debussy referred to as Musical Impressionism. In many ways, Debussy can be viewed as the Eduard Manet of music. He, like Manet, laid the framework for the Impressionist movement that was later developed by a new generation of artists. Manet’s hard work in promoting Impressionist art was central to the success of later artists like Delacroix and Monet; similarly, Debussy’s development of the harmonic framework for Impressionist music paved the way for composers like Ravel. In short, musical impressionism uses music to create a allusion to or rough depiction of an idea or story. Debussy simply named each piece after the idea or object it was meant to represent and then left it to the listener to discover how it did so.
La Cathédrale Engloutie is based on an ancient Breton myth about a cathedral that is submerged underwater near a mythical island called Ys. On calm, clear mornings, the cathedral supposedly rises up out of the ocean’s still waters. When it does so, the sounds of bells ringing, priests chanting, and organs playing can be heard across the sea. Debussy uses the variety of techniques available on the piano to represent each of these sounds. For instance, the opening of the piece is written in a circling, wave-like pattern, which symbolizes the waves of the ocean lapping at the base of the cathedral as it rises out of the water. The opening of the work is mysterious and dense, in keeping with Debussy’s written instructions to imitate the effects of fog. Once the cathedral has emerged, the pianist thunders across the keyboard with full power and pedaling in an imitation of the grandeur and majesty of the organ. As the cathedral sinks back into the sea, the organ-esque melodies can still be heard but at a softer dynamic, representing the underwater element at play in the piece. Throughout the piece – and especially at the end – Debussy includes moments in which the pianist instantly releases a pedaled note, creating the impression of a ringing bell. These bell sounds are what the piece ends with, albeit in a muted fashion reminiscent of their underwater residence