I have never felt the need to formulate, either for the benefit of others or for myself, the principles of my aesthetic. If I were called upon to do so, I would ask to be allowed to identify myself with the simple pronouncements made by Mozart on this subject. He confined himself to saying that there is nothing that music cannot undertake to do, or dare, or portray, provided it continues to charm and always remains music. I am sometimes credited with opinions which appear very paradoxical concerning the falsity of art and the dangers of sincerity. The fact is I refuse simply and absolutely to confound the conscience of an artist, which is one thing, with his sincerity, which is another. Sincerity is of no value unless one’s conscience helps to make it apparent. This conscience compels us to turn ourselves into good craftsmen. My objective, therefore, is technical perfection. I can strive unceasingly to this end, since I am certain of never being able to attain it. The important thing is to get nearer to it all the time. Art, no doubt, has other effects, but the artist, in my opinion, should have no other aim.
Maurice Ravel (1875-1937)
From Mark DeVoto, ‘Harmony in Ravel’s chamber music’, in The Cambridge Companion to Ravel, ed. Deborah Mawer (CUP, 2000), pp. 112-113
Completed in 1924, the Tzigane is Ravel’s last essay in the Hungarian style. The original version, for violin and piano—with or without the unusual ‘luthéal’ attachment that created a cimbalom-like sonority—was arranged by Ravel soon after for violin and orchestra. Some of the Hungarian-style thematic material in the Tzigane sounds as though left over from, or derived from, the Sonata for Violin and Cello. The major/minor triadic harmony is prominent, though not as a melodic motive. The opening G-string motive is very reminiscent of Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsodies, and Ravel’s own Duo has a comparable figure. As another instance of Ravel’s own traits, his favoured tonality of A minor is again in evidence, centering the solo violin melody that begins the fast section, ‘Moderato’ (bar 76), and cadencing to the main key of D minor only at the end of the second phrase.
Ernst Friedrich Hausmann, Gypsy Woman with Lute
The long unaccompanied cadenza at the beginning of the Tzigane occupies nearly half of the total time of the piece. Very free and recitative-like in form, it includes almost casually the principal thematic elements heard later in the work; its virtuoso features here consist principally of intense high-position work on the G string, together with octaves and other multiple stops, tremolos and arpeggios. Harmonics and further fireworks are left for the fast section: a more dazzling assembly of left-hand pizzicato had not been heard since Paganini’s Hexentanz, while the whirlwind of semiquavers would make a later appearance in the ‘Perpetuum mobile’ of Ravel’s mature Violin Sonata, his final chamber work.
Robert Henri, Gypsy
From Mark Minnich, Maurice Ravel’s Tzigane: Performance Practice and the “Gypsy” Influence (Penn State University Libraries, Electronic Theses and Dissertations for Graduate School, 2015, pp. 26-30). Mark Minnich, musician, is a performer, teacher, and arts entrepreneur. You can find an extensive musicological analysis of Tzigane aimed at performers in chapter 3 of his excellent MA thesis (from which the excerpts below are taken), available here.
The overall form of the Tzigane seems most similar to the Hungarian czardas; Ravel begins his work with a slow and improvisatory introduction, which lasts a curiously long time considering the relative brevity of the whole work. This imbalance shifts focus away from the full ensemble (violin and piano or violin and orchestra) and towards the individual violinist; perhaps Ravel was inspired by the virtuosity and mystery of Paganini’s legendary aesthetic. The next section includes piano (or orchestral) accompaniment and the most distinctive theme of the Tzigane, which occurs in a minor mode and in theme & variation form; these iterations seem to evoke a band cycling through instrumental and vocal solos. The final large-scale section of the Tzigane uses predominantly major modes and dance-like figures, pushing faster and faster until the end of the piece.
Georges Braque, Violin and Palette, 1909
The Tzigane begins with a fiery entrance in B minor; the violinist enters dramatically on a low B-natural, later surrounding that pitch with chromatic neighboring tones, accents, leading runs, and snapping rhythms. The rhythms in this section allude to Hungarian folk music, albeit stretched, compressed, and ornamented through rhythmic augmentation and diminution. For this material Ravel also seems to have drawn from the styles of Liszt, Paganini, and Leoncavallo. The Paganini Caprice shows a connection only in the opening motive; this association might seem specious if not for Ravel’s circumstances while writing the Tzigane. The Liszt example shows more literal inspiration: beyond the shared spirit of fierce improvisation, first-beat accents, and tonal structures, the two pieces share striking resemblances in their melodic and rhythmic structures.
Picasso, Violin and Grapes, 1912
With a comparison of the ornamentation in the Liszt to the 32nd notes in the Ravel, the rhythms become almost equivalent. The inclusion of fast notes just before a new measure begins (in the Ravel, 32nd notes leading into the second measure, and in the Liszt, grace note ornamentation) as well as the accents and points of emphasis within each phrase provides the same type of melodic and rhythmic gesture. David Malvini, author of The Gypsy Caravan: From Real Roma to Imaginary Gypsies in Western Music and Film, writes: The Second Rhapsody, dedicated to a connoisseur of Gypsy music, Count Lásló Teleki, is the most performed of the set… it is the opening bars, before the Lassan, or the slow section of the piece, that Liszt realizes the impetus for Gypsiness… the Lassan is wistful, capricious, and pure nostalgia… we do not really know where it is heading, until the opening is reintroduced. A comparison of the two musical examples shows that Malvini’s passage could just as easily apply to the Tzigane as Liszt’s Rhapsody, especially regarding the works’ overall form and capricious mood.
Picasso, Man with Violin, 1911-12
More strikingly, the pitches of Ravel’s first theme adhere precisely to the melody of the introduction to Leoncavallo’s Intermezzo from Pagliacci (1892). Although Ravel includes no harmony in this section of the introduction, the heightened level of chromaticism (especially the raised 7th and lowered 2nd scale degree) intensifies the ‘exotic’ mood of the opening. Although Ravel wrote this section with dramatic articulation such as accents, successive down-bows, staccato, and snappy rhythmic values, the material’s likely derivation from Hungarian peasant songs (because of first beat emphases, fast-slow, fast-slow rhythmic couplets, and leading ornamentation) could designate a milder approach to the articulation in what performers usually interpret as a bitingly vigorous introduction. Nonetheless, violinists still should perform the opening heavily considering the accent pattern and the sol-G designation (perhaps signifying the imitation of a deep male vocal line). Furthermore, the improvisatory tendencies of Roma musicians should lend an air of spontaneity to the repertoire of any performer presenting this work (further evidenced by Ravel’s marking of Lento, quasi cadenza before the first musical phrase).
Georges Braque, Violin and Sheet Music, 1913
The next type of thematic material begins with the pickups into measure 9; the violinist’s line swoops upwards dramatically before holding on a high A, and the heavily chromaticized line draws audiences longingly through the anguish performers must demonstrate; the G-sharps pull all the way into the next measure, which begins with the resolution, A. The G-sharp also influences the effect of the F-natural, causing it to pull downwards towards E, and the B-flat draws downwards towards the A. In the following measure, Ravel shifts the tonal focus towards the key of F-sharp minor. The melodic contour shows similarity to Vittorio Monti’s Czardas, due to the octave leap from A3 to A4 and the key change to D minor within the Ravel. Additionally, both introductions demonstrate stylistic similarity to the typical fantasia-like beginning of a czardas. Indeed, it seems that much of the Tzigane’s form draws inspiration from the generic czardasand its parent style, the Verbunkos recruiting dance; one might compare these opening phrases (and indeed the introduction of the Tzigane in general) to the opening passages of a czardas, before both styles grow faster and faster as audience dance themselves into a veritable frenzy. Ravel marked this passage with both tempo rubato and espressivo, also matching closely to the mood and character of the czardas. Again there exists a more literal reference on which Ravel might have drawn; from the pickups to the fourth measure of Pablo de Sarasate’s Zigeunerweisen, the first ten notes match exactly to Ravel’s second thematic grouping, and the sections’ characters closely resemble one another.
Picasso, Le Violon, 1914
From the liner notes by Roger Nichols to the album by Alina Ibragimova & Cédric Tiberghien, Ravel: Complete Music for Violin & Piano (Hyperion Records, London, 2011)
At the end of June 1922, Ravel went to London with the pianist Robert Casadesus and his wife Gaby to make some recordings for the Aeolian company. He was also able to hear the first British performance of his Duo for violin and cello in which the violinist was the Hungarian Jelly d’Arányi. Afterwards, he got the d’Arányi to play him some gypsy folk music and, according to Gaby: ‘D’Arányi, being Hungarian, didn’t need to be asked twice and played passionately for at least two hours without stopping. She was sensational and Ravel was mad with joy. Very shortly afterwards Tzigane was born.’ D’Arányi gave the first performance in April 1924 in London. The piece adopts the slow/fast (lassú/friss) form of the czárdás, the slow section being for violin alone. In imitating the gypsy style—harmonics, trills, glissandos, appoggiaturas, hesitations and passages in high positions on the lower strings—Ravel may have left something of himself behind, but as pastiche it is undeniably brilliant, drawing some of its ideas from Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsodies and Paganini’s Caprices. When d’Arányi was rehearsing for a performance with orchestra in Paris that November, she is said to have introduced what she called a ‘glissando with trills’. Ravel supposedly confided to a friend, ‘I don’t know what she’s doing, but I like it.’
Richard Jonathan is the author of the literary novel Mara, Marietta: A Love Story in 77 Bedrooms
High your elbow brings the bow across to the deep string; when you draw it you draw out my entrails: With a wrenching intensity you sculpt the phrase, then singe the air with the determination of your down-bow. Your hair shivers as you resume the attack, inundating the auditorium with your dark, shuddering tone. Isolated in the spotlight, your body is a blend of tension and serenity, a suicide’s razor before it kisses the wrist. Listen! There’s violence in that melody, there’s death in that dance! You are Ravel’s gitane, determinedly asserting her identity. In the face of all who would rather forget, you affirm that in Lucifer’s blackness there’s a brightness no other angels possess. The slide of your fingers between the pitches, the biting attack of your bow; the brilliance of your left-hand pizzicati, the idiosyncratic pulse of the beat: Infused with savage resolve, you walk the razor’s edge.
Dreamfall, the dagger
between your teeth: Fervent,
the rose flaunts its thorns
Swift as blood, slow like honey, into the night-space you pour out your spirit. In searing tenderness your violin soars; out of silence you coax secrets. You are the object of all eyes as you stand in the spotlight, but for yourself you are no object: Your concern is not about how you move but about what moves you. You spread your legs, flex your knees, and play the melody in pizzicati. Gone is any notion of the female body as a burden; absolute in its freedom, with precision and grace your body deploys itself in its own private space.
Deathwatch, when freedom
is vertiginous: Violin,
knife, spear and arrow
Close to the bridge, with the lightest of touches, your bow caresses the strings: Out from the f-holes there comes a quiet, an almost oriental calm. But it is the calm before the storm: Matteo sweeps a wild glissando, your hair flies out as your torso flings back; from your solar plexus you play, making savage music.
Nightworld, the black art
of sound’s speculum: Auditive light
in the eye of the heart
Matteo takes a solo turn, offering an ornamented version of the melody; when you come back in you change things again: Now you’re the most nubile girl at the firemen’s ball, indulging a suitor, awarding him a whirl. Radiant is your smile as you sway and bob, but all the while you’re under no illusion that this is anything more than an amusement: Elsewhere is your celebration! And then you take me there: In a pyrotechnical display of technique, you play the melody spiccato, producing notes with the force and colour of fireworks. The moment is everything; you’re in a space where you can do no wrong. Your bow is a blur as you remind the world what a privilege it is to be alive; poised on your sandals, you lower the neck of your violin and bend your body into the speed. Despite the rapidity time expands; my being resonates with your body: Totally absorbed in the moment, I am at one with you. Listen! In the limpid notes of the high register, Matteo now plays the hypnotic dance. You’re having none of it: You send a sequence of eerie harmonics to haunt his naïve transparency.
Starlight! Out of the rose,
cold brilliance takes the spectre:
You give it back the ghost
Now Matteo invites you back into the dance; you lean into the melody and take it up with spiccato bow. You flex your knees as you gather speed; now you’re in perpetual motion. Is this your long spiral up the Tower of Babel, is this your attempt to restore the original tongue? Your body now is compact, profiled for speed: Your bow moves in a blur. Gone are the days when you aimed to please, to provoke a reaction and prove your worth: Now you’re in a place where no one can reach you, a place where you’re at one with yourself. And then, renouncing the infinite, your arm swoops up off the strings and comes down to declaim in three triumphant notes that music is the original language, and silence is its condition.
For a moment the audience is stunned, they cannot find their voice, as if all sound is suspended in syncopes. And then the tremendous energy you have given them they give back to you in thunderous applause. Whoops and ‘bravos’ rise in waves, waves that fall and rise again. Matteo offers himself as a shock absorber for the barrage; I watch you as you slowly descend the spiral and compose your face to confront Babel. I am moved by your discomfort, and admire your intransigence. To what extent is it willed, to what extent involuntary? I want to find out. Meanwhile I, too, express myself in the language of Babel, but I can’t wait to purify my tongue in your presence. Out from the shadows you are repeatedly summoned, until you decide you’ve had enough of bowing into applause: One last time, with music you will silence them.
Laurent Korcia & Georges Pludermacher
Anne-Sophie Mutter & Wiener Philharmonika
Régis Pasquier & Brigitte Engerer
From Joseph Machlis, Introduction to Contemporary Music, 2nd edition (NY: W.W. Norton, 1979) 109-113
Ravel’s is an ultrapolished art. His delicate sense of proportion, his precision of line and ordered grace are in accord with everything we have come to associate with the French tradition. His emotions are controlled by his intellect. In this too he is one with the Gallic spirit. Art for him was created beauty, therefore compounded of artifice: the mirror that reflected his perception of reality, rather than reality itself. ‘Does it never occur to these people,’ he remarked, ‘that I am artificial by nature?’ He had a horror of overstatement; he preferred irony and wit to the tragic gesture. Therefore he held on to the crystalline forms that constitute the element of control and ‘distance’ in art. It was his one defense against his own emotions.
The critics of fifty years ago saw his music as a revolt against romantic subjectivity. They emphasized the constructional element in his work. Stravinsky called him a Swiss clockmaker. Ravel himself said, ‘I make logarithms—it is for you to understand them.’ We today are in a position to judge more clearly. Ravel was a romantic at heart. Wistful sentiment and tenderness are everywhere present in his music, albeit at one remove, filtered through a supremely conscious artistry. For this reason he so ably represented the classical orientation, which in France has always been stronger than the romantic. All the same, his pronouncements on music in his later years clearly reveal the romantic origins of his art. ‘Great music, I have always felt, must always come from the heart. Any music created by technique and brains alone is not worth the paper it is written on. A composer should feel intensely what he is composing.’
Ravel stands to Debussy somewhat as Cézanne does to Monet: he was a Post-Impressionist. Like Cézanne, he feared that Impressionism, with its emphasis upon the ‘fantasy of the senses,’ might degenerate into formlessness. His instinctive need for lucidity and clarity of organization impelled him to return—even as did the painter—to the classical conception of form.
Like Debussy, Ravel was drawn to the scales of medieval and exotic music. He too sought to expand the traditional concept of key. His imagination, like Debussy’s, responded to pictorial and poetic titles as a stimulus to creation. (The literary element has always been prominent in French music.) Both men were attracted by the same aspects of nature: the play of water and light, clouds and fountains; the magic of daybreak and twilight, the wind in the trees. Both exploited exotic dance rhythms, especially those of Spain, and leaned toward the fantastic and the antique. Both were influenced by the pure, intimate style of the French harpsichordists: Ravel paid homage to Couperin even as Debussy did to Rameau. Both men admired the Russians, although Debussy responded to Mussorgsky while Ravel leaned toward Rimsky-Korsakov and Borodin. Both were repelled by the rhetoric of the nineteenth century. Both felt an affinity for the Symbolist poets, whose verses they set with exquisite taste and nuance. And both suffered from an overdeveloped critical sense that made it difficult for them to work in their later years.
The differences between the pair are no less striking than the similarities. The noontide brightness of Ravel’s music contrasts with the twilight gentleness of Debussy’s. Ravel’s is the more driving rhythm. He is precise where Debussy is visionary. His humor is dryer, his harmony more incisive; the progressions are more cleanly outlined. His sense of key is firmer. He was not attracted to the whole-tone scale as was Debussy; he needed a more solid support for his structure. The voluptuous ambiance of Debussy’s music is absent from his. He is more daring with respect to dissonance, even as he is more conventional in the matter of form. Where Debussy was evocative and dreamlike, Ravel strove for the chiseled line. Thematic development was never the bugbear to him that it was to Debussy. Through his adherence to the Classical form—in his Sonatina for Piano, his Trio, Quartet…
… and the two piano concertos—he achieved the distance he sought between the artistic impulse and its realization.
Ravel’s melodies are broader in span than Debussy’s, more direct. His orchestral brilliance derives in greater degree from the nineteenth century; he stands in the line of descent from Berlioz and Chabrier as well as Rimsky-Korsakov and Richard Strauss. Where Debussy aimed to ‘decongest’ sound, Ravel handled the Post-Romantic orchestra with real virtuosity, with special emphasis on what has been called the ‘confectionery’ department—harp glissandos, glockenspiel, celesta, and triangle. Ravel must be accounted one of the great orchestrators of modern times. Stravinsky called him ‘an epicure and connoisseur of instrumental jewelry.’ When his creative inspiration began to lag, he found it beguiling to exercise his skill on the music of other men, and orchestrated pieces by Chopin, Schumann, Mussorgsky, Chabrier, Erik Satie and Debussy.
Ravel ranks as one of the outstanding piano composers of the twentieth century. He extended the heritage of Liszt, even as Debussy was the spiritual heir of Chopin. His crisp piano style, with its brilliant runs, its animation and fluency, owns kinship too with the eighteenth-century French harpsichordists. Among his early piano pieces, three attained enormous popularity: Pavane pour une Infante défunte (Pavane for a Dead Infanta, 1899); Jeux d’eau (Fountains, 1901); and the Sonatine (1905). The peak of his piano writing is found in Gaspard de la nuit (Gaspard of the Night, 1908), inspired by the fantastic verses of Aloysius Bertrand. The three tone poems of this set—Ondine, Le Gibet (The Gallows), Scarbo—show Ravel’s pictorial imagination at its best.
The French song found in Ravel one of its masters. The witty Histoires naturelles (Stories from Nature, 1906), to Jules Renard’s prose poems, aroused a storm of hostile criticism and established Ravel’s reputation as an enfant terrible. The twentieth-century interest in chamber music with voice is exemplified by Trois Poèmes de Stéphane Mallarmé for voice, piano, two flutes, two clarinets, and string quartet (1913), and the sensuous Chansons madécasses (Songs of Madagascar, 1926). Ravel also cultivated the song with orchestra. Shéhérazade (1903), to the poems of his friend Tristan Klingsor, displays his exotic bent.
It was through his orchestral works that Ravel won the international public. His first important composition in this medium was Rapsodie espagnole (Spanish Rhapsody, 1907). Ma Mère l’Oye (Mother Goose), originally written as a piano duet, was later orchestrated by the composer (1912). The five pieces of this set are impregnated with that sense of wonder which is the attribute of children and artists alike. Daphnis et Chloé, the second suite drawn from his ballet of the same name, is generally accounted Ravel’s masterpiece. La Valse, a ‘choreographic poem’ (1920), came out of the hectic period following the First World War. In this score Ravel deploys the surefire effects that have endeared him to the multitude. The same is true of Boléro (1928).
Among his other works are the Piano Concerto in G (1931), which fully realizes the composer’s dictum that a classical concerto ‘should be lighthearted and brilliant’; the dramatic Concerto for the Left Hand (1931), a masterly composition; L’Heure espagnole (The Spanish Hour, 1907), a delicious comic opera in one act concerning an elderly clockmaker and his faithless wife; and L’Enfant et les sortilèges (Dreams of a Naughty Boy, 1925), a one-act fantasy on a text by Colette. In the domain of chamber music there is the distinguished Trio for piano, violin, and cello (1914); the Introduction and Allegro for harp, string quartet, flute, and clarinet (1906), which is much slighter in substance; and the graceful String Quartet, written when Ravel was twenty-eight (1903) and dedicated to his teacher Gabriel Fauré. Tzigane (1924), a rhapsody for violin and piano (or orchestra), exploits the vein of capricious Gypsyism familiar to us from the Hungarian Rhapsodies of Liszt.