In another detour from the war of the Romantics, I take you now to a French great of the next generation to follow: the Impressionists.
Maurice Ravel studied with the French masters of his era, (Faure, Satie and others) and the early 1900s, he had well established himself as a notable composer.
His pieces are well varied, as any composer, from chamber music, to ballets, to concertos, to works for full symphony orchestra.
I personally am most familiar with his chamber works, and thus this blog will focus mainly on two such pieces as well as one of his most famous pieces for symphony.
Ravel’s String Quartet in F Major was his one and only string quartet and while today, it is looked upon as his first great masterpiece (written at age 28), it was not as well received at first. The quartet was dedicated to Ravel’s teacher, Faure. Faure, however, was not so impressed. In his words, the fourth movement is “stunted, badly balanced, in fact a failure.” The judges of the Grand Prix de Rome, a prestigious French award rejected the quartet in another of his five failed attempts at the prize. Others at the time were more approving. Ravel’s friendly rival, Claude Debussy wrote to Ravel, pleading Ravel, “In the name of the Gods of music and in my own, do not touch a single note you have written in your Quartet.”
As I have heard it, the quartet is full of luscious melodies and harmonies, (my favorite being the pizzicato section in the second movement.) Today, it is heard in frequently in performance. An excerpt from the second first movement can also be found in “The Royal Tenenbaums,” and is one of the several classical pieces on the soundtrack. Others have incorporated the Quartet into their own music as well. Mike Marshall arranged part of it for guitar quartet. (This link will take you to the free downloads section of amazon.com. There are thousands of artists that have posted their work on Amazon for free downloads. There’s a huge variety of stuff so check it out, if you have some time. It’s a little hit and miss and not everything you download will be good.)
A few years after the somewhat failed quartet, Ravel debuted another chamber work that became an instant success. It is a septet for entitled Introduction and Allegro for Harp, String Quartet, flute, and clarinet. The harp becomes the star of the impressionistic work. I was astounded when I first heard it, at a live performance, to see the harp actually playing harmonics. The piece as a whole is practically a miniature harp concerto. The strings and winds are no less important, with equally beautiful melodies but the harp easily steals the show. Ravel blends the seven instruments seamlessly, using the harp particularly effectively both as a melodic instrument and to lighten the overall texture with its characteristic glissandi. The overall effect is magical. This is "impressionist" music without a hint of vagueness; it is bright, fresh, and never less than perfectly clear.
As a conclusion to this brief introduction to Ravel, I will leave you with his mesmerizing ballet, Bolero. Written as a joke, it is a simple Spanish melody repeated over and over again. The story goes that someone bet Ravel he couldn’t write a piece without music that everyone would love. The resulting work was Bolero. In many aspects, there is very little music to it. It is a repeated melody. Supposedly, it is a wonderful piece to listen to in concert but to play it can be the most boring fifteen minutes of your musical life if you aren’t a soloist. The melody bounces around soloists and employs several rare instruments such as the oboe d’amore and piccolo trumpet. For the accompanying orchestra, the music is less than pleasing. The snare drum, for example, repeats a two bar phrase for the duration of the piece. The effect is to create a hypnotically mesmerizing work that really is musicless music. The biggest irony is that audiences, unaware of Ravel’s bet, immediately fell in love with Bolero and it became an instant hit.
So there you have it, the short introduction to the music Maurice Ravel. And in a completely unrelated segment, here is my addition to the winner of our War of the Romantics poll. I have had some computer difficulties recently but finally, I have Beethoven’s First Symphony ready to download. And on another side note, the link to the Martinu quartets is finally up and working so I suggest you check those out as well.