Revel in Ravel Program Notes


Maurice Ravel
Piano Concerto in G

Joseph Maurice Ravel was born in Ciboure near Saint‑Jean‑de‑Luz, Basses-Pyrénées, in the Basque region of France just a short distance from the Spanish border, on March 7, l875, and died in Paris on December 28, 1937.  He composed the Concerto in G, along with his other piano concerto, the one for left hand, in 1930 and 1931.  The composer conducted the first performance, with pianist Marguerite Long, at a Ravel Festival concert at the Salle Pleyel in Paris on January 14, 1932, with the Lamoureux Orchestra.  In addition to the solo piano, the score calls for piccolo, flute, oboe, English horn, clarinets in E‑flat and B‑flat, two bassoons, two horns, trumpet, trombone, timpani, triangle, side drum, cymbals, bass drum, tam‑tam, wood block, whip, harp, and strings. Duration is about 23 minutes.

At about the same time that Paul Wittgenstein, a concert pianist who had lost an arm during World War I, asked Ravel if he would write a concerto for him, Ravel's long‑time interpreter Marguerite Long asked for a concerto for herself.  Thus, although he had written no piano music for a dozen years, he found himself in 1930 writing two concertos more or less simultaneously.  The Concerto for the Left Hand turned out to be one of his most serious compositions, but the G-major concerto, dedicated to and first performed by Madame Long, falls into the delightful category of high‑quality diversion.  Ravel's favorite term of praise was divertissement de luxe, and he succeeded in producing just such a piece with this concerto.

The motoric high jinks of the first movement are set off by the cracking of a whip, though they occasionally yield to lyric contemplation.  The second movement is a total contrast, hushed and calm, with a tune widely regarded as one of the best melodies Ravel ever wrote.  The effort cost him dearly, and it may have been here that he first realized that his powers of composition were failing; they broke down completely in 1932, when the shock of an automobile collision brought on a nervous breakdown, and he found himself thereafter incapable of sustained work.  For this concerto he found it necessary to write the Adagio assai one or two measures at a time.  The final Presto brings back the rushing motor rhythms of the opening, and both movements now and then bear witness that Ravel had traveled in America and had become acquainted with jazz and recent popular music.  He also met George Gershwin and told him that he thought highly of his Rhapsody in Blue; perhaps it is a reminiscence of that score that can be heard in some of the “blue” passages here and there.


La Valse, Choreographic poem

La Valse was composed in 1919 and 1920, based on sketches made before the war as a tribute to Vienna. The orchestral version was given its premiere by Camille Chevillard and the Lamoureux Orchestra of Paris on December 12, 1920.  La Valse is scored for two flutes and piccolo, two oboes and English horn, two clarinets and bass clarinet, two bassoons and contrabassoon, four horns, three trumpets, three trombones and tuba, timpani, triangle, tambourine, side drum, bass drum, cymbals, castanets, tam‑tam, tambourine, crotales, two harps, and strings. Duration is about 12 minutes.

After the ravages of the First World War, Ravel suffered from a recurring insomnia, partly from the loss of many friends. Even before the war he had started sketching a symphonic poem intended as musical depiction of Vienna, with the obvious plan of creating a grand orchestral waltz. Ravel had not yet visited the Austrian capital, but he certainly had a feel for the home of so many waltz composers, going back to Schubert and continuing with the Strauss family and many others. 

The first sketches for Wien (the planned title) apparently date from 1907; he began orchestrating it in 1914 but ceased after the outbreak of hostilities. After the war, Ravel was slow to take up the composition again. Only a commission from Serge Diaghilev induced him to finish it, as a “choreographic poem” with the new title La Valse, intended for production by the Ballets Russes. When the score was finished, however, Diaghilev didn't think of it as dance music and refused to produce the ballet after all. La Valse was first heard in concert form,

In 1928 did Ida Rubenstein mounted a ballet production of the score, designed to suggest the Vienna of 1855. The hazy beginning of La Valse captures a vision of clouds that clear away to reveal dancing couples. The piece grows in a long crescendo, interrupted and started again, finally carried to an energetic and irresistible climax whose violence hints at far more than a social dance.

In 1855 the waltz had been a captivating, carefree, mind-numbing, seductive dance that filled the salons, the ballrooms, and the inns, while the whole of Austrian society was slowly crumbling under the reactionary absolutism of Emperor Franz Joseph, who was twenty‑five in 1855 and reigned until the middle of the First World War. The social glitter of mindless whirling concealed the volcano that was so soon to erupt. In Ravel’s waltz music rises to an level of violence hinting at the concealed rot of the society. Would La Valse have been different if composed before the horrors of the war? Who can tell? In any case, consciously or not, Ravel’s brilliantly orchestrated score captures the glitter and the violence of a society that, even as he was composing, had passed away.


© Steven Ledbetter (