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Ravel: Piano Concertos

1 hour, 30 minutes
First broadcast:
Sunday 04 April 2010

Stephen Johnson considers the background and music to Ravel's two contrasting concertos for piano with the BBC National Orchestra of Wales conducted by Pascal Rophe and French pianist Roger Muraro.

Ravel's two concertos for piano were written almost simultaneously in the late 1920s, and were among the last orchestral works that Ravel composed. They are remarkable in many ways, not least for the contrast that one provides with the other. The Concerto for the Left-Hand was commissioned for the pianist Paul Wittgenstein, brother of the famous philosopher, who had lost his right arm in the First World War. Ravel created a virtuosic single movement work which emerges from the sombre depths of the orchestral to grow into a powerful statement of triumph over adversity. Stephen Johnson unpicks the piece, examining some of Ravel's imaginative writing for the left-hand.

The G major Piano Concerto was written for the French pianist Marguerite Long, and is characterised with some of the fashionable sounds of the day. The three movement concerto is heavily influenced by the sounds of jazz and as Stephen Johnson argues, the sound of the Parisian music hall. Stephen also examines the influence of Mozart on the concerto, especially in the beautiful and emotionally charged slow movement.

The programme includes complete performances of both works and there will be an opportunity to see a visualisation of the programme on the Discovering Music website.

  • Watch an analysis of the Ravel Piano Concerti

    Watch an analysis of the Ravel Piano Concerti

    Watch the video
  • More resources for students

    For teachers and students studying the Ravel G major Concerto, especially WJEC A Level Music, please click on the following link for a talk from Stephen Johnson and Jan Richards, Head of Music at Stanwell School, Penarth.

    Stephen Johnson and Jan Richards
  • Listening Notes

    Listening Notes

    These notes will not necessarily repeat what the presenter says in the programme. They are designed to enhance the listening experience by focusing in more detail on a particular work or genre that is featured in the programme.

    The Listening Notes are prepared by John Arkell. The views expressed are his and unless specifically stated are not those of the BBC.

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  • Work in Focus

    Work in Focus

    Ravel: Piano Concerto and Piano Concerto for the Left Hand

    “The most captivating part of jazz is its rich and diverting rhythm. Jazz is a very rich and vital source of inspiration for modern composers.” Maurice Ravel

    Ravel’s life
    Ravel’s early life was spent in Paris. He showed promise as a pianist and at the age of 14 he entered the Paris Conservatoire. He also studied composition with Faure, though Ravel’s original talent did not impress the rather staid views of the Conservatoire. He failed five times to win the Prix de Rome for composition and there was such a public outcry over this that it led to the resignation of the Conservatoire director. By this time Ravel had already composed the virtuoso piano piece Jeu d’eau (1901),the String Quartet (1902-3) and the song cycle Sheherazade (1903).

    Ravel joined a group of poets, musicians, critics and painters known as ‘Les Apaches’ and concentrated on composition. Works included Sonatine (1903-5)and Miroirs (1904-5)for piano, the Introduction and Allegro for harp and chamber ensemble, the song cycle Histoire naturelles (1906) and Rapsodie espagnole (1907-8).This was a productive period and Ravel also started work on the opera L’heure espagnole (1907-9)and the ballets Ma mere l’oye (1911)and Daphnis and Chloe (1912).

    Ravel’s compositional career was interrupted by the outbreak of the First World War. He served as an ambulance driver on the Western Front until his health broke down. In memory of fallen friends, Ravel composed the keyboard suite Le tombeau de Couperin (1917).Following the war, he returned to opera composition and produced the well-known L’enfant et les sortileges (1925).

    In 1928, Ravel visited America where he composed Bolero, his most (in)famous piece. The work was followed by two piano concertos: one for the left hand in F major and the other our featured work, the Piano Concerto in G major.Ravel’s last composition was a set of songs Don Quichotte a Dulcinee (1923).This work was based on a novel by Cervantes which later was made into a film.

    Background to the work
    The Concerto was composed during 1929-31 and is made up of the usual three movements, in the order fast (Allegramente) – slow (Adagio assai) - fast (Presto). The first performance was given by Marguerite Long to whom the concerto was dedicated.

    The major influence on this work was jazz, a form highly popular in Paris and America at this time. Ravel himself said ‘personally I find jazz most interesting: the rhythms, the way the melodies are handled, the melodies themselves. I have heard of George Gershwin’s works and I find them intriguing.’

    A colourful palette of sounds is made possible with an orchestra comprising: piccolo, flute, oboe, cor anglais, E-flat clarinet, soprano clarinet in B flat and A, two bassoons, two horns in F, trumpet in C, trombone, timpani, triangle, snare drum, cymbals, bass drum, tamtam, wood block, whip, harp, piano, 16 violins, 6 violas, 6 cellos, and 4 double basses.

  • Notes on the Music

    Movement 1: Allegramente
    Form: Sonata Form. Although it is possible to discern the three main sections of the exposition, development and recapitulation, the traditional key relationships are not adhered to by Ravel. The normal practice of two contrasting themes (or subjects) usually with the first theme in the tonic key and the second in the dominant or relative major/minor is not apparent. The opening theme suggests a Basque folk melody and has motifs within it that are further developed in the concerto.

    The traditional function of the development section is to explore and ‘develop’ ideas from either or both themes of the exposition. Here it’s replaced with a free toccata based on the first theme. The final recapitulation is significantly shorter than the exposition and the second subject only comes back in the piano cadenza!

    Melody: The melodies in this work have real character. As mentioned, the first subject is rather like a Basque folk melody and there are other melodic ideas that suggest Spanish and jazz influences.

    Mood: This is an exciting and exuberant movement suggestive of American city life of the bustling 1920s. The lively mood is interspersed with two quieter and reflective sections for contrast.

    Dynamics: A wide range of expressive dynamics feature in this movement

    Harmony and tonality: The movement is in the key of G major. In terms of the harmony, the music is largely diatonic (chords from the key of G major). Intermingled with this harmonic basis are passages in more than one key (bitonality) as well as modal harmonies, which is often a feature of jazz music. There are also dissonant chords, extended jazz harmonies and the inevitable blue notes (flattened 3rds, 5ths and 7ths).

    Piano writing: The music is highly virtuosic with extremely demanding passage work. There are several movements, though, of cantabile (legato) playing – a lull before the storm whips up again.

    Orchestral writing: The orchestra is used for colour and effect. Many of the parts require high levels of performing ability, especially for trumpet, bassoon and horn. Percussion is used extensively to provide exciting musical effects.

    Movement 2: Adagio assai
    Form: This second movement is in ABA ternary form. The decorated and re-scored repeat of the A section is short and leads into a six bar codetta.

    Melody: The melodies in this middle movement are beautiful and elegant. It has been well-documented that Ravel struggled with the composition of this melody, saying ‘that flowing phrase! How I worked it over bar by bar!’ However, the finished product sounds effortless and natural.

    Mood: The mood is tranquil and calm and contrasts sharply with the frenetic opening movement. Ravel acknowledged Mozart as the greatest of all composers and perhaps this middle movement can be seen, albeit in a different musical voice, as reminiscent of a slow movement of a Mozart concerto.

    Dynamics: A wide range of expressive soft dynamics feature in this movement.

    Harmony and tonality: The movement is in the key of E major, a key not closely related to the home key of G major. The key of E major has a soft feeling (less bright for example than a bright D major) and is ideally suited to this slow movement. In terms of the harmony, again the music is largely diatonic (chords from the key of E major). In keeping with characteristics of Romantic harmony, many chords feature added 7ths, 9ths and 11ths adding colour to the harmonic palette.

    Piano writing: To match the serene feeling of the music the piano writing is much more simplistic than the first movement. The movement is literally a piano solo as little support is provided by the orchestra. The pianist is required to adopt a legato ‘cantabile’ (in the singing style) touch to the melodic lines, which are crafted into phrases of differing lengths. The right hand is given the melodic interest throughout supported by accompanying figuration in the left hand part.

    Orchestral writing: The strings provide accompanying support to the piano. The woodwind are given some prominence and melodic interest, particularly the flute and cor anglais (tenor oboe). Indeed the cor anglais is assigned the principal theme in the return of section A, to which the piano adds figuration as an accompaniment.

    Movement 3: Presto
    Form: Sonata Form again. However, Ravel’s use of form is confusing and some writers see this movement as a rounded binary structure, that is to say two sections with a truncated repeat of the first section. The sections are indeed rather uneven in terms of length, with a shortened reprise of the opening material in the recapitulation. The exposition is some 153 bars long compared with 93 bars in the recapitulation. As was the case in the first movement, the key relationships do not follow the conventions of sonata form either.

    Melody: There are three (rather than two) significant melodies in the exposition. Listen out for the high pitched clarinet theme which is the first idea. The second theme is a modal folk tune melody and the third theme has the feelings of a strong march-like tune! There are even fanfare-like aspects to this military melody. The first two melodies are given the development treatment in the middle section and the recapitiulation presents all three again, albeit very swiftly!

    Mood: This is an exciting and lively movement almost like a ‘moto perpetuo’. A real sense of carnival high spirits is achieved in this colourful orchestration

    Dynamics: A wide range of expressive dynamics feature in this movement many of which are fortissimo up to ffff!

    Harmony and tonality: The movement is in the key of G major like the first movement. The harmony explores the use of parallel chords as non functional harmony, ie the chords are used for colouristic purposes. There are passages that explore two or more keys simultaneously, creating polytonality. Much of the harmony is discordant and chromatic. At points in the score, Ravel experiments with note clusters to provide textural and percussive effects.

    Piano writing: The music is highly virtuosic again with fiendishly difficult passagework in very high registers. The piano is a member of the percussion family and it is these percussive qualities that are exploited in this movement. It is worth comparing this to Bartok’s similar use of the piano in his concerto. The music is propelled onwards in driving motor rhythms, which are a real challenge for the performer to execute effectively.

    Orchestral writing: The orchestra is used totally for colour and effect. Listen out for the many sound effects created in the orchestration – howling and shrieking woodwind, rasping brass etc. Many glissandi and chromatic passages abound! It is pure theatre of sound. Ravel places immense musical demands on the performers, insisting on extremes of range and registers from their instruments.


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