Programme note: Ravel - Rapsodie espagnole
- Prélude à la nuit [Prelude to the Night]
- Feria [Festival]
Like Debussy, Ravel heard Javanese music at the Exposition Universelle of 1889, and he, too, created musical images of the East, even choosing the same topic in one of the movements he based on Charles Perrault’s Mother Goose stories (‘Laideronnette, impératrice des pagodes’). He also made brilliant contributions to the French literature of Spanish music, following not only Debussy but also Lalo, Chabrier, Saint-Saëns and Bizet. He composed Rapsodie espagnole in 1907 as a work for two pianos, incorporating a movement, the ‘Habanera’, he had written 12 years earlier. During the next few months he orchestrated the composition, magically, while also working on a comic opera with a Spanish setting, L’heure espagnole.
The Rapsodie starts with a ‘Prelude to the Night’, in which a four-note descending scale is almost continuously repeated as the beguiling but also ominous (beguiling, perhaps, because ominous) background to heady Hispanic bursts that break into the pattern of four steady beats with the sway of triple time.
A possible model for the next movement was the dance of the same name (malagueña = Malagan) that Albéniz included in his piano suite España (1890). Like most of Ravel’s dances, this is a dream piece. When the cor anglais takes over the theme we seem to be waking up, and soon returning to the rotating figure of the first movement.
As to what prompted Ravel’s ‘Habanera’, the movement he conceived in his early twenties, there is not much doubt: Carmen. He adopts the same alluring syncopations as Bizet, the same oscillation between threefold and twofold divisions of the beat. Once more, though, we are not so much dancing as dreaming, witnessing memories of last night’s party surface and evaporate.
Longest of the four movements, ‘Feria’ (Festival) has room for a slow middle section, again featuring cor anglais. In the final section, where castanets almost inevitably feature prominently, the restless four-note motif from the prelude comes back yet again, but this time only to prompt an ultimate intensification of colour and passion.
Programme note © Paul Griffiths