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An introduction to the solo piano music of
Debussy and Ravel
Artur Pizarro (credit: Sven Arnstein)
Recital 2 notes

by Robert Andres
Composed about 1893, Sérénade grotesque was originally entitled just Sérénade  in the autograph. Admitting the influence of Chabrier's Bourée fantasque , written two years earlier, Ravel would return to this spirit later in Scarbo (Gaspard de la nuit) . There is also a connection with Alborada del gracioso (Miroirs) , where the Spanish idiom is likewise suggested by guitar-like strumming in the opening measures, marked pizzicatissimo .

Menuet antique was written in 1895 and published in 1898 by Enoch (Chabrier's old publisher). Its first performance was given by Ricardo Viñes in April 1898. The opening chord of the work appeared in the main section of Sérénade grotesque  and the whole opening phrase contrasts modal and diatonic harmonies. Jankélévitch described the piece as the twin of Chabrier's Menuet pompeux  (1881), which was orchestrated by Ravel in 1918. Sharing with the Habanera  for two pianos the distinction of being among Ravel's first published pieces, this is also the first of several menuets  that Ravel would eventually compose (Sonatine, Menuet sur le nom d'Haydn, Le Tombeau de Couperin) .

Pavane pour une Infante défunte, one of Ravel's most popular pieces, was composed in 1899, published by Demets in 1900 and premiered by Viñes in 1902. It became particularly popular through Ravel's 1910 orchestration. Ravel once said that its title is meaningless, but elsewhere he also commented that it is "an evocation of a pavane that a little princess might, in former, times, have danced at the Spanish court". In contrast with the public, Ravel had a rather poor opinion of the piece, writing in 1912: "By an irony of fate, the first work which I must review is my own Pavane. . . . I no longer see its good points . . . But, alas, I perceive its faults very clearly: the glaring influence of Chabrier and the rather poverty-stricken form". Ravel even declined to give any advice to the pianist Vlado Perlemuter when he performed the piece for the composer. However, there is a tempo-related implication in the comment he made to a young pianist, Charles Oulmont: "Listen, dear boy, remember another time that I wrote a Pavane for a dead princess and not a dead Pavane for a princess."

Written between January and April of 1901 and published in the same year by Fromont, Debussy's suite Pour le piano was premiered by Ricardo Viñes at the Societé Nationale. This work appeared after a decade-long hiatus during which the composer wrote nothing for piano. The suite makes another excursion into the past but avails itself of all the resources of the modern piano in a style that clearly evokes but manages to escape banality, formulas and literal parallelisms. Nevertheless, Ravel's comment was that the suite "said nothing really new".
The Prelude  has as its model the baroque organ toccata and therefore the use of pedal points is no surprise. It is constructed in a form close to the sonata Allegro. The Sarabande is the second and final version of the one belonging to Images oubliées of 1894. Just as the first version, this one is also dedicated to Yvonne Lerolle, now under her married surname Rouart, demonstrating that the composer kept memory of the young muse. There are some eighty changes between the versions, mostly suppressing excessive chromatic alterations and purifying the basic modal harmony. The typical parallel harmonies appear again in Hommage a Rameau  (also a Sarabande ) and in the prelude Cathédrale engloutie . Debussy may have possibly been inspired for writing a Sarabande  by Satie's Sarabandes of 1887. Toccata is Debussy's most virtuosic work to date, of a clear and incisive character, mixing diatonic, modal and pentatonic elements. It is bursting with rhythmical energy and verve, and its uplifting spirit is enhanced by pervasive use of rich, essentially Debussy, harmonic language characterised by unresolved parallel chords and whole-tone and pentatonic scales.

In 1906 Ravel wrote to critic Pierre Lalo that his Jeux d'eau can claim priority in a "special type of writing for the piano" customarily ascribed to Debussy, and that it had an initiating role in 20 th -century piano music: " Jeux d'eau marks the beginning of all the pianistic innovations which have been noted in my works. This piece, inspired by the sound of water and the musical sounds made by fountains, cascades, and streams, is based on two themes, like the first movement of a sonata, without however submitting to the classical tonal scheme". Undoubtedly, Liszt's Les jeux d'eau  àla Villa d'Este  has to be considered as its precursor and title inspiration. Ravel first presented the piece for his fellow Apaches, and a witness commented that they were showered with "a whole panoply of subtleties and vibrations which none of us could previously have imagined". The inscription "River god laughing at the water that tickles him" comes from Henri de Régnier's Fête d'eau , and the poet himself indicated on the manuscript that the poem was based on the Bassin de Latone, the one fountain in working order at Versailles at the time.
Léon-Paul Fargue, "Apache" poet, recorded an anecdotal event in which, while in Vienna , Ravel went to buy a wallet. The salesgirl asked if he was indeed the composer of Jeux d'eau , which she loved playing, and upon his acknowledgment, she offered him the wallet with her thanks and profound admiration. Ravel commented that Vienna was the only city where a salesgirl would be playing a piece like Jeux d'eau and make such a gracious gesture.

Debussy wrote Estampes , a set of three sound "prints", otherwise done from engraved copper or wood, in July 1903. The set was premiered 1904 by Ricardo Viñes. Using four different pentatonic scales, the first "print", Pagodes , evokes a static image with a particular reference to the sound of the Javanese gamelan orchestra. The scenario of the mirage-like image growing ever more solid and then receding and dispersing is similar to the prelude La catédrale engloutie .
In spite of having provoked Ravel's reaction to a possible imitation of his own 1898 Habanera , La soirée dans Grenade , with tempo indication Mouvement de Habanera , had its own forerunner in Debussy's output in Lindaraja , a piece for piano four-hands from 1901. Debussy's Habanera  is written as a series of interrupted fragments - sounds and rhythms being carried by wind, perhaps - that combine into a seamless whole. At the end there is a convincing imitation of castanets. Jardin sous la pluie  is based on two French nursery songs, Do, do, l'enfant do, l'enfat dormira bientôt and Nous n'irons plus au bois, les lauriers sont coupes . Its depiction of rain covers an extreme range of intensity, from single drops to imitation of thunder or wind-gusts.

Masques, published in 1904 but possibly composed as early as 1890 (Schmitz), introduce an 18th -century subject, akin to the world of Fêtes galantes (Debussy had just finished a second set of songs of this title, based on Verlaine's poems, a few months earlier). Debussy originally thought of including this piece and L'isle joyeuse into Suite bergamasque . Albeit simpler than L'isle , it charms to the extent that a Parisian reviewer wrote that the piece "attracted him as some forbidden pleasure, some vicious habit".

D'un cahier d'esquisses is the title of a 1903 sketch contemporary with the conception process of Debussy's symphonic poem La Mer and therefore showing a certain orchestral flavour. It was published in 1904 in a musical supplement to Paris illustré and premiered by Ravel in 1910, the year of its second edition by Schott Frêres, at the Société Indépendante in Paris . It is considered significant in reconstructing the genesis of the symphonic poem, since it amounts to a seminal exercise in distilling ideas for it.

Related to La Mer and to the two previous works, thus possibly representing the final piece of the three-piece set, L'isle joyeuse was composed in 1903, revised in 1904 in Dieppe and premiered by Viñes at the Société Nationale in Paris in 1905. It was apparently inspired by Watteau's painting L'embarquement pour Cythère . Although Ravel's description of the work as "an orchestral reduction" was probably meant to be demeaning, it is a fact that L'isle is indeed replete with potential orchestral effects and thus it is no wonder that it was eventually orchestrated, by Bernardo Molinari, an Italian conductor, in 1917. Debussy's comment makes much the same point, considering the piano as an instrument capable of producing varying timbres: "This piece seems to me to bring together every different way of striking the piano, since it unites force and grace". Reflecting its aqueous inspiration, an interpretation instruction in the piece asks for "ondoyant et expressif". The work culminates in a moment of emotional abandon and a sweeping melody that exudes exhilarating joy and enthusiasm.

Morceau de concours is also known as Pièce pour piano . It was published in the January 1905 supplement of the periodical Musica , and was a part of a musical puzzle in which readers had to identify the composers of six anonymous pieces, from a list of eighteen names. Debussy was recognised as the author of this piece by 218 readers, only Massenet having been identified by a greater number (304). For the work, Debussy drew on the sketchbook in which he was elaborating material for the opera Le diable dans le beffroi (The devil in the belfry), one of two abandoned operatic projects he probably devoted most time to (the other one being La chute de la maison Usher , both based on E. A. Poe). The complexity and density of the writing are indicative of the work's orchestral origin.

Begun in 1903 and finished in 1905, Sonatine  was Ravel's first piece in Auguste and Jacques Durand's catalogue. Ravel was subsequently offered a retainer equal to Debussy's for the right of first refusal in the future. Showing himself as a remarkably humble and down-to-earth person, Ravel accepted only half of the offered sum.
Its first movement is a neo-classical exercise written in response to a competition sponsored by a short-lived Anglo-French periodical The Weekly Review . About the Menuet , which is continuing the tradition of the Menuet antique , Ravel said "Generally, it is played too spikily". The movement's second theme is derived from the opening of the first movement and unfolds simultaneously with its own augmentation. Its end resembles a broad gesture, somewhat like a deep curtsey. The Animé finale unfolds almost in a perpetual motion and Perlemuter relates that Ravel required "great exactitude of rhythm". However, Ravel's 1913 recording shows quite a degree of flexibility. Although Ravel was not appreciative of his own early works, he did choose this one to play on his American tour, instead of the Concerto in G, which he himself judged too difficult for his own pianistic recourses.



Debussy/Ravel cycle
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