Richard Nisley

Music From an Alternate Universe
Music - Classical Released - Jan 08, 2013

The movie “10” made a pop hit of “Bolero.”

According to the composer Maurice Ravel, “‘Bolero’ is 15 minutes of orchestra without any music.” It consists of two short themes of a single melody repeated over and over again for 15 minutes, with different instrumental “colors.”

As critics often due when confronted with something different, they protested. Ravel had gone too far. “Bolero” they said was “artificial music.” “Has it occurred to them,” replied Ravel, “that one may be artificial by nature.”

Ravel never explained what he meant by that but there is something different about his sound world that’s hard to put your finger on. Musical ideas would enter Ravel’s mind and re-emerge as if from an alternate universe. Listen to what he did with the Strauss waltz in “La Valse.”

Critics often compared Ravel with another “post-Impressionist” French composer of the time, Claude Debussy. Ravel and Debussy produced music with similar titles. Debussy wrote “Iberia,” Ravel gave us “Rhapsodie Espagnole”; Debussy wrote a piano set called “Images,” Ravel composed “Mirrors”; Debussy wrote “Reflets dans l’eau,” Ravel produced “Jeux d’eau.”

Ravel’s father was Swiss, his mother Basque, and they raised their son in Paris. Indeed, there is bit of everything in Ravel’s music: a bit of Spain, a bit of Austria, a bit of Russia, a bit of Children’s music, a bit of jazz, a bit of Impressionism.

“I have failed all my life,” wrote Ravel late in life. “I am not one of the great composers. All the great ones produced enormously. But I have written relatively very little, and with a great deal of hardship. And now I cannot do any more, and it does not give me any pleasure.”

Ravel loved jazz, and you can hear it in his later scores. Whenever in America, he spent hours in nightclubs in Harlem and in New Orleans listening to jazz often in the company of George Gershwin. Gershwin had written “Rhapsody in Blue” and asked Ravel to teach him how to compose for orchestra. Ravel refused. “You would only lose the spontaneous quality of your melodies and end up writing bad Ravel.”

Ravel greatly admired Gershwin’s jazzy Piano Concerto in F and produced two jazzy concertos of his own: Concerto in G for Piano and Orchestra, and Concerto in D for the Left Hand. The piano part of the latter is so complex that one can hear the concerto and be unaware that only the left hand is being used.

Ravel may have not produced much, but what he did produce was distinctive and first-rate. His spanish music includes “Alborado del gracioso,” “Rhapsodie Espagnole” and of course “Bolero.”

Among Ravel’s best known pieces for solo piano are: “Pavane pour une infante defunte” (Pavane for a dead princes), “Jeux d’eau” (Fountains), and “Valses nobles et sentimentales” (seven noble and sentimental waltzes). Ravel transcribed all these pieces or orchestra.

Ravel’s masterpiece was written for a ballet based on a third-century Greek romance entitled, “Daphnis and Chloe.” Conductor/composer Andre Previn has called it “The finest orchestral music written in the 20th Century.”

On the list of great composers, Ravel is 29th.
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