Work: Rapsodie espagnole
About This Work
Ravel composed this music in 1907, but didn't orchestrate it until just before the premiere on March 15, 1908, with Edouard Colonne conducting "his" orchestra at one of "his" Paris concerts. It is lavishly scored, with winds and
brass mostly in threes and fours, and plenty of percussion. In fact if not in title, this kaleidoscope from Ravel's 33rd year is a symphonic suite in four related movements that derive -- like the single-act comic opera, L'Heure espagnole, finished in 1909 -- from his Basque mother's memories of Madrid, where she spent much of her childhood. During that time, the "Habanera" from Cuba -- without a tilde over the "n," please -- had enjoyed special but ephemeral popularity. Ravel's "Habanera" in the Rapsodie is a note-for-note orchestration of his early work for two pianos, composed in 1895, which he and Ricardo Viñes played.
The first performance was feebly conducted and restively heard by the audience in expensive seats on the main floor. In the upper gallery, however, Ravel's students and friends made a great noise, calling for an encore of the second movement ("Malagueña"), after which the young composer Florent Schmitt called out in a stentorian voice, "Just once more, for the gentlemen below who haven't been able to understand." Like most concert-hall outbursts in Paris, this one added to (rather than subtracted from) Ravel's reputation.
In the Prélude à la nuit (Très modéré (3/4, open key), two octaves apart, muted violins and violas play a descending four-note motif that repeats over and over, never louder than mezzo-forte throughout. A six-measure theme interrupts, in effect a cadenza for clarinets and later bassoons, before the music evanesces on a chord in the high strings. Ravel's own description was "voluptuously drowsy and ecstatic."
The Malagueña (Assez vif) begins in 3/4 with an open key, but later changes to 2/4 and B major. Originally a Spanish courting dance, this quick-moving evocation of Málaga is a long crescendo that begins very quietly with an ostinato motif in the bass, until a muted solo trumpet plays the main theme with tambourine accompaniment. The tempo slows for a new melody of Moorish cast, sung plaintively by the English horn, following which the opening motif from Movement 1 returns.
Ravel subtitled the Habanera in A major "Au pays parfumé que le soleil caresse" (In the fragrant land that the Sun caresses) both in his two-piano original of 1895 and 12 years later in this orchestral setting, with minor-second dissonances in the accompaniment and triplet-spiced themes.
The Feria, a high-spirited holiday scene, came several years after Debussy's "Fêtes" movement in Trois Nocturnes, but predated a similar fiesta finale in Debussy's Ibéria, the second Image pour orchestre. Ravel interrupts his celebration with a languorous interval, soft as suede, played by the English horn and solo clarinet, followed by the four-note motif from movement one, before the merriment resumes even more frenziedly and brilliantly.
-- Roger Dettmer
Select a specific Performer, Conductor or Ensemble or browse recordings by Formats & Featured below