18 June 2003

Ravel's piano concertos

Ever since I was in my teens I've loved the music of Marice Ravel (1875-1937). Born in France, his father's origins were Swiss and his mother's Basque. Ravel is all too often compared to Claude Debussy, with whose music his own compositions bear some resemblance. Both composers are often referred to as "impressionists," inviting comparison with the paintings of Renoir or Monet. Yet Ravel is by no means a lesser Debussy. His own music is a studied combination of high imagination and disciplined form. In this respect he seems uniquely to cut through the dichotomy between classicism and romanticism.

For example, his "Le Tombeau de Couperin" is more than an homage to the great baroque composer, Francois Couperin. It is a highly sophisticated piece, built on the dance forms of the 18th century. As one observer puts it:

There's a sense of polish and wit, of elegance and craft so typical of French music. But there are also less obvious undertones of profundity. Ravel wrote the piece during the Great War, during which he was an ambulance driver, and each movement is dedicated to one of his friends who died.

The piece was originally written for piano in six movements. But later Ravel orchestrated four of the movements, which he subsequently rearranged. He thus gave his piece a new life in a different, but just as pleasing, form.

My favourite pieces of Ravel's are his two piano concertos, the Piano Concerto in G Major and the Piano Concerto for the Left Hand, written almost simultaneously in 1930-1931. The first concerto is a brilliant and energetic work, filled with dazzling musical phrases, dissonances, and even some surprising allusions to that still young genre of jazz, which was having an influence on his side of the Atlantic, as well as in North America. The second concerto has only a single movement and is really more of a tone poem. It was written for pianist Paul Wittgenstein (the brother of philosopher Ludwig), who had lost his right arm in the Great War. Not surprisingly, its tone is sombre and foreboding.

Tragically, Ravel's last years were spent with a debilitating illness that left him unable to write or even communicate any further musical compositions. This was the result of a taxi cab accident suffered in 1928. Yet the music was still inside him until the end, with no way to get out. This would be nothing less than a personal hell for anyone with creative abilities.

Ravel claimed to have no religion, and he took his inspiration from nature more than anything else.

I've often wondered what he could have done if he had not been in the accident and had lived to age 90 and died in 1965. The world would have been blessed with an additional 33 years of great music from the pen of this man.

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