Stravinsky, Hindemith, and Poulenc: Three Twentieth Century Pastorales

With roots in the Baroque period, the musical pastorale evokes a serene, bucolic landscape. Often, it rolls along in a gentle 6/8 time and suggests the simple, free-floating melodies and drones of a shepherd’s bagpipes. J.S. Bach’s Pastorella In F Major, BWV 590 for organ, the final movement of Corelli’s “Christmas” Concerto, and the Pastoral Symphony from Handel’s Messiah are famous examples. The sound world of the twentieth century was dominated by …

Read more

Ravel’s “Trois poèmes de Mallarmé”: Reveries Transcribed

In a 1927 interview with the New York Times, Maurice Ravel discussed the influence of the French Symbolist poet, Stéphane Mallarmé (1842-1898): Mallarmé exorcised our language, like the magician that he was. He has released the winged thoughts, the unconscious daydreams from their prison. Ravel’s 1913 song cycle, Trois Poèmes de Stéphane Mallarmé, enters this dreamy world in which allusion, metaphor, and ambiguity reign. The composer said that his aim was to “transcribe …

Read more

Ravel’s “Miroirs”: Reflections on the Nature of Reality

…the eye sees not itself, but by reflection, by some other things. -William Shakespeare  Maurice Ravel was fascinated by this line from the first act of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. Perhaps these words, laced with mysticism and challenging the nature of reality, are not so far off from the French symbolist aesthetic of the late nineteenth century. The line between reality and reflection blurs in Ravel’s five-movement suite for solo piano, Miroirs (“Reflections”), written …

Read more

Ravel’s Piano Concerto for the Left Hand: Big, Bold, and Jazzy

In the fall of 1929, Maurice Ravel received a commission for a concerto from the Austrian pianist, Paul Wittgenstein. After losing his right arm in the First World War, Wittgenstein relaunched his career, performing left hand piano repertoire. He solicited works from numerous composers, including Paul Hindemith, Erich Wolfgang Korngold, Sergei Prokofiev, and Richard Strauss. Wittgenstein proved to be a difficult client. After receiving Strauss’ thickly scored work, he wrote back, “How …

Read more

Bolero: Ravel’s Sublime Orchestration Exercise

It’s one of the most iconic and sensuous pieces of twentieth century music, delivering the ultimate exploration of orchestral color. Yet, Maurice Ravel’s Boléro was conceived as a kind of composition exercise. The composer explained, It is an experiment in a very special and limited direction, and it should not be suspected of aiming at achieving anything different from, or anything more than, it actually does achieve. Before the first performance, I issued a warning …

Read more

Ravel’s Piano Trio in A Minor: An Escape to a Better World

Maurice Ravel composed his Piano Trio in the spring and summer of 1914 as Europe descended into the First World War. Swept up in the fervor of the moment, Ravel rushed to complete the work in order to enlist, “working with the sureness and lucidity of a madman,” as he wrote to a friend. In a letter to Igor Stravinsky, Ravel wrote, “The idea that I should be leaving at once made …

Read more

Ravel’s “Le Tombeau de Couperin” in Two Shades

We explored Maurice Ravel’s magical 1917 suite, Le Tombeau de Couperin, in a previous post. Composed in the aftermath of the First World War, it is music that retreats into the graceful motion and elegance of Baroque dances such as the Forlane, Menuet, and Rigaudon. It pays homage to the keyboard suites of the French Baroque composer, François Couperin (1668-1733), while serving, simultaneously, as a memorial for friends Ravel lost in the war. When listeners commented …

Read more

Send this to a friend