Ravel’s “L’Heure Espagnole”: An Enchanting One-Act Comédie Musicale

Maurice Ravel’s 1911 comic opera in one act, L’heure espagnole, is a hilariously enchanting farce. Its literal title, “The Spanish Hour,” can be more accurately translated as “Spanish Time,” or “How They Keep Time in Spain.” The libretto by Franc-Nohain is based on a 1904 play by the same author.

Set in eighteenth century Spain, the plot of L’heure espagnole centers around Concepción, the restless and lusty wife of a preoccupied clockmaker (Torquemada). When the unsuspecting Torquemada leaves to make his rounds attending to the the municipal clocks, Concepción finds herself juggling two lovers who have turned up on the same day, and who end up concealing themselves in the cabinets of grandfather clocks. Gonzalve is a self-absorbed student poet, while the older and more corpulent Don Iñigo Gomez is a buffoonish banker. Concepción is irritated, initially, by the presence of yet another man, Ramiro, a muscular muleteer who has come to the shop to have his watch repaired. By the end, Ramiro proves to be the ultimate handyman in more ways than one. Only in the opera’s final moments do the five characters come together as a quintet. Stepping out of character to form a kind of Greek chorus, they distill a moral from the silliest of stories.

With L’heure espagnole, derided by critics as “musical pornography” following its premiere, Ravel set out to revive the tradition of opera buffa. Throughout the work, the music magically and effortlessly gives us the impression of spoken language. As Ravel’s student and biographer, Roland-Manuel, wrote, “The language of the music is linked up as naturally as possible with the music of the language.” Ravel, born in the Basque region, infused the score with Spanish flavor, including such dances as the malagueña, the jota, and the habañera.

L’heure espagnole begins with a mechanical chorus of metronomes which evoke the “tick-tock” of multiple clocks. The instruments of the orchestra become additional “characters,” with occasional comic retorts. The trombone is one of the principal clownish voices. The deep, raspy sarrusophone accompanies the travails of Don Iñigo Gomez, which include getting stuck in one of the grandfather clocks. Listening to this music, you will be reminded, immediately, of the “beast” contrabassoon solo from the “Beauty and the Beast” movement of Ravel’s Mother Goose Suite, orchestrated in 1911.

L’heure espagnole is frivolous and funny. Yet, underneath the hilarity lies some of Ravel’s most beautiful and deeply expressive music.

Sian Edwards led this 1987 Glyndebourne performance:


  • Ravel: L’heure espagnole, Lorin Maazel, Orchestra National de la R.T.F., Jane Berbie, Michel Senechal, Jose van Dam, Jean Giraudeau, Gabriel Bacquier Amazon 

About Timothy Judd

A native of Upstate New York, Timothy Judd has been a member of the Richmond Symphony violin section since 2001. He is a graduate of the Eastman School of Music where he earned the degrees Bachelor of Music and Master of Music, studying with world renowned Ukrainian-American violinist Oleh Krysa.

The son of public school music educators, Timothy Judd began violin lessons at the age of four through Eastman’s Community Education Division. He was a student of Anastasia Jempelis, one of the earliest champions of the Suzuki method in the United States.

A passionate teacher, Mr. Judd has maintained a private violin studio in the Richmond area since 2002 and has been active coaching chamber music and numerous youth orchestra sectionals.

In his free time, Timothy Judd enjoys working out with Richmond’s popular SEAL Team Physical Training program.

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