Maurice Ravel: Piano Concerto in D Major

Young people can do some astoundingly cruel things. From an early age, I had enjoyed telling jokes. When I got to middle school, one of my favorite subjects was English, because our teacher exposed us to a wide range of comedic genres-satire, parody, sarcasm, wit, and irony. That expanded my repertoire and I loved the Marx brothers, James Thurber, S.J. Perlmann, and Robert Benchley. Television shows in 1960s were full of social satire and pushed the envelope of good taste. Shows like “Laugh-In” poked fun at conservative sexual mores, racism, and the military industrial complex. All in all, this was pretty healthy humor.

In high school, however, I quickly developed a cruel, vicious sense of humor. Nothing can turn a person into a vicious, thoughtless, hurtful beast faster than peer pressure. And that is what happened to me.

My mates on the swim team tested the limits of bad taste constantly. It started out innocently enough-making fun of the rich snobs on the basketball team and the greedy, conservative adults behind them. Once somebody made fun of a couple of kids that died in a car accident, and from then on nothing was sacred, as one person tried to best another, do more daring acts, and become top of the heap. At a party, for example, on of the guys on the swim team made a prank call to the house of a girl, whose brother had been electrocuted while flying a kite too close to power lines. As a parent of two daughters now, I shudder at how the parents must have felt.

But I didn’t learn my lesson until I had a summer job in the factory where my father worked the summer I graduated from high school. One day, I bumped into the father of one of the girls who had died in the car crash that year. He was a kindly old man, about my father’s age, who drove the sweeping truck. I got talking to him one day and when I told him what high school I had gone to, he asked me if I had known his daughter. I had known her from about the second grade, but I hadn’t been very close friends with her. She hadn’t done that well academically and ran with a wild crowd. But when he asked me if I had known her, I saw in his eyes that he was looking for some kind of validation-that she had been a good girl, that he had done all he could as a parent, that her life hadn’t been in vain. I reassured him, and from that day on, I never could tolerate jokes made at people’s expense.

That summer I was listening to a lot of piano concertos, and became fascinated with Ravel’s Concerto for the Left Hand. The reason for such a concerto arose from another not very funny event-World War I. Paul Wittgenstein, the brother of the philosopher, Ludwig Wittgenstein, had been a successful concert pianist in Germany before the war. In the “War to End All Wars,” everyone had to serve-there were no deferments for artists, intellectuals, teachers, writers, or politicians’ sons. So Paul went and had his arm blown off. After the war, he commissioned a number of composers to write concertos for him, so that he could recapture something of his career. It is ironic that he asked Ravel, who fought on the opposite side during the war. And Ravel delivered Concerto for the Left Hand, which was written in tandem with his other concerto in the same year. the Concerto for the Left Hand was quickly adopted into the standard repertory and is still quite popular.

Ravel wrote the piece in one long movement, though it does have three distinct phases. It begins with a brooding dark melody played low in the basses and trombones. It has the climbing, roiling feeling of the opening to Wagner’s Das Rheingold before the piano bursts in with a flourish, which in feeling has a bit of the oriental in it reminiscent of Debussy’sPagodes. The piano then quiets down with a restatement of the theme, before launching into an energetic yet seething solo. After another orchestral interlude, the piano comes back to play another solo, full of tenderness, perhaps conveying the loss of innocence. In the second section, marked allegro, the piano launches into a 6/8 rhythm at a brisk tempo. The melody that it then takes up is a wonderfully playful and meticulous piece of writing so typical of Ravel, who was himself a virtuoso pianist. The whole movement just sparkles, and is full of that great Impressionist orchestration that he and Debussy created. Ravel keeps up the pace of a march as he weaves in bassoons, trombones, trumpets, piccolos together into a kind of grand fugue. We’ve somehow moved into the third movement and he brings back the theme of the opening, but this time with much more grandeur and a positive feeling. He does go back and ruminate a bit in the cadenza but there is a driving forward energy to it now. There is great beauty still. Despite the horrors of the war and the loss, one has survived.

In one of my musical reference books, it says that Wittgenstein did not like some of the concertos that composers wrote for him. It doesn’t say anything about Ravel’s. Back in high school, when I heard that, I thought, “what a jerk; he should be thankful they wrote anything for him.” It was my learned, adolescent cruelty coming through again. Why blame the victim? My reference book has countless stories of the virtuosos throughout the ages who rejected works by Beethoven, Brahms and Tchaikowsky-works that later gained great popularity. Why should it have been any different for Wittgenstein? And Ravel? He got in a car accident, and fell victim of an unsuccessful brain operation. There is nothing funny in that.

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About kurtnemes
Writer and Education Professional. Specialties include Ethics, Personal Memoir, Classical music, Tai Chi, Stress Reduction, Meditation, Coping, Classical Music, Aging, Love, Joy, Compassion and Equanimity (& what interests me.)

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