Maurice Ravel. Alborada del Gracioso

I chose today’s piece to accompany a travelogue (continued below) about my hitchhiking trip from Paris to Barcelona in 1977. I thought it was appropriate to chose a Spanish-inspired piece by a French composer. Coincidentally, I just discovered that Ravel was born near the Spanish border to a mother who was Basque. Ravel wrote Alborada del Gracioso in 1912 first for piano, later scoring it for orchestra. The piece comes from a set of five pieces called “Miroirs” (Mirrors).

This piece starts out with a quick dance that sounds so very Spanish that it’s almost a caricature. It has a little dark under-current however that balances the light-heartedness. The second section, becomes more brooding and then launches off into a wonderfully rich and expressive passage that reminds me of his other two works, Gaspard de la Nuit and Le Tombeau de Couperin. Throughout, Ravel manages to intersperse little Spanish-sounding flourishes between these incredibly intricate and complex rhythms and harmonies. At 6 minutes, it’s a mini-tour de force.

Ravel Biography

Making it To Spain

Last week I described the first two days of a hitchhiking trip from Paris to Barcelona, Spain the week before Easter in 1977. There were three of us on this journey-Ingeborg, a dour but cute girl from Germany, Chris, a free spirit from California, and myself, a green soul from northern Indiana.

The first night, we got as far as Lyons, and the second night a trucker gave us dinner and a place to sleep in his house in the town of Avignon. The third day saw the three of us, thumbs out and loaded with backpacks standing on a bridge in Avignon looking over the famous, Pont d’Avignon.
In first grade, I participated in two experiments. The first was a test of fluoridated toothpaste. We got free toot brushes and special red dye pills to chew after we brushed our teeth. The dyes in the pills stuck to and showed off any bits of food we might have missed.

The discovery that fluoridation stops cavities came too late for me however and most of my molars are filled with an amalgam of mercury and silver. My daughters, on the other hand, are 13 and 10 and have never had the pleasure of having a man with a mask spread your jaw and thrust in a whining, high-speed drill. My parent wouldn’t pay for novocaine, and the remembrance of pain past still sends shivers down my spine.

The second experiment was an hour or two a day of French language and culture classes. Children are genetically programmed to learn languages during a developmental window and you can expose them to any language, or any 2, 3, 4, 5, 10 or 20 languages during time period and they’d develop native fluency. By the time they hit their teens however people lose the ability and then it becomes difficult to learn them to that level of proficiency. In my classes, we learned some songs–“Bring a Torch, Jeanette Isabella,” and “Sur le pont d’Avignon.” So as I stood hitchhiking on that cold dreary morning on the bridge at Avignon, that song was running through my head.

We got a series of rides that day that took us through the fertile fields of the south, through the towns of Nimes, Montpellier, Beziers and as far as Perpignan near the French and Spanish frontier. I particularly liked the country-side: the plowed fields, shrouded in late spring fog, the stony brown earth, the long rows of plane trees that lined the driveways up to the old stone farm houses. Once I saw two men, pruning the plane trees along a drive. Over the years, the owners had topped the trees at about 15 or 20 feet and completely cut off all the branches. Every year the trees would send out a set of long straight shoots which would form a perfectly round nimbus of leaves–very symmetrical and very French. Every year, the men would come and snip the previous year’s shoots and pile them up to be made into brooms. The trunks of the trees had become fat from this shaping and looked like huge, pudgy sausages stuck in the ground.

Between Montpellier and Beziers, I saw a sign for the town of Sete. The semester before, I had read a famous poem by the literary hero of that town, Paul Valery. The poem was entitled “Le cimetière marin” or “Marine Cemetery”(read here). It paints an almost impressionistic tableau with words of a view overlooking a field studded with sun-bleached stones and colored by the blood red Mediterranean poppies with the cobalt blue of the sea in the background.

A guy in a BMW sporting a grizzly beard took us as far as the Spanish border and left us there. We walked out of France and found ourselves in a little duty-free city, where the shops sold nothing but cigarettes and booze at ridiculously cheap prices. Somehow we made it to Barcelona that night and found a pension by the train station, near the port. I was quite excited to be in this country of Salvador Dali, Luis Bunuel and, of course, Pablo Picasso. But I was also amazed that we had reached our goal of hitchhiking from Paris to Barcelona and that I had not been eviscerated and left for dead by some axe-murderer.

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