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 post 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 cute philosophy major from Germany named Ingeborg, 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 tooth 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 boys loved this.  It made our gums bright red and we looked like zombies when we smiled.

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 28 and 25 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 who haven’t learned more than one (or who’ve been deprived of languages, e.g.  see the ethically dubious research on Genie) lose the ability or it becomes difficult to learn them to a great 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 or left for dead by some axe-murderer.

Maurice Ravel: Pavane Pour une Infante Defunte

Ravel’s Pavane Pour une Infante Defunte is one of his most well known and lovely pieces. There are two versions of it–one for piano and one for orchestra. Pavane means a kind of slow processional dance, and Ravel’s is “for a dead princess.” Ravel did not write the piece for anyone in particular, though he had a patron named, Winaretta Singer, heiress to the Singer sewing machine fortune, and who was a princess by marriage to one Prince Edmond de Polignac. The word “infante,” refers to the child of a Spanish monarch, the French word for child being “enfante.” Ravel wrote the piece while studying music under Gabriel Faure at the Paris Conservatory. At the time, things Spanish were the vogue in Paris, and he wrote it to evoke the pleasant emotions of things Spanish in general and the the sounds that the word infante had on him in specific.

Ravel wrote the Pavane for piano, but it has also been scored for orchestra and string quartet. A search on youtube revealed a version for four harps as well. Though Ravel later thought of this early work as immature and poorly executed, it remains a favorite–its haunting, gentle melody as touching as Debussy’s Claire de la Lune.

When Ravel performed the work on piano, he played it much more slowly than other interpreters. Yet when he heard plodding versions of it, he reportedly quipped: “it’s a pavane for a dead princess, not a dead pavane for a princess.”

I hadn’t heard this piece for a long time, but coincidentally, a friend of mine who is a cellist performed it with his string quartet a couple of nights ago at a fund raiser for the Duke Ellington School for the Performing arts in Washington, DC. What it invokes in me, is the memory of a man named Josef and his daughter, whom I met in 1977 while hitchhiking from Paris to Barcelona (described below).

Pavane for a Truck Driver’s Daughter

Ingebord, Chris and I had left Paris the day before and had only gotten as far as Lyons, just about half way to the Mediterranean. There we had not been received with open arms by the former dorm mate of mine from the French House, where I lived in college. He had acted upset at my calling so late. This was back in 1977, when life in France was a bit slower and people had the luxury of going to sleep at nine o’clock in the evening.

We left Lyons a bit groggy-eyed. Fortunately the rain had let up and the sun warmed us a bit as we stood by the side of the road and stuck our thumbs out. I cannot remember all the rides we had that day, but I do remember the last one. A fairly genial young man, maybe in his late twenties to mid thirties, picked us up in his big moving van. He had fairly long hair, wire-rimmed glasses, and soft features. Back then in France I remember being struck at how people seemed to have a number of well defined class and socio-economic roles. These weren’t necessarily seen as bad. In fact, they gave a well defined structure to ones work and career life, freeing one up to lead enriching interior lives. Our truck driver had a job, a truck, and a house. The state took good care of him. He had all he needed. But I wouldn’t necessarily call him complacent.

He lived in Avignon, and as the day was drawing to a close by the time we got that far, he offered to put us up for the night with his family. After the night before, we tired gypsies rejoiced at our good fortune.

Let’s call our host Josef. Josef lived in a nice two-story house in a small suburb of villas that lay on either side of eucalyptus lined streets. His wife greeted us and did not seem at all put out by his having brought us home. Inside we found a very comfortable place in the Mediterranean style with marble floors and efficient cupboards, shelves and organizers. The place had big windows that on the second floor opened out onto a balcony which commanded a breathtaking view of the mountains. He told me that when the Mistral blew, it would blow debris onto the balcony and it was awesome to watch the force and speed of it in that tight space. On the ground floor on the other side of the house he took us into his ample back yard where he had a sizeable garden. It was there that I first saw an espalier, which is when they train and prune the branches of a fruit tree to run along a low frame or a fence so that the fruit can be easily harvested.

Back inside the house, Josef’s wife fed us a great meal that we shared with their two beautiful children, a boy and a girl about 3 and 5. After dinner, we sat around talking. He was not snobby or impatient with my French and I found myself having a nice conversation with him. We did not watch TV–I’m not sure if they owned one and it would have been an affront I’m sure to put it before one’s guests.

When it was time to turn in, he showed us our rooms. On the way, we passed a family photo. In it I saw there were three children–an older girl who had not sat with us at the table. When I asked him about her, Josef said “Oh. That was my oldest daughter. She passed away last year. She had a bad heart.” And as he said it, he brought his right hand up in a tender gesture and tapped lightly over his own heart. My own heart aches now, 36 years later, as I remember what a sad thing to have happen to such a sweet guy. Yet, he did not seem to have a victim’s mentality or feel outraged at his luck. “Yes, that is life,” he sighed.

When I first got to Paris, there was a big flap in the papers at how the Americans had developed the neutron bomb. This bomb, we were told, would create a blast of sub-atomic particles that would not harm buildings but which would kill all animal life in the vicinity where it was dropped. Somehow that was seen as the perfect weapon. To my mind, it represents the purest of evil. Way back before there were guns, armies fought hand to hand and the terror of that I’m sure made power hungry men think twice before leading their troops into battle. World War II, pretty much dropped the pretense that war was fought by soldiers for noble causes and the civilian population was not to be included in the target. With this bomb, however, you could wage war from afar, never seeing your enemy, which it killed indiscriminately-men, women and children, soldiers and civilians.

Because I did come from America and bought into the victim’s “why me?” mentality, I took every affront by Parisians personally. Therefore, I am ashamed to say, when news of the neutron bomb broke, I joked that Paris was the perfect place to drop the neutron bomb–“get rid of the Parisians and it would be a great place.”

That was before I met Josef, however, who restored my faith not just in the French but in all of humanity. It reminds me of a quote I recently heard by the fiction writer, Scot Turow. “Why do bad things happen to good people?” a character asks. “I’m convinced that God does that to us to bring us together. If everything were perfect and there was no suffering, we’d all just be these individuals doing our own thing.” That pretty much sums up what I learned from Josef. It’s when you meet people who have so much warmth and dignity and take life as it comes, that you really know that life is truly worth living.

Maurice Ravel: Gaspard de La Nuit

I chose today’s piece by Ravel, to accompany a description of my first days in Paris (see essay below). The work, for solo piano, ranks as on of the most challenging works for that instrument and showcases this musical Impressionist at the height of his powers. Influenced by Chopin and his teacher, Faure, and colleague and mentor, Debussy, Ravel chose as his inspiration three turn of the century, symbolist poems in the style of Edgar Allen Poe. These have ominous names like, “Ondine,” who was a water sprite, “Le Gibet,” (the gallows) and “Scarbo,” which was about an evil, medieval dwarf.

Since the first movement, Ondine, focuses on a water sprite, Ravel pulls out all the stops on the technique invented by Debussy of repeating a cascade of notes in one hand and chords in the other to create the sound equivalent of light shimmering on water. You can imagine what Ravel does with a the second movement called “The Gallows.” He starts with a simple two beat syncopated rhythm played on the B flat key, which sounds like a demented church bell pealing out a death knell. The chords and progressions that Ravel chose to lay on top of this base line, have a bleak and haunting quality to them that evokes a cart of prisoners, bound for their execution. The last movement depicts the line in the poem, in which the dwarf drops from the ceiling, spins on one foot and then rolls across the floor. It starts out a slow and haunting introduction, before taking off at a break-neck speed. This movement echoes some of Debussy’s works, especially “Homage au Rameau,” but Ravel himself said he was trying to outdo a piece by a Russian composer, Mily Balakirev. The latter’s work, “Islamey,” was considered the most difficult piece ever written. Ravel did the Russian one better and pianists today still say of this piece that you need wrists and fingers of steel to play it.

Ravel Biography

Finding Friends in Paris

Earlier on this site, I implied that it was just me against the world upon my arrival in Paris in January of 1977. In fact, I did have a contact that my friend Thom Klem had given me before I left. He had gone to high school with a friend whose American father had brought back a French bride after fighting in France during World War II. This friend had a sister named Catherine, who had come to study in Paris on her junior year abroad from Sweetbriar College.

My first order of business my second day in Paris, therefore, was to find Catherine. She lived down by Place de l’Italie in the 13th Arrondissement. Now the 13th Arrondissement starts where Rue Mouffetard ends after its long descent down from the Latin Quarter. In 1977, this area was in a transitional state as it moved from an Algerian ghetto, in which old characteristic Parisian shops were being razed into a high density, urban area of apartment towers and shopping malls. This gentrification of Paris had started under the Prime Minister, George Pompidou. That plan, by the way, gave Paris its first sore thumb, the Tour Montparnasse. The was the first and last skyscraper to be built within the city walls, in which no building was supposed to be built taller than the Eiffel Tower.

The Tour Montparnasse was such a blight on the Parisian landscape, that the surrealist film director, Luis Bunuel, lambasted it in his film, The Phantom of Liberty. In that film, a sniper, armed with a high power rifle, goes to the observation deck and starts picking off pedestrians one at a time. Since the tower is so high, no one on the ground can hear the report of the gun. Pictured from the ground, each victim’s death become a grotesque, silent pantomime as their bodies jerk, they realize they’ve been shot, and then fall dead.

Eventually the police rush the sniper and take him prisoner. He is tried and found guilty but then receives a handshake from the judge and is set on his way. This is a beautiful metaphor for the soul-killing that Pompidou’s urban renewal visited on the life of Paris. The tower is a symbol of capitalism and corporate greed and implies the authorities are in collusion with the bankers.

The Place D’Italie in 1977 was a soul-less place, with little green to be found and few pedestrians on the street, since all the old shops had been destroyed. I found the right street. It was small and narrow and overshadowed by two huge apartment towers. On the corner stood a remnant from old Paris: a small, ramshackle bar from which Algerian music–punctuated by the sound of a pinball machine–blared. Following the street numbers, I walked past a garage, a bakery, and another bar.

I realized that the apartment was actually across the street in the apartment towers. The address was a bit vague, and I entered the wrong tower. As the address indicated the thirteenth floor, this was not too fun, especially since the elevator required a few centimes to run and the whole place was dark. This made the person in the apartment I did stop at reluctant to open her door even though I was a fellow American. She did whisper through the crack that I had the wrong tower and sent me on my way.

In the right tower, on the right floor, in front of the right door, I was dismayed to find myself carrying on a conversation in French with a man. This guy looked as French as anyone else I had seen so far and I had no reason to suspect him of not being so. I asked about Catherine, and he seemed a bit embarrassed to find out I was hunting for her. I explained that I was an American friend of a friend, and instantly he started speaking to me in English. He was Catherine’s boyfriend, Jerry, a fellow student at Sweetbriar.

I was a bit crestfallen. I had been fantasizing that I would fall in love with this woman I had never seen before and end up having a wonderful time in Paris. Jerry told me Catherine would be back at 4:30 that afternoon, so after talking to him for about an hour, I decided to go out sight seeing.

It was not too salubrious a neighborhood, but I was surprised to find a huge indoor mall at the base of another towering apartment complex nearby. In the mall, I found that it was an uneasy marriage between American and traditional French shopping styles. It had two levels. The ground floor contained all the clothing stores; the basement housed the traditional butchers, bakers, wine shops, and creameries. It was odd; there was a bookshop down there too. I wondered whether Parisians consider ideas a type nourishment.

Back at the Place D’Italie, I took the subway up to the other side of the river and visited the church, St Eustache. This huge edifice, the largest church in Paris after Notre Dame, sits right next to the stock exchange and the former site of Les Halles. Les Halles, one of Paris’ most characteristic markets, monstrously big from the look of it, had recently been razed to make way for a big underground shopping complex. It made Paris look odd, this gaping hole amid the run down buildings of the area.

St Eustache was a 2nd Century Martyr, and the present church was erected between 1532 and 1640 on the site of an earlier, 13th Century chapel to St. Agnes. Stylistically the church started out in the shape of a Gothic cathedral, but the builders changed their minds part way through and the decoration is classical. Inside the church, I was impressed by its size and beauty. It was odd that I chose to visit this church before Notre Dame. I knew of it, however, from my French professor the semester before who had given a lecture on the bizarre sites of Paris, of which he number this church. Richelieu and Mme de Pompadour had been baptized there, and Louis XIV took his first communion at its altar. Though turned into the Ministry of Agriculture during the Revolution and having been gutted in a fire in 1844, it was restored last century and boasts some wonderful stained glass windows. It also contains the paintingPilgrims at Emmaus, by Reubens. Because of its acoustics, concerts are given here on a magnificent organ, which continues a long musical tradition: Berlioz premiered his Te Deum here in 1855.

After this little cultural diversion, I found a restaurant nearby that had a ridiculously low priced menu. It wasn’t great, but it was filling and it was my first French meal in a French Restaurant. In truth, I later realized it was only a bar that served sit down lunches. I had a rabbit stew of some sort, a salad, bread and wine. I grabbed the mustard that was on the table and put a dollop on my plate. It was then that I realized that this mustard was made the same way as Chinese mustard: mustard powder and water. My mouth and nostrils were almost seared.

The walk had tired me out and I was still a bit jet lagged, so I walked back to my hotel and took a nap. Around 3:30, I rose and went back to Catherine’s. She was extremely gracious and was really overjoyed to find that I was a friend of Thom Klem’s. As it turned out, Klem had gone to school with her brothers who were several years older than her, but she still counted me as a friend by extension. She made me feel at home.

Jerry was nice too. He offered to let me stay in his room at the foyer (dormitory) where he was officially staying out in a small suburb called Fontenay Aux Roses. Since he lived with Catherine, he never used the room and he was willing to let me stay there until I found a place of my own. I returned to my hotel feeling much better. Not too shabby, I thought. After just one day in Paris I had some contacts, a place to stay for free, and a ready-made community that I could hang out with. Unfortunately, taking this tack would result in a few deleterious repercussions.  But that is for another post.

Maurice Ravel: Le Tombeau de Couperin

Many people have one of those years in which they seem to be firing on all eight cylinders. Being pretty much of an optimist and a “glass-half full” kind of guy, I’ve actually had a number of years like that. I worked my way through college and paid for a semester of study in France; I lived in Algeria and Italy; and I have been blessed with two wonderful daughters. All of these occurred in good years. One of the first years that really stood out, however, was 1975, the year I moved into the dorm at Indiana University called the French House.

Over the past month or so, I have written about the wonderful array of characters who lived or hung out there—singers, musicians, language, literature, and history majors. Some of these people became good friends; some kept aloof; others were friendly enough to me but avoided the other people in the clique to which I belonged—the campy cynics. One person I regret not become better friends with was a guy named Kevin, who was majoring in piano.

Like many musicians, Kevin excelled in languages and that brought him to the dorm. He took his piano and other studies seriously but his affable personality contrasted with another musicians in the house, the sneering British violinist named Tony. Kevin might have been gay—he dressed impeccably, always had well-coifed hair, and spoke with a lisp. The members of my clique made a few overtures toward him at the beginning of the semester. They were a bit too catty for him, however, and he stayed away from them. This turned my clique against him, and I seem to remember some nasty scenes between them.

I had a love for piano music, and Kevin often took the time to chat with me about favorite composers. He loved Debussy and Ravel and I believe it was he who introduced me to today’s piece, Ravel’s Le Tombeau de Couperin. At his senior recital, I believe he played it along with Liszt’s Les Preludes.

I have an overly developed sense of smell and have always been interested in perfumes and colognes. Growing up in a middle class household, the fragrances you get exposed to are strong ones like “Old Spice,” “Brut” and Avon’s “Wild Country.” These are to serious fragrances as country music is to classical music. On one visit with Kevin, he told me about his favorite cologne, Grey Flannel by Geoffrey Beene. That was the first really intricate and complex smell I’d ever encountered. And that was one of the great things about the French House, you could meet people who enthused about things like art, music, foods and smells and no one thought it was weird—no one had yet been beaten down by the drudgery of a nine to five workday and the stereotypical roles imposed by society.

Le Tombeau de Couperin seems to be a good choice for someone who liked Ravel so much, since that composer is well known for his intricate and complex melodies and orchestration. Le Tombeau de Couperin is a work for solo piano in six movement, which has also been transcribed for orchestra and other instruments like guitar. I believe Ravel wrote the piece as an homage to the French composer, Couperin who lived from 1688 to 1733. The first three movements have a kind of somber and sinister feel to them, kind of like you get walking around one of those over-the-top French cemeteries like Pere Lachaise. The third movement “Forlane” has a kind of wry feeling to it, however, almost like a cat slinking among those huge, ornate, wedding cake mausoleums. The perkiest movement however, is the fourth, entitled “Rigaudon”, named after an ancient dance from Provence. It has a playfulness to it that blows away all the cobwebs, despite its stateliness and intricacies.

Kevin did a great job at his recital and then moved to another dorm the next semester.  I never saw him again.  In the intervening years, I think Grey Flannel has come to be thought of as hackneyed a fragrance as Brut or Old Spice.  However, every time I see it, I have a Proustian moment and I think about Kevin and other things past.

There’s an orchestral version of Le Tombeau, which is really nice as well:

 

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Maurice Ravel: Rhapsodie Espagnole

Ravel has absolutely nothing to do with William Faulkner, but in my mind the two are linked through the M*** family (a family with kids my age who were all geniuses), I decided that I wanted to be as cultured as they. Indeed, my life’s mission became to turn myself into an intellectual. My plan was simple: to read great books, listen to great music, and pour over the works of great visual artists.

My older brother, Bob, supported my interests, and once told me about a book he had read in college by William Faulkner. It was “As I Lay Dying,” written in 1930, and he had read it in a college English course. He loaned me his copy to read, which I still have.

Anyone who has read this book knows how different it is from anything else. The plot centers around a poor family somewhere on a plantation in Mississippi. The mother, Addie Bundren, has died and the father and children are preparing to transport her in her coffin on a horse-drawn wagon to the family “plot” in “Jefferson.” The children have colorful names like Jewel, Darl, and Cash. And Pa is some sort of emasculated old coot. In short, it’s a sins-of-the father kind of allegory of a severely dysfunctional Southern family. Long before the self-help movement and the “inner-child” gurus on the PBS pledge circuit, people wrote works of literature to try to make sense of these issues.

What makes this book so special, however, was how Faulkner wrote it in stream-of-consciousness, and each chapter was told in the voice of a different character. Faulkner really pushed the limits here, at one point having the old dead lady narrate. Reading this was a real challenge for me, but since Faulkner had won the Nobel prize, I figured it was worth the trouble-it would make me “deep.” This reminds me of a funny story I heard when I lived in Naples, Italy and taught English. A friend told me that in the university of Naples, the English department, knowing that James Joyce was the greatest English novelist, had assigned Ulysses as the required reading for the first year English language courses.

Musicians know that you have to study and master techniques that have been developed through centuries of trial and error before you can become a proficient performer. Serious composers also see themselves not as breaking with the traditions of Western music, but building upon it. They study music theory. This is the way. Those who try to shortcut discipline and technique are doomed to an ephemeral popularity. Who draws a larger crowd these days: Johannes Vermeer or Andy Warhol? So for me to start my study of western literature with Faulkner was a bit of a waste. Still, this book did make an impact on me, and later, after having learned about narrative structure and stream-of-consciousness, it now makes sense.

The reason I associate it with Ravel’s Rhapsodie Espagnole is because I had checked an album of the composer’s works out of the library during the period I was reading As I Lay Dying.

I used to play my classical music records when I read up in an old blue mohair comfy chair in my room. At one point in the book, there is a very vivid description of how the characters struggle with moving the wagon across a shallow, swift-moving river at a ford. It just so happened that the first movement of the Rhapsodie Espagnole started at that point, and it just seemed to fit the scene so well.

The Rhapsodie Espagnole is in four sections. The first, “Prelude to Night,” begins with a four-note descending motif of F, E,D, C played over and over again by the violins. To me that sounded like water, the dark roiling waters of a swift moving stream. Ravel’s music, of course, with Debussy’s was labeled as “Impressionistic.” The subtle oriental sound, the focus on tonal color rather than melody, all of these convey the impressions created by nature. The middle two movements of the Rhapsodie Espagnole are “Malaguena” and “Habanera,” two Spanish dances that captured Ravel’s interest and which he captured using percussive instruments like castanets and tambourines-kind of revolutionary for the time. The last movement is called “Fiera”, which means “festival” and captures the excitement and passion of a festival at night.

You can’t get much further apart in culture than Faulkner and Ravel. Ravel always appeared impeccably dressed and critics describe his music as being meticulous. Faulkner’s characters are harsh, uneducated, and rooted to the earth. Yet Faulkner wrote about them in the narrative style developed by James Joyce and showed the complex human emotions that we all share. What an impression that made.

 

Maurice Ravel: Piano Concerto in D Major (Concerto for Left Hand)

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 D, which I’ve written about) 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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Maurice Ravel: Piano Concerto in G Major

On Monday mornings in high school (in the early 1970s), everyone talked about the parties they had gone to over the weekends. The parties always took place at the house of someone whose parents had gone out of town. Each one was rated on how much beer was drunk and which girls were there. During the week, most of my male peers and I would try to find where the next was going to be. No one really wanted to host one for fear that the crowd would grow too big and trash the house.

One weekend, my parents went out of town and it was only in the evening that I told a few of my pals from the swim team. About four of five guys showed up and we proceeded to get extremely drunk–the whole point. About 10:00 in the evening my brother Ken–who was about 3 years older than I and at college in a town about 90 miles away–called to check on me, probably on the instruction of my parents. At the time, I was under the dining room table, barking like a dog and therefore could not come to the phone. My friend Matt Vandeputte answered, told my brother why I hadn’t answered, and hung up. I believe I bit him on the leg. The next morning, severely hung over, I awoke to the sound of Ken, who’d driven home. He was very angry at me, but to his credit he did not tell my parents. I think he had been mollified when he realized the party hadn’t been too big and the house remained intact.

Most of my friends on the swim team had parties like that. We were too responsible to let people come in and destroy our parents’ house. That didn’t stop us from doing damage when we went to other people’s parties. Once, for example, I went to a friend’s house whose parents were devout Christians and very active in their church. I went around with a pad of Post-It notes, writing down obscenities and then sticking them behind all the pictures in the house. Another time, I submerged a model train in an aquarium. Don’t ask me why.

One night, a swim team mate, Dick M*****, announced that his parents were out of town and a few of us could come over. His father was some big wig at the local radio station and they lived in a new exclusive community called Winding Brook Park. It wasn’t really a party. I think we had a six pack between about four of us and his parents had locked the liquor cabinet, so we did not plan to stay long. Unfortunately, Dick’s older brother was there. He was the valedictorian in the class above us and that made him almost by definition incredibly dull and boring. The brother took us on a tour of the house, showing all the wonderful books, records, the “total sound” stereo system, and the locked liquor cabinet.

The record collection caught my attention and I was surprised to see that they had a fair number of classical albums. Leafing through it, I discovered a copy of two piano concertos by Maurice Ravel, the Piano Concerto for Left Hand and today’s Piano Concerto in G Major. I asked Dick’s brother if he could give it a spin on their fancy schmancy stereo, and he was more than delighted.

When the G Major started, I was really surprised, because I had heard it on the local classical channel before. But I thought Gershwin had written it. The first movement starts off with a fast, upbeat theme that bounces back and forth between a trumpet and a piccolo, while the piano plays high and fast in the background. It slows after a bit and then the piano plays a pensive little rhythm and the E-Flat clarinet launches off into a sexy phrases that sounds like it was lifted right out of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue. A few phrases later, Ravel quotes Stravinski’s Petroushka. You can hear Rachmaninoff everywhere, too boot. Ravel himself says the concerto was inspired by Mozart and Saint-Saens, but it sounds sometimes more of a pastiche of snippets taken from his own peers. This is not necessarily a bad thing, it’s just that whenever I hear the piece on the radio, I have a devil of a time trying to figure out whose it is.

Ravel’s teacher was Gabriel Faure, who wrote the incomparably beautiful Requiem and Pavanne and the second movement is a nod to his mentor’s song-writing ability. It is quiet, dignified, and sweet. In the final movement, Ravel switches back to the exuberance of the first movement. As in the first, he weaves in Jazz rhythms and melodies, which he had been greatly affected by on a trip to the Unites States in the 1920s. In addition, the piano sometimes adopts the meticulous finger work of Ravel’s own Le Tombeau de Couperin.

Though not the piece you’d necessarily choose for a high school drinking party, nor even for a romantic dinner party, Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G Major is quite an interesting piece and ought to be in anyone’s CD library.

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