Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Summermusic #3: One More French Connection

The Civic Club of Harrisburg
The last of the Summermusic concerts is Wednesday at 6pm (and, yes, that's six o'clock) at the Civic Club on Front Street in Harrisburg, between the Harvey Taylor Bridge and State Street (it's the only building on the river-side of Front Street). Parking is available on the grass beside the stone wall (shown here) or on State Street just around the corner.

It's an all-string program with a sort of additive ensemble, starting with a duet for violin and cello by Ravel, a trio for two violins and viola by Dvořák, then ending with a quintet (written for a string quartet plus another cello) by the Russian Romantic, Alexander Glazunov, with violinists Peter Sirotin and Nicole Sharlow, violist Michael Stepniak, and cellists Fiona Thompson and Nadine Trudel.

You can read about Glazunov and his String Quintet in this previous post.

I could, I suppose, include Glazunov in this French Connection since he ended up living in Paris after the Russian Revolution, but this post is primarily about the connection between Maurice Ravel, his Sonata for Violin and Cello, and Claude Debussy and his Violin Sonata heard on the 2nd of this year's Summermusic programs.

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Ravel in 1925
You may be familiar with a lot of Ravel's music but this particular work may be a little different from what you'd expect – not just the leaner texture of two stringed instruments but also lacking the typical harmonic voluptuousness one usually associates with Ravel's earlier music.

With the usual caveat about finding reasonable recordings of good performances with half-way decent sound on-line (if that's even possible), here are the first two movements of Ravel's Sonata. The first movement is from a recording with violinist Carlos Benito de la Gala and cellist Alberto Gorrochategui:

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The second movement with its wild pizzicatos and gnashing sudden dissonances is performed here by the legendary cellist, Paul Tortelier and his son, Yan-Pascal Tortelier. Unfortunately, if they ever did record the rest of the sonata, I can't find it on You-Tube...

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2nd Movement:

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For the remaining two movements, let's return to the first recording more or less by default. Here's the slow movement which starts off with chant-like austerity in simple rhythms, a respite from the scherzo's frenzy.

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In the last movement, the bustling energy returns, imitating a four-part fugue in the pile-up of entrances, even though it's only two instruments:
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Ravel is certainly one of the leading composers of the early-20th Century and is usually paired with Claude Debussy like Mozart-and-Haydn because, presumably, their styles are so similar, right?

Not necessarily true. They both started out as “impressionists” though using different means to reach the same end, so to speak. They were, in addition to contemporaries, colleagues as well. They met in the 1890s, Debussy (who was 12 years older) having become recognized with works like the Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun which was premiered in 1894, and Ravel, the young piano student at the Paris Conservatoire who had only just started writing his first compositions in 1893, the year Debussy completed his String Quartet.

Ravel, though, was expelled from the Conservatoire in 1895 for not having won any awards over the past three years, then returned a few years later to study with his mentor, Gabriel Fauré, and concentrate on composing rather than performing. Around 1900, he joined a group of “artistic outcasts” known as the Apaches (a French slang term for hooligans – we associate it with a type of usually violent dancing popular in Paris during the early-1900s – and has nothing to do with the Native-American tribe).

It was around this time, Ricardo Viñes, the Spanish-born pianist and a friend of both Debussy's and Ravel's, re-introduced the two composers: they would meet at Debussy's home and play each others compositions – or Viñes would – and they would often attend the concerts together. Eventually, their music would often be played on the same programs.

While they shared many musical influences, they had different approaches to writing music: Debussy was more spontaneous; Ravel more attuned to craftsmanship (the traditional right-brain/left-brain, Romantic/Classical dichotomy).

Eventually, around 1905, the public divided itself into factions which began quarreling as critics attacked one or the other composer. Much of the argument was about who influenced whom and it didn't help that in 1913 both composers produced settings of the same poems by Stéphane Mallarmé. Comparison only shows they are different composers, each with their own individual musical style and personality.

Ravel once wrote that Debussy's “genius was obviously one of great individuality, creating its own laws, constantly in evolution, expressing itself freely, yet always faithful to French tradition. For Debussy, the musician and the man, I have had profound admiration, but by nature I am different from Debussy.”

Elsewhere, he said, “I think I have always personally followed a direction opposed to that of Debussy's symbolism.”

And that is one of the major distinctions between them: the label impressionism aside, Ravel had little sympathy for anything mystical. He was, after all, the son of an inventor of mechanical devices (one of which was a famous circus contraption called “The Whirlwind of Death”). Throughout his life, Ravel was fascinated by clock-work toys and how they worked (a friend told the story of Ravel holding up a mechanical toy bird and saying quite innocently, “I can feel his beating heart!”). When Stravinsky referred to him as “the most perfect of Swiss watch-makers,” it was not meant detrimentally. Ravel's goal was to get as close to perfection as he could, “since I am certain of never being able to attain it,” he said. “The important thing is to get nearer to it all the time.”

Ravel was like a sponge, absorbing influences and placing himself inside, say, a musical voice. Born not far from the Spanish border (his mother was Spanish-Basque), he would create some of the greatest Spanish (or Spanish-sounding) music in the repertoire – his Bolero and the Rhapsodie espagnole just to name two. But he could find inspiration in the gamelan music of Asia, the innocence of childhood or the flexibility of American jazz.

And then, of course, there was the war.

Because he was only 5'3” and already 40 years old, he was found “not suitable” for military service, rejected also as an aviator. Instead, he enlisted as an ambulance driver at the Battle of Verdun, one of the longest battles of World War I with an estimated 741,231 casualties on both sides and considered “one of the most horrific battles” in history.

(It was around the time the battle finally ended, that December, 1916, when Stravinsky agreed to compose a set of delightful pieces for piano duet which was heard on the first of these Summermusic concerts.)

The impact was quite different on Ravel, having experienced such a battle first-hand, if the pall it cast over Paris, 160 miles away, wasn't depressing enough. Then, his beloved mother died the following year. He retired from the war exhausted, lacking any creative spirit.

In May of 1917, Claude Debussy premiered his Violin Sonata which was played on the second of our Summermusic programs – you can read more about this, here.

That would prove to be Debussy's last completed piece and his last public appearance: he died of cancer on March 25th, 1918.

Then, Ravel turned to the music of one of France's great Golden Ages and the music of François Couperin. Le Tombeau de Couperin seems, at first, a pleasant evocation of the Baroque Era, dance movements built on the clean lines and simpler harmonies of the age. It is often overlooked that each movement was sketched for solo piano during the war and dedicated to the memory of a friend of his who had died in it: it is not so much a tribute to France's past as it is a personal remembrance, tombeau in the sense of a memorial, not a grave-stone. After the war, he took several of these and orchestrated them. At the same time, he reworked the earlier orchestral Waltz, set in pre-war Vienna, and named it La Valse and though it might seem, on the surface, a grand orchestral waltz, it is, not far below the surface, a seething nightmare of the change that will come once the war, its horrors still fresh in the audiences' minds, brings down the curtain on the pre-war age of opulence and pleasure.

Ravel's House (1921-1937)
With Ravel's gradual return to creativity, it is not surprising there should be a work originally intended as a Tombeau de Debussy. This became the “Sonata for Violin and Cello,” completed in 1922.

Always one to work things out during a lengthy gestation period – before the war, he explained he had completed the Piano Trio which now lacked only the notes – this duo sonata posed several problems including the idea of treating two independent instruments without having the rich harmonies a piano could provide. It is a much sparer work, more contrapuntal though hardly in the old-fashioned academic sense. It is also a much more violent work – perhaps not only the war, but the pre-war discovery unleashed by the premieres of Stravinsky's Rite of Spring and Schoenberg's Pierrot Lunaire – reveling in slashing chords, sudden dissonances and constantly mounting tension that make one wonder if it really is in A Minor and C Major.

He wasn't necessarily adopting the stylistic ideas of his colleagues – they were already moving on, themselves – but realizing he must “move with the times,” he began to explore things that might make his style timely. Otherwise, as the older generation, now, he would find himself being ridiculed much the way he and Debussy had treated Camille Saint-Saëns.

In this way, the creative crisis brought on by his war experience and the death of Debussy – and with them, the passing of his youth – Ravel found a new voice in which to move on. While he would still compose many great works – the gypsy mask in Tzigane, the Violin Sonata that is more than just its “Blues” movement, of course the over-familiar Bolero as well as two great piano concertos written simultaneously, not to mention the Don Quixote songs, his last works, and the earlier Chansons madécasses – the last years of his life are clouded in ill-health, especially neurological issues possibly brought on by an automobile accident in 1932 which resulted in the theory he was suffering from a brain tumor. The operation in December of 1937 found no tumor and he died nine days later, having regained consciousness only briefly following the surgery.

Ravel (l), Gershwin (r)
There is a famous story that when Ravel met George Gershwin in 1928, the young American approached Ravel about studying with him. There are two responses, both of which may be apocryphal (Gershwin told similar stories about Schoenberg and Stravinsky) but either is believable.

In one, Ravel asked him why he would want to be a second-hand Ravel when he's already a first-class Gershwin. In the other, Ravel asked Gershwin how much money he'd made the previous year, after which Ravel thought perhaps he should study with Gershwin, instead.

Ironically, Gershwin went into a coma in July, 1937, and was diagnosed as having a brain tumor. The operation to remove it proved unsuccessful and he died a few hours later, five months before Ravel died.

Not a pleasant way to end a story, but it is what life deals us and, in these cases – also remembering Debussy's final years – how it affects the music they have left us.

- Dick Strawser

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