Rapsodie espagnole

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        Ravel and Debussy are often paired in music lovers’ minds, and they certainly were friends, admirers of their respective talents and musical works, and both emblematic of French musical culture.   But there the comparisons must end, for Ravel’s compositions constitute a unique body of work, not closely related to anyone.   Late in his life Ravel anguished that he had failed to become a “great” composer, among other reasons because he had composed so little.  But ironically, notwithstanding the size of his oeuvre, there is no other so-called great composer whose total life’s work is so well known by the average concert attendee than that of Ravel.

        Ravel is often thought of as an impressionist, but the label is worn uneasily, and he is rather better considered a neo-classicist.   That is to say, his stylistic orientation is toward the strict forms and their content that is found in earlier historical periods.   His music, while sumptuous in sound--he is considered to be one of the most brilliant of orchestrators--is known for its clarity, refined elegance, and reliance upon traditional models.  His orchestral music, with the exception of his two, late piano concertos, is not related to the traditional symphonic idiom of our favorite central European composers--the French have never been known for their symphonies, for example.  Rather, almost all of his symphonic music derives from the theatre or the dance, or his orchestrations of his own piano music.

        Rapsodie espagnole is a relatively early composition of Ravel and his first published piece for orchestra--finished in 1908.  It is one of the first of his many compositions that are Spanish in inspiration, style, or content.  The old saw is that the best Spanish symphonic music was written by the French.  That, of course is not exactly accurate.  There is a grain of truth in it, but it is instructive to know that, in point of fact, Ravel’s father was Swiss and his mother was Basque, so Ravel comes to the issue with appropriate credentials. Rapsodie espagnole is a suite of four movements, with strong influences from traditional Spanish dance.  Many of Ravel’s characteristic points of style are present, including glissandos, parallel chords, and of course, his brilliant and colorful orchestration.  Ravel was a master of interpreting dance, and this composition is ample evidence.

--Wm. E. Runyan

© 2015 William E. Runyan