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            Ravel is clearly in the camp of those classicists who adroitly re-interpret the genres, forms, and musical syntax of the past.   Only a cursory review of many of the titles of Ravel’s works will bear out his deep fascination and appreciation for the musical past as a basis for imaginative, original contributions to a musical future.  And yet, his music smacks not at all of the reactionary.   Rather, while he definitely didn’t storm the ramparts of startling change in musical style as did so many of his early twentieth-century compatriots, his music just “sounds” modern.   As did so many seminal intellects of romantic and post-romantic Europe, Ravel knew and appreciated the works of the American poet, Edgar Allen Poe—which fact may surprise most Americans these days, who have consigned Poe and his raven to the dusty closet of school-house poetry.  But, interestingly, Ravel considered him his “third” teacher after that of actual French musical models.  For Ravel, Poe’s stress on craftsmanship, as well as his ideas on the process of artistic conception and creation, was strongly influential.  Ravel also admired Poe’s thoughts on proportion, economy of means, beauty, and perfection.  And that, of course, aptly characterizes Ravel’s own creative efforts--from beginning to end, a succession of infinitely subtle, sophisticated, and attractive compositions. Ravel, was the son of a Basque mother and a Swiss father, but was quintessentially French in his elegant, stylish artistic imagination.  And yet, he is known for his deft touch in evoking the style and spirit of other cultures—especially Spanish.  In Tzigane, however, Ravel is inspired by things Hungarian.

            Tzigane (the word means Gypsy, more or less, in French) is in some ways an odd little piece.  It was written in 1924 after an informal social evening with the accomplished Hungarian violinist, Jelly d’Arányi, during which she entertained with a dazzling informal improvisation in the Gypsy style.  She was emphatically not a Gypsy violinist, rather a well-respected artist who just happened to be the grand-nice of the celebrated virtuoso of the nineteenth century and collaborator with Brahms, Joseph Joachim.  Impressed by the little performance, Ravel was inspired to write a short piece in the improvised style for violin and piano.  A rather special piano, as it turns out--one that had some kind of attachment that allowed it sound more or less like the traditional Hungarian hammered dulcimer, the cimbalom.  (Anyone who has seen the old movie “The Third Man,” will have heard that instrument all the way through it.)  Anyway, the unusual piano attachment soon disappeared into total obscurity, and the ordinary piano is used today.  Shortly after having written the original composition Ravel orchestrated it, employing his impressive skills to artfully evoke the sound of the cimbalom, as well as Gypsy atmospherics in general, in the orchestra. 

            For almost the first half of the composition, the violinist plays alone, exploring just about every technique and figuration possible in the Hungarian Gypsy style in a freely rhapsodic fashion.  Don’t look for a series of authentic folk melodies, but rather a kaleidoscopic succession of ideas that sounds rather like a long cadenza.  Finally, the orchestra joins in, and you can hear right away in the harp Ravel’s cimbalom-like concept.  A series of wild dancing passages ensues, with Ravel’s inimitable sparkling orchestration playing a perfect foil to the maniacal violin.  Before you know it, it’s over—a charming salon piece that, as usual, is taken to a higher level by the ever-sophisticated Ravel.  Truly Hungarian, it really is not.   Rather, a distant look at the style through French eyes.

--Wm. E. Runyan

© 2015 William E. Runyan