Maurice Ravel, the composer > Musical technique & Innovations

Musical technique & Innovations

Is there any need for mentioning what everyone already knows? Such as Maurice Ravel’s style demonstrates a commitment to the classical form that contributes to the charm and elegance of his music. A form that lends itself to being reshaped and which the author constantly made new thanks to his ingenious mind. In this exercise of “putting himself in the someone else’s shoes”, Ravel willingly bends to the rule and incorporates the virtues of the music that characterize the eighteenth century: the clean lines, architectural clarity, the sense of proportion, the transparency and the grace of the style. From the outset we stand before the perfect work of a master craftsman.

However, hidden behind this archaic aesthetic is the modernity of Ravel’s language. For confirmation of this, simply listen to Jeux deau, a work which revolutionized piano technique, LHeure espagnole whose quasi parlando style is quite innovative or LEnfant et les Sortilèges, where the influence of jazz and bel canto admirably combine perfectly with the distinctly “French” recitative. And the repetitive formulas of the Bolero foreshadow minimalist music, which no one’s ears could miss.

It has been said, rightly, that in Ravel it is impossible to separate the melody, harmony and rhythm, since these elements are so tightly intertwined in his work. Manuel de Falla admired his melodic phrasing, “as French by the feeling as by this entirely unique physiognomy due to a predilection for certain intervals whereby the keyboard invites us to take delight”. In the eyes of Pierre Boulez, “that which is uniquely Ravel, is the genius of the outline, which makes it impossible to forget his themes. And this relates to his gift as an orchestrator”. It is true that Ravel’s orchestral mastery can be put down to the importance he attaches to the concept of the tone. “If we must talk about Ravel’s legacy, it lies in this concern of his… [t]his predilection for the rarity of the tonalities and their accompaniments, which was not very common among his contemporaries, with the exception of Debussy, of course, and later Stravinsky, as musicians of the Vienna school”. (Henri Dutilleux)

We find the same taste in the treatment of the orchestra and in the use of instruments hitherto untapped: the luthéal piano in Tzigane, LEnfant et les Sortilèges and the melody Rêves, the wind machine, the slide flute, the rattle, the cheese grater and whip in LEnfant et les Sortilèges. Not to mention the choice of the saxophone in the Vieux château and the tuba in Bydlo (Pictures at an Exhibition), a choice that was widely commented on. We also note the use of an exceptionally varied percussion and many original if not never before heard instrumental effects which richly appear in many scores: the sarrusophone without a mouthpiece in LHeure espagnole, which must “be used as a small trumpet”; the snare drum for which Ravel sometimes prescribed “hit it on the wood”; “près de la table” (close to the soundboard) for the harp; the frequent use of the tooth tremolo on the flute or the trombone, which “yawns” a glissando in the Concerto in G. This quest for colors is found in the first movement of the concerto even where the wonderful cadence of the harp, as Jules van Ackere has noted, stops at a high point, harmonized with the strings, partly in double and triple stops, some of which in harmonics; a sound that is made even more original by the intervention of a trill on the triangle. And what would become the abandoned opera project, La Cloche engloutie, in which Ravel had planned to make full use of “the beautiful symphony of belts, whistles and massive hammer blows” to enrich his orchestral palette? The composer’s expertise is distinguished all the more by his treatment he reserves for the strings there is a multiplicity of trills, glissandi harmonics, pizzicato arpeggios and double stops. In this regard, we can particularly appreciate the daring that inspired him to use the open strings of the basses in the Piano Concerto for the Left Hand. Ravel even employs subterfuges “to play tricks on his audience, to make them take a bassoon for horn or the harmonics on a bass for notes from a flute”. (Henry Prunières) His skill in the art of handling sounds knows no limits.

Without a doubt, Ravel advanced instrumental technique. The solo trombone in the Bolero was extremely difficult for its time. The scorings for horn and bassoon in the Concerto in G seemed to be unplayable. In the thirties, there was something terrifying in the tempo prescribed for oboe at the beginning of the Tombeau de Couperin. On this point, Ravel quipped “I wouldn’t have put any tempo in if it didn’t matter: the oboist won’t be able to play it otherwise. If it’s any slower, he’ll be out of breath and have to stop. So he takes the only tempo at which he can play this deluge of notes. So I’ve added small inflections that will make this opening more breathable…”

Beyond the care given to the melody, Ravel has also been praised for the harmonic sophistication of his writing. “On extremely simple sequences based, mostly, on thirds or common notes” (Pierre Boulez), Ravel multiplies unresolved anticipations, retards, added notes, passing notes and pedals (the most notable being the one found in the Introduction of Daphnis et Chloé). Among the preferred intervals, we find the second and its inverse, the seventh, the descending fourth and to a lesser extent, the fifth. There are, however, no spacial limits for harmonization in Ravel. To Vincent d’Indy, who would accuse him of using “off” notes, he would point out that “the wrong note used as a decorative touch goes back to the old masters (cf. Scarlatti).”

In reality, the relationships which unite the tonality and the harmony are organic, as are the melody and the rhythm, which seems to be the key element in Ravel and irresistibly inspires dance. As André Suarès wrote, “dance governs all of Ravel’s music”. Even where his music does not adopt the rhythm of a dance,” it naturally tends to flow into choreographic form”. (Vladimir Jankélévitch) What is the source of the so-called Hispanism, which remains the composer’s trademark? “A Spain that is not authentic, but one which appears more realistic to us that the real one…” (Roland-Manuel). Similarly, Schéhérazade remains one of the most beguiling musical evocations of the Orient, and there is Tzigane, where we feel the café-concert atmosphere of the popular czardas ensembles. Even in the case of the “successful fake” (Hélène Jourdan-Morhange), we discover an enrichment.

Jean-François Monnard, musicologist, member of the Cahiers Ravel reading and editorial board.