The following is a guest blog by Donna Koh, Music Reader Services Librarian in the Music Section.
There are a few experiences in my life that I know I will never forget. One of them took place when I was 9 years old and living in Korea. One evening, my piano teacher called my mom to request that I present a bouquet of flowers to the visiting French pianist, her former professor at the Paris Conservatoire, after his solo recital. To make a long story short, it did not go well for me. I stumbled onto the stage, almost fainting when I noticed over a thousand people sitting in the audience. After successfully thrusting the bouquet to the pianist’s arms, I reacted to the thunderous applause by instinctively taking a bow, although I knew the applause wasn’t for me. To compound to my bewilderment, the Frenchman kissed me on the cheek. I had never been kissed by a stranger before, let alone by a Caucasian male. It’s a miracle that I did not have to be carried out. I can still hear the hearty laughter that filled the concert hall as I ran off the stage.
Fortunately, the other experience that I am about to share with you is a pleasant one, but it is as deeply etched in my memory as the flower bouquet fiasco.
During my first semester at college, I went to hear the college’s concerto competition. From the glissandos in the beginning of the first movement to the wistful second movement that makes you want to weep for no reason, Maurice Ravel’s piano concerto in G completely knocked me over. Having grown up on a limited musical diet consisting of Baroque, Classical, Romantic and a little Debussy, I could not believe that classical music could be so sensuous, delicious, and fun. I remember rushing to the music library after the auditions and listening to the recording of the concerto, getting totally blown over by the incredibly colorful orchestration. Although I had been studying music for a number of years, it was a new phenomenon for me to be infatuated with a classical work with the intensity of a teen crush. For over a month, the music was constantly in my head and I could hardly wait for the next break in my schedule to listen to it one more time.
What was it about the concerto that seized me? I was intoxicated by Ravel’s colorful harmony and dazzling orchestration: the combinations of instruments that create enchanting new sounds, the use of a variety of percussion instruments and vibrant jazz rhythm that pulsed with energy, adding new flavor to the music. I was transported to another world like Alice in Wonderland: a world that was fantastic, fascinating, and bewitching.
Ravel was one of the most progressive composers of the French Impressionistic period along with Claude Debussy. Born in 1875, Ravel studied piano and composition at the Paris Conservatoire and was an active musician when Paris was the cultural center of Europe. Known as La Belle Époque, the period roughly from 1880 until 1914 was a time of prosperity, technological advances, rich cultural growth and new and bold artistic ideas. Such figures as Stravinsky, Picasso, Proust, Toulouse-Lautrec and Diaghilev lived and worked in Paris at some time during this period. Considering the cultural milieu, it’s not surprising that you can clearly hear the influences from other cultures in Ravel’s music.
Even if you are not familiar with the name Ravel, I am certain that you have heard his most famous composition, Boléro, which was made wildly popular by movies, TV and figure skating competitions. Recalling the piece, you probably agree with my statement about “sensuous and delicious.”
Boléro may be the most commercially successful and widely known work by the composer but Ravel wrote other works such as the piano pieces that are firmly established as standard literature. It is interesting to note that many of Ravel’s piano pieces were successfully orchestrated and enjoyed in both their piano and orchestral versions. Ravel also orchestrated Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition which was originally written as a piano work. Ravel’s dramatic and colorful orchestral arrangement helped to make this piece one of the most regularly performed and recorded symphonic works.
In addition to orchestral and piano music, Ravel also composed violin and vocal music, operas, ballet, and chamber music. If you are not familiar with Ravel, I strongly urge you to explore his music. You will be delighted.
In closing, I have no recollection whether the French pianist that I gave the bouquet to played any Ravel or not. I would like to think that he did and it was Ravel’s music that seriously impaired my senses that night. Yes, that explains it. I can live with that.
Here are some of our offerings to help you explore and enjoy Ravel’s music.
DBM01660 The world’s 50 greatest composers. Maurice Ravel : this is an excellent introduction to Ravel’s life and works.
DBM03676 Maxim Vengerov at the Royal Academy of Music, London: The famous Russian violinist Vengerov coaches Ravel’s virtuoso violin piece, Tzigane. The coaching part of the recording may be too detailed for non-musicians. However, you will learn and appreciate how much detail a concert artist puts into his music to tell a story that is compelling. You can follow the performance and class with the score, BRM26435.
Some of Ravel’s piano pieces are virtuosic, requiring a high level of technical proficiency. However, there are piano pieces that are accessible to intermediate and early advanced level pianist. Below, I’ve listed them in an approximate order of difficulty.
ΒRΜ 30750 Ma mère l’oye (Mother Goose Suite): piano duet
BRM 32129 Ma mère l’oye (Mother Goose Suite): piano solo
BRM 18116 Pavane pour une infante défunte
BRM24504 Pavane pour une infante défunte, arranged for guitar
BRM 32634 Sonatine
The following piano pieces are more challenging.
BRM 00383 Jeux d’eau (The fountain)
BRM 36070 Valses nobles et sentimentales
BRM 18928 Le tombeau de Couperin (Piano Suite)
BRM 22676 Miroirs (piano suite)
BRM 00715 Gaspard de la nuit
BRM 24137 Concerto, for left hand
BRM17778 Concerto in G, pour piano et orchestra
Works for other instruments and voice
BRM 26435 Tzigane (violin solo)
BRM28974 Shéhérazade (medium voice)
BRM22064 Chants populaires (high voice)
BRM 29463 Don Quichotte à Dulcinée (baritone)
BRM 22131 Mélodies populaires grecques (high voice)
I remember hearing Ma Mere L’oye for the first time when my mom was driving me home from high school. It was on NPR, and all I could remember is that it was called The Mother Goose Suite. I wasn’t able to find it under the English title. One day in college I was listening to NPR in the gym. It came on again and I immediately pulled myself aside so I wouldn’t miss who composed it. I also noted the French title, which made it much easier to find in the school library. Skip a few years later when I was living in NYC, and I saw that it was playing at Lincoln Center. I remember hearing them warm up and getting goosebumps when I heard the familiar introduction to the suite. As a writer his music has always been a muse for my imagination.
I am happy to meet someone else who has been under Ravel’s spell since her teens. His music never fails to transport me to another world.
Thank you for reading.