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By Jason Sundram

Rhapsodie Espagnole (1907)



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Maurice Ravel (March 7, 1885–December 28, 1937)

  1. Prelude a nuit
  2. Malaguena
  3. Habanera
  4. Feria

Although Ravel and Debussy are frequently paired as the two most important French Impressionist composers, Ravel, 13 years Debussyís junior, is in many ways different than Debussy. Where Debussy is sensuous, Ravel is objective—in Stravinskyís words, “a Swiss watchmaker"—his music tends towards precision and orthodox formalism.

Ravel was inspired by his Spanish heritage and the abundance of Spanish dance and folk music to compose Rhapsodie Espagnole, which preempted Debussyís Iberia by one year. As Manuel de Falla once said of Ravel, “he is more Spanish than the Spanish themselves.” The Rhapsodie, Ravelís first orchestral composition, evinces his sure mastery of orchestration with its power and color. Here, Spain is seen, but through French eyes. The Rhapsodie was composed in the single month of August, as Ravel worked in isolation on a friendís yacht. First performed on March 28, 1908 in Paris, under the direction of Edouard Colonne, the Rhapsodieís initial reception was mixed.

The first movement, a warm, sonorous mist, is dominated by a descending four-note theme stated by muted violins. It is interrupted by two cadenzas, the first for clarinet duo, the second for two bassoons. The Malaguena, a dance of Arab origin, is a type of fandango, and, when danced to, was accompanied by guitar and castanets. Ravelís Malaguena is not dance music, although it employs the characteristic form and rhythms of the dance, evolving from the Preludeís theme. At the premiere, after a lukewarm reception, a devotee cried out “play it once again for those . . . who have not understood.” The Habanera is an orchestrated version of an unpublished 1895 Habanera for two pianos. It was hailed as a “masterpiece of balanced rhythm” after its premiere. The Feria, in ternary form, contrasts languor with frenzy. Even at its climax, however, there is a certain restraint, which is in keeping with the ever-unmarried and reserved Ravel.