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Maurice Ravel
Rapsodie espagnole, Op. 35

Rapsodie espagnole, Op. 35 
Maurice Ravel
(1875-1937)


THE STORY

Unlike Debussy, Ravel had immediate familial connections to the Iberian peninsula. His mother was of Basque origin, and not only sang the region’s folk songs to her firstborn child, but (as the Paris-based Spanish composer Manuel de Falla later recalled) was an excellent and refined conversationalist in the language.

Ravel first experimented with Spanish idioms in his piano piece Habanera at the age of twenty. His daring use of pedal points and modal harmonies defied rules taught at the Paris Conservatoire such that Ravel failed his harmony class thrice and, as a consequence for being eliminated twice in annual fugue competitions, was expelled from his composition class. Meetings with established experimental composers Emmanuel Chabrier, Erik Satie, and Gabriel Fauré, however, encouraged the budding musician’s bold harmonies and avant-garde chord progressions, guiding his development of the melodic line and approach to structural form.

In 1907, Ravel returned to his student work Habanera, orchestrating the piece and adding three additional movements to complete the Rapsodie espagnole in 1908. Its premiere by the popular Concerts Colonne and a later performance in Munich solidified Ravel’s international status as one of France’s leading composers. Scored in four movements, the piece begins with placid yet mysterious “night music,” followed by a melancholy malagueña complete with its characteristic dance rhythm. The Habanera movement is languid and brief, while the longest and last of the four movements, Feria, explodes with energetic life. One basks in the balmy Iberian sunshine, bathed in upward flourishes of the orchestra and wildly sweeping glissandos emanating from the harp before its stomping and whirling conclusion.


LISTEN FOR

  • In Prélude à la nuit, a repetitive and harmonically ambiguous descending four-note motif 
  • Muted violins that play on the fingerboard in the high registers and ethereal harps and celesta cast elegantly sensuous silhouettes in the low moonlight; cadenzas performed by pairs of clarinets and bassoons towards the end of the movement
  • In Malagueña, dance rhythms punctuated by pizzicato strings, castanets, and triangle 
  • The return of the first movement’s four-note motif followed by a recitative-like solo in the English horn 
  • In Habanera, languid syncopations that convey a graceful approach to the Cuban contradanza    
  • In Feria, the English horn’s solo melody, laced with chromatic inflections in strings and bassoons 
  • Another return of the four-note motif from the Prélude, followed by a complex interweaving of dance rhythms and motifs to complete the movement 

INSTRUMENTATION

Two piccolos, two flutes, two oboes, English horn, two clarinets, bass clarinet, three bassoons, alto saxophone, four horns, three trumpets, three trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion, two harps, celesta, strings