Ravel’s orchestra has been called, “a magic forest. . . a theater full of sonic wonders in which the instruments, using their distinctive voices, become actors.” This metaphor perfectly describes his Introduction and Allegro. The flute and the clarinet usher us into Ravel’s colorful world, and the enchantment begins.
What’s not to love about the harp? In Ravel’s hands, it is a wondrous marvel. The story of how this piece came to be written is unusual. You will hear later this season, Debussy’s Danses Sacrée et Profane for the Pleyel and Company in Paris. Pleyel wanted a piece from Debussy to introduce its new chromatic harp. Pleyel’s competition, the Erard Piano Company which manufactured the standard double-action harp, was concerned that Pleyel’s new invention would steal their business. So they asked Ravel to write a new piece featuring their harp in order to display its full potential and expressive range in the best possible light. This ravishing piece is the result. Ravel dedicated it to M. Blondel, Erard’s CEO. It turns out that Erard’s worries were groundless. The chromatic harp was a flop. But, the competition produced two wonderful pieces, and Ravel’s is credited with raising the harp to its deserved pedestal of elegance and splendor.
Writing a trio for piano, cello, and violin might not sound daunting, but it is, very much so. The piano is a percussion instrument with the capacity to overwhelm two lonely string instruments. The disparity in overall sonority is huge. Accordingly, a composer tackling this challenge must be able to reconcile their differences or the result will be unsatisfactory.
Ravel performs this compositional feat so well that you will not be aware of how difficult it is, which of course is always the case when greatness is at hand. He accomplishes this tricky endeavor by skillfully keeping the instruments out of each other’s way. For example, in the introduction the violin plays in a range higher than the piano, and the cello is neatly tucked in between the piano’s left and right hands. The result is an effortless balanced sound. Ravel also resorts to other techniques that give the string instruments a special presence, such as pizzicato, tremolos, trills, and harmonics.
Whether it be sports figures or musicians, the good ones – like Maurice – always make their calling look easy when it is anything but. Oh yes, if you’re wondering why Ravel is on the “Basque Block”, he was born in a Basque town in France near the Spanish border, and his mother was Basque. His family moved to Paris when he was three months old. France claims him, but his roots were in Basque Country.