Maurice Ravel (1875 — 1937): Concerto in G major for Piano and Orchestra
Instrumentation: flute, piccolo, oboe, English horn, clarinet, E-flat clarinet, 2 bassoons; 2 horns, trumpet, trombone; timpani, bass drum, cymbal, snare drum, suspended cumbal, tam tam, triangle, whip wood block; strings
Performance time: 21 minutes
More than most, Ravel's two piano concertos are the subject of the kind of colorful lore that music historians revel in. Both were composed between the two world wars and are considered among Ravel's premier achievements, though the remarkable concerto in D major for the left hand, originally rejected by its dedicatee, is perhaps more storied and more rarely heard. In 2013 a sad footnote was added to the distinguished history of these concertos: The piano maker most closely associated with them, Pleyel, closed its doors after two centuries in business. Generations of French pianists preferred Pleyel pianos, especially for works by Ravel and Debussy. The Concerto in G Major received its premiere on a Pleyel grand in the company's legendary concert hall, the Salle Pleyel, in January of 1932.
Had things gone as planned, Ravel himself would have been at the keyboard; he intended the concerto to serve as the showpiece of an international tour that could have secured his retirement. An extensive itinerary was mapped out for destinations as distant as Japan, but his failing health forced its cancellation. Instead, Ravel conducted the orchestra and chose Mme. Marguerite Long as soloist.
Ravel's admirers had long been waiting for him to compose a piano concerto. When he finally took up the form in 1929, he was in his mid-50s, and he worked on two at once: the G-Major, and one in D-Major for the left hand alone, composed for his friend Paul Wittgenstein, a pianist who had lost his right arm in battle during World War I. Though he began the G-Major first, it took longer to complete; as things turned out, these concertos were among the last compositions he ever completed.
The G-Major concerto sparkles with joyous energy and a sense of spontaneity, but it is far from casual in its sourcing and craftsmanship. Ravel scholars hear an olio of diversity in it: Basque and Spanish melodies, jazz riffs, the influences of Mozart and Saint-Saëns, and even his childhood fascination with mechanical toys. Ravel himself claimed that a major inspiration for the work came to him aboard English trains as he traveled to Oxford University in 1928 to receive an honorary doctorate. Is that the rhythmic impetus we hear in the final movement, with its moto perpetuo pushing forward like a locomotive? Here is what he told a reporter for the London Daily Telegraph after both piano concertos were completed:
It was an interesting experience to conceive and realize the two concertos at the same time. The [G-Major]…is a concerto in the strict sense, written in the spirit of Mozart and Saint-Saëns. I believe that a concerto can be both gay and brilliant without necessarily being profound or aiming at dramatic effects. It has been said that the concertos of some great classical composers, far from being written for the piano, have been written against it. And I think this criticism is quite justified.
At the beginning, I meant to call [the G-Major] a "divertissement,” but afterwards I considered that this was unnecessary, as the name Concerto adequately describes the kind of music it contains. In some ways my Concerto is not unlike my Violin Sonata; it uses certain effects borrowed from jazz, but only in moderation.
Though the railroad reference has become famous, Ravel also told his interviewer that "the initial idea is nothing," and went on to say that his work on the concerto comprised two arduous years of honing its materials. "We've gone past the days when the composer was thought of as being struck by inspiration, feverishly scribbling down his thoughts on a scrap of paper," he said. "Writing music is seventy-five percent an intellectual activity." Especially for a lapidary craftsman such as Ravel.
As for the charge of writing "against the instrument," that has been aimed at a number of great composers (notably Beethoven). But in his Telegraph interview Ravel seems to have been targeting Brahms, whose piano concertos struck him as self-consciously profound utterances that were arduous both to play and to hear. The G-Major concerto offers the opposite kind of enjoyment: no less sophisticated or intricate in its craft, no less rewarding to the listener, but far lighter in weight.
What to Listen For
The Concerto in G's abundance of musical invention mixes traditional and innovative elements. It presents in the Classical concerto's three-movement form, with recognizable melodies in Ravel's characteristically beautiful harmonizations. From the first movement onward we hear his typical elegance of construction combined with international references: an opening theme that mimics a Basque folk tune is followed by a Spanish-sounding second theme, then by jazzy syncopations reminiscent of Gershwin. There are echoes of Prokofiev, Satie and Stravinsky here, and the movement closes with trombone licks that could not have been written without knowledge of jazz.
Such diversity borders on the raucous. But in the second movement we have brilliant contrast: here is the slow, beautiful central section that Ravel seems to have meant when he cited Mozart and Saint-Saëns as his models. It was written, Ravel notes, "under the spell" of the larghetto movement of Mozart's gorgeous Clarinet Quintet, but worked and reworked with typical thoroughness and skill until only Ravel's artisanship — not the Mozartean source — is apparent.
The concerto ends with a brilliant Presto, quick and energetic, with the exciting virtuosic display that Ravel felt a concerto should afford. The textures are iridescent and the pulse is polyrhythmic. In the space of three traditional movements, Ravel takes us from the serenity of a lullaby to the splendor of fireworks, leaving us breathless.