Maurice Ravel (1875 — 1937): Alborada del gracioso
Instrumentation: 2 flutes, piccolo, 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon; 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba; timpani, bass drum, castanets, crash cymbals, crotales, snare drum, suspended cymbal, tambourine, triangle, xylophone, harpsichord; strings
Performance time: 7 minutes
Alborada del gracioso is the fourth movement of Miroirs, a five-movement suite for solo piano that Ravel composed in 1904 and 1905. Each movement of the suite is named in a highly concrete way — for something vividly sensual that can be imagined for the way it looks, or sounds, or both. This movement is one of two that Ravel later orchestrated himself, and is usually translated as "morning song of the jester." The other is Un Barque sur l'océan, "a boat on the ocean."
Each of the five movements of Miroirs was dedicated to a member of a rebellious fraternity of young artists and performers known as les Apaches ("the houligans"), to which Ravel belonged. (The painters known as les Fauves — "the wild beasts" — made their reputation for iconoclasm at the same time.) When the suite was completed in 1905, Ravel applied a personal dedication to each movement; the Alborada honors his friend and supporter M.D. Calvocoressi, a music critic and early supporter of his work.
What to Listen For
The jester is a curious figure who appears throughout European painting and literature. He is Shakespeare’s fool and the commedia del’arte’s harlequin, the joker in a deck of cards and the gracioso depicted in Spanish paintings and stage comedies. It is his voice we hear in Ravel’s lovely Alborada del gracioso, awakening to the world with the classless naïvete of the outsider.
The writing is a miracle of fluidity. Played on the piano, it seems to require boneless hands; orchestrated, it flashes with color and light. Hearing either version, we can’t imagine it existing in any other form. The Alborada is full of sun, sea and sounds reminiscent of strummed guitars, all of which bewitched Ravel, here gathered episodically in a way that his biographer Alexis Roland-Manuel described as “the swooning flow of the lovelorn melodic line which interrupts the angry buzzing of guitars.” But to some listeners, at least, that buzzing is anything but angry; it is as proud and emphatic like Flamenco as it alternates with the soft breezes of morning.