Maurice Ravel (1875-1937)
In 1905, the Parisian harp and piano makers Érard et Compagnie commissioned Ravel to write a piece to demonstrate their new double-action pedal harp. They had developed the instrument in keeping with changing sonorities of the music of the time, utilizing a pedal mechanism to chromatically alter the pitches of each string. Their innovative design was followed by rival company Pleyel’s own invention, which had no pedal mechanism but instead used one string per chromatic note. Pleyel commissioned Debussy to write a piece in 1904 to promote their instrument, and the result was his Danse Sacrée et Danse Profane. As though taking up the gauntlet, Érard et Compagnie responded with their own commission to Ravel, and the Introduction and Allegro was born. Thanks to the rivalry of these two companies, French music gained two significant works for the harp repertoire.
Érard et Compagnie’s commission came after a string of disappointments for Ravel. Earlier that year, he had been denied the Prix de Rome for the fifth time in a row, this time amidst a scandal that led to the resignation of the Conservatoire director upon the suspicious discovery that all of the finalists were students of a jury member. Fauré, Ravel’s teacher and lifelong mentor, became the new director and led the school to better times, but Ravel’s own days at the Conservatoire had already put him at odds with musical authority: he was dismissed in 1895 for not taking first prize in piano or composition, returned in 1897 and was again dismissed three years later when again he did not win a prize. That his music was met with such opposition at the Conservatoire says much about the institution’s disconnect with the musical pulse of the city, for while Ravel refused to create within the confines of the school regulations, he was very much in touch with the currents of exoticism that were moving through fin-de-siècle Paris—he said himself he was a product of his own time. He blended these exotic elements and his love for music of the past with qualities of clarity, sensibility, and refinement—distinct national musical characteristics, his use of which make him regarded today as possibly the most French of the French composers. Interestingly, the pitting of Debussy and Ravel against each other by the rival harp commissions was fitting in that, though Ravel admired and was influenced by Debussy, he was exhausted by the constant and inaccurate accusations of imitating his style directly. The commission must have come as a welcome opportunity to set himself apart from another leading composer of the day.
Ravel was known for having a slow and meticulously thorough compositional process, with a perfectionist’s attention to detail. It was therefore uncharacteristic of him to complete his Introduction and Allegro in a mere eight days and “three sleepless nights.” Perhaps an upcoming yachting trip along the Rhine with friends provided motivation to finish so he could partake in a welcome getaway after his disillusionment with the Prix de Rome. At any rate, Ravel—indulging his sartorial sensibilities—stopped into a tailor shop shortly before his trip to buy appropriate yachting clothes, armed with the completed manuscript. This expedition nearly cost Ravel, Érard, and the harp repertoire the piece, as he left the manuscript on the counter; fortunately, when he returned from his yachting trip he found his work safe and waiting for him at the shop.
The work premiered on February 22, 1907 in Paris with Micheline Kalin as soloist. The piece fulfills its promise of showcasing the harp in its full expressive and technical range: it calls upon the instrument to glide into extremes of the register and convey a variety of colors, rippling delicately or striking percussively. The harp is accompanied by flute, clarinet and string quartet; the blend of instruments explores the rich colors of each group as they melt together in trembling arpeggios and gliding song. The entire effect is to transport the listener into a shimmery, dreamlike state.
The piece starts with a short Introduction which states material that will be developed later. First the woodwinds, then the strings, then the harp glide through the opening theme, introducing the sonorities of each family of instruments in a hypnotic languor.
The more playful, dancelike Allegro section is in three part form. Two themes are states in the first part: the first theme in G-flat major and the second theme in E-flat minor. Ravel plays with bitonality as the themes in their different keys are layered with each other. The middle section of the Allegro develops the second theme and the melody from the Introduction, and the two themes return as the entire ensemble ends the piece together with a brilliant flourish. But first—a harp cadenza gives the instrument one more chance to mesmerize the audience.
© Pamela Feo