Piano Concerto (Ravel)
Maurice Ravel's Piano Concerto in G major was composed between 1929 and 1931. The concerto is in three movements and is heavily influenced by jazz, which Ravel had encountered on a concert tour of the United States in 1928.
The concerto was deeply infused with jazz idioms and harmonies, which, at the time, were highly popular in Paris as well as the United States, where Ravel was traveling on a piano tour. Ravel remarked that "The most captivating part of jazz is its rich and diverting rhythm. ...Jazz is a very rich and vital source of inspiration for modern composers and I am astonished that so few Americans are influenced by it." After his well-received tour, Ravel wanted to give the first public performance of this new work himself. However, health issues precluded this possibility, with his preparatory practice of Liszt's and Chopin's etudes leading to fatigue. He then planned a premiere for March 9, 1931, in Amsterdam, but these plans also were canceled due to his work on the Concerto for the Left Hand, his many public appearances, and his performances of his other works.
Eventually, Ravel offered the premiere and dedicated the concerto to Marguerite Long, who was known for her performances of the works of Fauré and Debussy and had earlier asked Ravel for a new work. She received the score on November 11, 1931, and played the concerto on January 14, 1932, with Ravel conducting the Orchestre Lamoureux. A few days after this highly successful premiere, Ravel and Long started a tour of twenty cities in Europe, where the work was received with consistent enthusiasm.
The work is scored for piano and an orchestra consisting of piccolo, flute, oboe, cor anglais, E-flat clarinet, clarinet in B-flat and A, 2 bassoons, 2 horns in F, trumpet in C, trombone, timpani, triangle, snare drum, cymbals, bass drum, tamtam, wood block, whip, harp, 16 violins, 6 violas, 6 cellos, 4 double basses.
The first movement opens with a single whip-crack, and what follows can be described as a blend of the Basque and Spanish sounds of Ravel's youth and the newer jazz styles he had become so fond of. Like many other concerti, the opening movement is written in the standard sonata-allegro form, but with considerably more emphasis placed on the exposition.
At 106 bars in length, the large exposition section contains most of the musical ideas presented in the first movement. After the opening whip-crack and snare drum roll, the piano is introduced, providing a methodical accompanying figure as the winds present the first subject. Soon, the piano stops and the orchestra roars to life with each section adding to the theme, eventually drifting into an eerie, dream-like statement from the piano. This soliloquy is short-lived as the orchestra reenters with a blues-influenced figure, shifting between major and minor modes. The second subject begins with an awkward dissonance (A♯ and B), but quickly establishes itself as a richly melodic section, reminiscent of Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue.
Following a quick chordal passage from the piano, the development begins, utilizing much of the material from the first subject. After progressing through a variety of modes, the music comes to a mystic section played by the harps and strings. Following a short rest, the section continues, but is quickly interrupted by a restatement of the "blues section" from the first subject.
An abridged version of the first subject begins the recapitulation, after which a piano cadenza restates the second theme. Through this elaborate restatement, the movement progresses to an energetic coda and ends with a bawdy scale from the brass.
II. Adagio assai
In stark contrast to the preceding movement, the second movement is a tranquil subject of Mozartian serenity written in ternary form. When Long praised the natural flow of the lengthy, seemingly effortless opening melody, Ravel responded: "That flowing phrase! How I worked over it bar by bar! It nearly killed me!”
The first theme is presented solely by the piano, the right hand playing the melody in triple meter (3/4) while the left hand gives a waltz accompaniment (this left-hand waltz accompaniment continues throughout the second movement). After nearly three minutes, a C♯ by solo flute breaks the spell, whereupon oboe, clarinet and flute carry the melody into the second theme.
This second theme is tenser than the first, utilizing dissonant harmonies and figures from the piano. Almost as easily as the theme appears, it fades away into a restatement of the first theme, this time played by the cor anglais while accompanied by rustling ornamentations of the piano. A brief coda brings the movement to a gentle close on a pianissimo trill between B and C♯.
The third movement recalls the intensity of the first with its quick melodies and difficult passage-work. Written in an abridged sonata form, the finale has been the subject of criticism since its premiere.
The piano introduces the first subject, a rapid chordal figure, with dissonant interjections from the winds and brass. The subject continues with such interjections from all, and progresses through a multitude of modes before finally coming to its conclusion. Here, the movement ends with the same four chords with which it began.
- New York Philharmonic. "Muti, Uchida, Ravel and Schubert." The New York Philharmonic, program notes.
- M. Robert Rogers, "Jazz Influence on French Music", The Musical Quarterly Vol. 21, No. 1. (Jan., 1935), pp. 53–68.
- Douglas Lee, Masterworks of 20th Century Music, Routledge, London, 2002, ISBN 0415938473, pp.312–315
- Jan Richards. "Movement 1: Allegramente"
- Michael Russ, "Ravel and the Orchestra", in Deborah Mawer, ed. (2000). The Cambridge Companion to Ravel. Cambridge Companions to Music. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. pp. 118–39. ISBN 0521648564. citation on p. 133.
- Jan Richards. "Movement 2: Adagio assai"
- Jan Richards. "Movement 3: Presto"
- Jan Richards. "Movement 3: Presto"
- Piano Concerto: Scores at the International Music Score Library Project
- Program notes from the New York Philharmonic (PDF)
- Concerto pour piano et orchestre en sol majeur at Piano Society