In 1923, on the morning of his first visit to Madrid, Maurice Ravel is hard at work on a piece which is urgently required by his publishers.
At the breakfast table, Ravel sits in his pyjamas composing Tzigane, a violin piece in the style of Spanish virtuoso Sarasate. It is 11.30am in the morning, and through the open window pour the sunlight and noise of Madrid’s Puerta del Sol. Ravel explains to interviewer André Révész that he is busy working to a deadline, but admits it would be a fine morning to explore the city.
‘I do not know Madrid. It is my first time in Spain. In fact, I’m being rather ungrateful, since without Madrid I probably wouldn’t exist. My parents met in Madrid. My father was a railroad engineer of French nationality, and my mother was Basque, from Saint-Jean-de-Luz, but probably of Spanish origin. She used to lull me to sleep singing guajiras. Perhaps it’s because of this link that I feel so attracted to Spain and its music.’
Spanish music and culture fascinated the Paris-dwelling composer, who was born in the town of Cibure in France, just eleven miles from the Spanish border. As well as family, Ravel was linked to the country by a close relationship with Spanish pianist Ricardo Viñes and long-standing admiration for the work of historic Spanish painters:
‘One hour after arriving in Madrid I rushed to the Prado. What a great painter [Jusepe de] Ribera is! And the Velázquez room is so beautiful! I have to go back to the Museum to look at the works of El Greco and Goya more carefully.’
Throughout his career, Ravel created works set in or illustrating Spain, including symphonic poem Rhapsodie espagnole, piano piece Alborada del Gracioso, the Pièce en forme de Habanera, one-act opera L’heure espagnole and the enduringly popular ballet and concert piece Boléro.
Saint Andrew by Jusepe de Ribera, 1591-1652
Madrid's Prado Museum (Photo: Fernando Bueno)
Boléro was a sensation at its 1928 premiere at the Paris Opera, starring dancer Ida Rubinstein. The music uses a snare-drum ostinato and a repeating, folk-infused melody which rises to fever pitch with increasingly intense orchestration. However, written in an age of Modernism when symphonic music was celebrated for complexity, the piece’s simplistic structure was at odds with musical fashion.
Boléro became the subject of heated discussions around Europe, and when asked whether he had any remarks to offer on the unexpected composition, Ravel replied:
‘Indeed, I have. I am particularly desirous that there should be no misunderstanding about this work. It constitutes an experiment in a very special and limited direction, and should not be suspected of aiming at achieving anything different from, or anything more than, it actually does achieve. Before its first performance, I issued a warning to the effect that what I had written was a piece lasting seventeen minutes and consisting wholly of 'orchestral tissue without music' – of one long, very gradual crescendo. There are no contrasts, and there is practically no invention except the plan and manner of execution.
The themes are altogether impersonal – folk tunes of the usual Spanish-Arabian kind. And (whatever may have been said to the contrary) the orchestral writing is simple and straightforward throughout, without the slightest attempt at virtuosity.
It is perhaps because of these peculiarities that no single composer likes the Boléro – and from their point of view they are quite right. I have carried out exactly what I intended, and it is for listeners to take it or leave it.’
Ida Rubinstein, dancer and muse of the Belle Époque
Valery Gergiev conducts Ravel's Boléro at the Barbican Centre.
Also available to watch from multiple camera angles on LSO Play.
François-Xavier Roth conducts the LSO in a triple bill of Ravel’s Spanish-inspired masterpieces on Thursday 25 April at the Barbican Centre, London.