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14. Ravel – Boléro, and Intro to Impressionism/Modernism

August 1, 2011

Maurice Ravel (ruh-VELL) was a French composer who lived from 1875-1937. He’s often categorized as one of the two great impressionist composers along with Claude Debussy (but more later on this label, which both composers disliked). Impressionism was not a major era in music, but it was perhaps an offshoot reaction against the excessiveness of Late Romanticism, which maybe then pointed the way to Modernism.

If Mozart was perfection, Tchaikovsky was the emotionalist, and Beethoven was the architect, then Ravel was the sound engineer. Ravel is second to none in manipulating tone colors and textures, creating sound effects, and painting soundscapes. He loved to exploit the variety of sounds and timbres possible from individual instruments, as well as engineer unusual and exotic sounds by combining the sounds of different instruments, sometimes in very unusual combinations.

Modernism is perhaps the least understood and least appreciated of the four major eras of music (and there were many different Modernist trends as well, making the term kind of a weird catch-all). You definitely need to approach Impressionist and Modern music differently than you would Tchaikovsky, for instance. We’re in a different world now, and music is now operating by different rules and assumptions than before. Ravel’s music can be kind of wild at times, but once you understand how to navigate it, I think Ravel is a lot of fun. Below is a chart that makes an unusual comparison, between Mozart and Ravel, who were born over 100 years apart from each other. Hopefully, this can help you to at least identify things that are going on as you listen.


Intro to Listening to Impressionist/Modernist Music:
Comparison of Typical Musical Features in Mozart vs. Ravel

Feature Typical of Mozart Typical of Ravel
Usage of instruments Usually limited to conventional “roles” Conventional roles thrown out the window, unusual combinations used
Use of Percussion Few percussion instruments, generally used for rhythmic purposes Wide variety of percussion instruments, many used in the mix with melodic instruments, sometimes even playing relatively prominent roles
Phrase structures

Symmetrical, ideas and phrases often measured into 2s, 4s, and 8s, etc. Not necessarily symmetrical – can be asymmetrical, can change suddenly
Tempo and meter Typically steady for the vast majority of a movement Could change and shift suddenly, and drastically
Tonality Clear sense of tonality – limited “color scheme” and clearly identifiable “primary color” Tonal center is present, but buried amid hugely varied “color scheme;” can go a very long way out before closing the arc and returning to the “primary color”
Role of Dissonance Dissonance as a device to create tension, instability, and emotion; always need be resolved back to consonance and stability Dissonances can stand without resolution, can even be building blocks of ideas
Harmonic Flow

Underlying harmonies and chords are highly “functional” – chord sequences occur in logical progressions; endings of sections can be clearly sensed ahead of time Prevalent usage of non-functional harmonies; phrases, sections, and entire pieces may close in unconventional and less predictable ways
Form

Standard forms prevalent (especially Sonata form), relatively easy to spot the boundaries Non-standard forms, not always easily apparent that there even is form

Listen on Youtube: Bolero

Ravel’s Boléro is perhaps the oddest piece that he ever composed. By his words, it’s “a piece for orchestra without music.” It’s almost a technical exercise of a composition, repeating the same material over and over with no development of it, only using different instruments each time, and gradually getting louder throughout. I’m going to forgo a full analysis of this piece (and you’ll see why), but there is one remarkable hilight for me – at 6:50, he mixes together this crazy combination of instruments: a french horn, 2 piccolos, and a celesta, and the sound he creates is one of the coolest color effects anybody has ever thought of, I think.

Next Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G, 1st movement

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