When I Fell For Ravel cover

When I Fell For Ravel

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Falling in love with Ravel: this is a story of how it all began with an awkward moment at a piano concert that somehow lead to a complete obsession with the classics. Ravel’s compositions go way beyond the piano; he also composed violin and vocal music, operas, ballet, and chamber music.


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When I Fell For Ravel

Happy Birthday

The following is a guest blog by Donna Koh, Music Reader Services Librarian in the Music Section.

Cover Page: Birthday party honoring Maurice Ravel in New York City, March 8, 1928. From left: Oskar Fried; Éva Gauthier; Ravel at piano; Manoah Leide-Tedesco; and George Gershwin.

Wide World Photos 1928, Public Domain

Unforgettable

There are a few experiences in my life that I know I will never forget.

One of them took place when I was 9 years old and living in Korea. One evening, my piano teacher called my mom to request that I present a bouquet of flowers to the visiting French pianist, her former professor at the Paris Conservatoire, after his solo recital.

To make a long story short, it did not go well for me.

Stage Fright

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Stage Fright

I stumbled onto the stage, almost fainting when I noticed over a thousand people sitting in the audience. After successfully thrusting the bouquet to the pianist’s arms, I reacted to the thunderous applause by instinctively taking a bow, although I knew the applause wasn’t for me.

Flower Bouquet Fiasco

To compound to my bewilderment, the Frenchman kissed me on the cheek.

I had never been kissed by a stranger before, let alone by a Caucasian male. It’s a miracle that I did not have to be carried out. I can still hear the hearty laughter that filled the concert hall as I ran off the stage.

Fortunately, the other experience that I am about to share with you is a pleasant one, but it is as deeply etched in my memory as the flower bouquet fiasco.

Sensuous, Delicious and Fun

During my first semester at college, I went to hear the college’s concerto competition.

From the glissandos in the beginning of the first movement to the wistful second movement that makes you want to weep for no reason, Maurice Ravel’s piano concerto in G completely knocked me over.

Having grown up on a limited musical diet consisting of Baroque, Classical, Romantic and a little Debussy, I could not believe that classical music could be so sensuous, delicious, and fun.

New Obsession

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New Obsession

I remember rushing to the music library after the auditions and listening to the recording of the concerto, getting totally blown over by the incredibly colorful orchestration. Although I had been studying music for a number of years, it was a new phenomenon for me to be infatuated with a classical work with the intensity of a teen crush.

One More Time

For over a month, the music was constantly in my head and I could hardly wait for the next break in my schedule to listen to it one more time.

What was it about the concerto that seized me? I was intoxicated by Ravel’s colorful harmony and dazzling orchestration: the combinations of instruments that create enchanting new sounds, the use of a variety of percussion instruments and vibrant jazz rhythm that pulsed with energy, adding new flavor to the music.

I was transported to another world like Alice in Wonderland: a world that was fantastic, fascinating, and bewitching.

La Belle Époque

Ravel was one of the most progressive composers of the French Impressionistic period along with Claude Debussy.

Born in 1875, Ravel studied piano and composition at the Paris Conservatoire and was an active musician when Paris was the cultural center of Europe.

Known as La Belle Époque, the period roughly from 1880 until 1914 was a time of prosperity, technological advances, rich cultural growth and new and bold artistic ideas. Such figures as Stravinsky, Picasso, Proust, Toulouse-Lautrec and Diaghilev lived and worked in Paris at some time during this period.

Summer Evening

---The Delineator August 1906

Summer Evening

Considering the cultural milieu, it’s not surprising that you can clearly hear the influences from other cultures in Ravel’s music.

Even if you are not familiar with the name Ravel, I am certain that you have heard his most famous composition, Boléro, which was made wildly popular by movies, TV and figure skating competitions. Recalling the piece, you probably agree with my statement about “sensuous and delicious.”

Colorful Orchestral Arrangement

Boléro may be the most commercially successful and widely known work by the composer but Ravel wrote other works such as the piano pieces that are firmly established as standard literature.

It is interesting to note that many of Ravel’s piano pieces were successfully orchestrated and enjoyed in both their piano and orchestral versions.

Ravel also orchestrated Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition which was originally written as a piano work. Ravel’s dramatic and colorful orchestral arrangement helped to make this piece one of the most regularly performed and recorded symphonic works.

More Than Just Piano

In addition to orchestral and piano music, Ravel also composed violin and vocal music, operas, ballet, and chamber music.

If you are not familiar with Ravel, I strongly urge you to explore his music. You will be delighted.

In closing, I have no recollection whether the French pianist that I gave the bouquet to played any Ravel or not. I would like to think that he did and it was Ravel’s music that seriously impaired my senses that night. Yes, that explains it. I can live with that.

Check out the link to see some of our offerings to help you explore and enjoy Ravel’s music.

NLS Music Notes, Library of Congress