PROGRAM NOTES: Rotterdam Philharmonic
by Eric Bromberger
Suite from Ma Mère l’Oye (Mother Goose)
Born March 7, 1875, Ciboure, Basses-Pyrénées, France
Died December 28, 1937, Paris
Ravel was a very strange mixture as a person. A man of enormous sophistication and intelligence, he nevertheless felt throughout his life a stinging longing for the world of the child: he collected toys and was fascinated by the illustrations in children’s books. Not surprisingly, he made friends easily with children and sometimes abandoned the adults at parties to go off and play games with their children.
Ravel’s fascination with the world of the child found expression in his art: he wrote music for children to hear (such as his opera L’Enfant et les Sortileges) and music for them to play. His Ma Mère l’Oye (“Mother Goose Suite”) for piano-four hands dates from 1908. Ravel wrote it for Jean and Mimi Godebski, aged 8 and 10, the son and daughter of some of his friends, though it was two other children–aged 7 and 10–who played the premiere in Paris in 1910. Each of the five movements was inspired by a scene from an old French fairy tale; the suite, however, should be understood as a collection of five separate scenes rather than as a connected whole. In an oft-quoted remark, Ravel described his aim and his technique in this music: “My intention of awaking the poetry of childhood in these pieces naturally led me to simplify my style and thin out my writing.” This may be music for children to hear–and for very talented children to play–but it is also music for adults: it evokes the freshness and magic of something long in the past. In 1911, Ravel orchestrated Ma Mère l’Oye, slightly expanding the music in the process.
The very gentle Pavane of the Sleeping Princess depicts the graceful dance of the attendants around the sleeping Princess Florine. Hop O’ My Thumb tells of one of the most famous figures in children’s tales–the little boy who leaves a trail of breadcrumbs behind in the woods, only to become lost when birds eat the crumbs. The music itself seems to wander forlornly as the lost boy searches for the path; high above him, the birds who ate his crumbs cry out tauntingly. Empress of the Pagodas tells the story of the empress who is made ugly by a spell, only to be transformed to beauty at the end. When she steps into her bath in the garden, bells burst out in happy peals. Ravel’s use of the pentatonic scale–the music is played mostly on black keys of the piano–evokes an exotic atmosphere. Beauty and the Beast brings another classic tale. Ravel depicts Beauty with a gentle waltz, Beast with a lumpish, growling theme in the contrabassoon’s low register. A delicate glissando depicts his transformation, and Ravel skillfully combines the music of both characters. The Enchanted Garden brings the suite to a happily-ever-after ending. The opening–for strings alone–is simple, almost chaste, but gradually the music assumes a broad, heroic character and–decorated with brilliant runs–drives to a noble close in shining C major.
Piano Concerto in G Major
Throughout his career Ravel had written no concertos, and then in the fall of 1929–at the age of 54–he set to work simultaneously on two piano concertos. One was the Concerto for the Left Hand for the pianist Paul Wittgenstein, and the other–the Concerto in G Major–was intended for the composer’s own use. The Concerto for the Left Hand is dark and serious, but the Concerto in G Major is much lighter. Ravel described it as “a concerto in the truest sense of the term, written in the spirit of Mozart and Saint-Saëns. Indeed, I take the view that the music of a concerto can very well be cheerful and brilliant and does not have to lay claim to profundity or aim at dramatic effect . . . At the beginning I thought of naming the work a divertissement; but I reflected that this was not necessary, the title ‘Concerto’ explaining the character of the music sufficiently.”
The actual composition took longer than Ravel anticipated, and the concerto was not complete until the fall of 1931. By that time, failing health prevented the composer from performing this music himself. Instead, he conducted the premiere in Paris on January 14, 1932. The pianist was Marguerite Long, to whom Ravel dedicated the concerto (Long had given the first performance of Ravel’s Le tombeau de Couperin in 1919).
Ravel may have taken Mozart and Saint-Saëns as his model, but no listener would make that association. What strikes audiences first are the concerto’s virtuoso writing for both piano and orchestra, the brilliance and transparency of the music, and the influence of American jazz. It is possible to make too much of the jazz influence, but Ravel had heard jazz during his tour of America in 1928 and found much to admire. When asked about its influence on this concerto, he said: “It includes some elements borrowed from jazz, but only in moderation.” Ravel was quite proud of this music and is reported to have said that in this work “he had expressed himself most completely, and that he had poured his thoughts into the exact mold that he had dreamed.”
The first movement, marked Allegramente (“Brightly”), opens with a whipcrack, and immediately the piccolo plays the jaunty opening tune, picked up in turn by solo trumpet before the piano makes its sultry solo entrance. Some of the concerto’s most brilliant music occurs in this movement, which is possessed of a sort of madcap energy, with great splashes of instrumental color, strident flutter-tonguing by the winds, string glissandos, and a quasi-cadenza for the harp. The Adagio assai, one of Ravel’s most beautiful slow movements, opens with a three-minute solo for the pianist, who lays out the haunting main theme at length. The return of this theme later in the movement in the English horn over delicate piano accompaniment is particularly effective. Despite its seemingly easy flow of melody, this movement gave Ravel a great deal of trouble, and he later said that he wrote it “two bars at a time.” The concluding Presto explodes to life with a five-note riff that recurs throughout, functioning somewhat like the ritornello of the baroque concerto. The jazz influence shows up here in the squealing clarinets, brass smears, and racing piano passages. The movement comes to a sizzling conclusion on the five-note phrase with which it began.
Symphony No. 5 in B-flat Major, Opus 100
Born April 23, 1891, Sontsovka, Russia
Died March 5, 1953, Moscow
The premiere of Prokofiev’s Fifth Symphony on January 13, 1945, in Moscow, was one of those storybook tales, almost too good to be true. As Prokofiev mounted the podium, the sound of distant artillery rumbled through the hall. The news had just arrived that the Russian army had smashed across the Vistula River in Poland and was preparing for its final assault on Nazi Germany. After four horrific years of war, the end was in sight–that artillery barrage was the sound of the garrison in Moscow celebrating the now-inevitable victory. And so it was that Prokofiev’s Fifth Symphony was heard for the first time with a prelude of artillery thunder. This music made an overwhelming impression on audiences, both that night in Moscow and around the world in the following months, and it remains today one of the most frequently performed of twentieth-century symphonies.
Prokofiev composed this music in the space of one month during the summer of 1944 at the Composer’s House in Ivanovo, an artists retreat 150 miles northeast of Moscow. Shostakovich was also there that summer, composing two works that many have felt were touched by the war, the Trio in E Minor and Second String Quartet. Prokofiev refused to make a connection between the war and his new work, saying only that he “conceived it as a symphony of the grandeur of the human spirit.”
Like Stravinsky and Copland, Prokofiev was not by nature a symphonist, finding himself more comfortable with dance scores and smaller forms–his Third and Fourth Symphonies are based on material he drew from his ballets The Fiery Angel and The Prodigal Son. Now, however–in the face of a defining national moment–Prokofiev turned to the most serious of orchestral forms and wrote with vision and force. His Fifth Symphony builds across an effective sequence in its four movements: a broad-scaled and conflicted first movement gives way to a propulsive scherzo, which is in turn followed by a painful Adagio; the symphony concludes with an almost happy-go-lucky finale that takes themes from the first movement and transforms them to suit its mood of celebration. The symphony’s themes are simple, even singable, its orchestration masterful. Some of Prokofiev’s early scores had been brutal in their impact (the young composer had taken delight in outraging audiences), but now at age 53 he handles the orchestra with distinction: the scoring here ranges from the most delicate effects (the majority of its themes are introduced by solo woodwinds) to some of the loudest music ever written. The combination of dramatic content, attractive themes, skillful orchestration, and formal control makes this music almost unique among Prokofiev’s works, and one observer has gone so far as to describe Prokofiev’s Fifth as “Shostakovich’s finest symphony,” a remark that–however witty–is unfair to both composers.
The very beginning is deceptively innocent: Prokofiev’s Fifth Symphony opens with the pastel sound of two flutes and a bassoon playing the simple opening idea, and the other themes–all introduced quietly and lyrically–appear quickly. This movement is an Andante rather than the expected Allegro, but while the pace may be measured, it is also inexorable, and the music gathers force as it proceeds. In its closing moments, skies blacken over what had been a generally serene landscape, and the climax is shattering, one of the most impressive in all symphonic music: tunes that had seemed genial on their first appearance now explode as the strength pent up in those simple figures is unleashed.
The ticking accompaniment heard at the very beginning of the Allegro marcato continues throughout–this near-demonic tick-tock-tick-tock is so pervasive that the ear seems to hear it even when it is not there. Solo clarinet leads the way in this music, full of rhythmic energy and instrumental color. Much of this color comes from Prokofiev’s imaginative handling of percussion, particularly snare drum, woodblock, piano, and tambourine. The piercing sound of oboe and clarinet herald the arrival of the good-natured trio, but the return of the opening material brings a surprise: over the halting (almost suppressed) sound of staccato trumpets, timpani, and pizzicato strings, the opening theme now sounds lugubrious. Gradually the tempo accelerates, and the Scherzo smashes its way to the close.
While Prokofiev would not make a specific connection between this symphony and the war that had raged across Russia for three years when it was written, it is hard not to feel that the Adagio is touched by the events of those years. This grieving music opens with a simple clarinet melody that quickly turns impassioned, and a range of melodic material follows, including a broadspanned theme that rises up over a span of four octaves and a grotesque march that sounds like something straight out of a Mahler symphony. Much of the writing here, particularly for the strings, is very high, yet for all this movement’s pain, its quiet closing moments are among the most beautiful in the symphony.
The concluding Allegro giocoso is well named, for this truly is fast and happy music. Prokofiev re-introduces several themes from the first movement here, but now he transforms them–ideas that had sounded poised in the first movement become rollicking in this finale. Violas lead the way into the main section, full of sweep and high spirits–it takes little imagination to hear the sound of laughter at moments in this music of celebration. The ending is particularly effective. With the music racing along, Prokofiev suddenly reduces his forces to just a handful of players, and for a few moments this mighty symphony becomes chamber music. In the last seconds, the entire orchestra leaps back in for the ear-splitting rush up the scale that drives Prokofiev’s Fifth Symphony to its exultant close.