Tune in for a behind the scenes look as the Fellows, Artistic Director Stéphane Denève and Conducting Fellow Molly Turner rehearse pieces by Maurice Ravel and Albert Roussel.
Alborada del gracioso (Morning Song of the Jester) (1904)
Approx. Duration: 8 minutes
The Paris Conservatory dismissed the 20-year-old Maurice Ravel as a piano student in 1895, and when he returned as a composer, they kicked him out again after he failed (or refused) to follow the rules for a proper fugue. Having been cast out of France’s musical elite, Ravel banded together in 1902 with other musicians and intellectuals in a group that dubbed themselves “Les Apaches” (“The Hooligans”). He paid tribute to his fellow misfits with Miroirs (Reflections), a suite of piano pieces composed in 1904-05, including the movement Alborado del gracioso.
The Alborado of Ravel’s title is a Spanish term for a morning song, especially a song of lovers parting at daybreak, the same as a French Aubade. The gracioso is a clown or buffoon character from old Spanish comedies. Ravel’s fascination with Spain ran deep, even beyond the trendy interest in Spanish folk culture among French composers of the era. Ravel’s mother, of Basque origins and raised in Madrid, implanted an early love of Spanish folksongs in her son’s ear, and he returned to those idiomatic melodies and rhythms throughout his career.
In 1918 Ravel added Alborado del gracioso to his growing list of orchestrations from his own piano music. This dawn-song awakens with plucks from the strings and harp that hint at the woody percussiveness of a guitar, kicking off a castanet-infused rhythmic ostinato similar to the iconic Bolero from 1928.
The Spider's Feast, Op. 17 (1913)
Approx. Duration: 32 minutes
Albert Roussel only received his first organ lessons as an 11-year-old orphan in the care of an aunt, and he didn’t try his hand at composing until he was a 23-year-old naval officer. Still, he managed to enter the upper echelon of French music, and he stayed there through a time of rapid upheaval. The piece that marked his real arrival was The Spider’s Feast, a ballet-pantomime composed for Paris’ Theatre des Arts in 1912-13. It was a huge success for the 44-year-old Roussel, and the public acclaim paved the way for the commission of his first opera. That momentum collapsed when Roussel volunteered for army service during World War I, and by the time he re-entered the scene in the 1920s, modern music had become wilder and he was moving the opposite direction, making a late turn toward symphonies and other more structured forms of music.
Roussel’s approach before World War I was aligned with the color-painting of Debussy and especially Ravel, and The Spider’s Feast holds its own against the dance music of those French legends. When this score is heard today, it most often comes in the truncated version that Roussel extracted as a concert suite, but it is refreshing to hear the full ballet score, which zooms in on the dramas and intrigues of a garden full of bugs. In this allegorical tale of the cycle of life, the spider is both predator and prey, and the prima ballerina is a mayfly whose brief existence transpires in the Ballet’s second part. In true French fashion, the score delights in small moments of beauty, finding ways to be sincere in its treatment of a ridiculous subject without ever becoming pompous. From feast to funeral, it is quite simply music that is comfortable in its own exoskeleton.