Ravel: The greatest Swiss watchmaker

In my freshman year of high school, my piano teacher, an ebullient, shrewd Japanese woman, plopped down a thick manuscript on the desk before me. “This,” she said, with a devilish glint in her eye, “will be our next project.” Let me preface this anecdote with a confession: I am not, nor have I ever been, a fine pianist. I peered at the yellowed cover — “Piano Concerto in G – Maurice Ravel” stared back at me. Sensing my bewilderment, she quickly added, “Don’t worry, we’re just going to learn the first movement!” I gulped. My dread, however, quickly turned to fascination, for this concerto was exotic, peculiar and unlike anything I’d ever heard or played before.

Born on March 7, 1875 in Ciboure, a small French town nestled by the Spanish border, Maurice Ravel was a bit of an oddball. At the tender age of 14, Ravel enrolled in the Paris Conservatory, whose distance from home he felt keenly. He was not an average boy, and certainly not a “bohemian”: he was short and slight, and took great care in grooming himself. Amidst several trying decades — which included a horrific deployment in World War I and the death of his mother — Ravel swiftly found his muse. In 1928, he undertook a four-month performance tour in the United States, an experience that had profound effects on his subsequent musical style. While in New York City, Ravel met storied American composer George Gershwin, who took the Frenchman to hear live jazz in Harlem. As legend has it, Gershwin let on that he would like to study with Ravel; the Frenchman retorted: “Why do you want to become a second-rate Ravel when you are already a first-rate Gershwin?”

It was on this tour that Ravel intended to play an original concerto, but his busy schedule postponed his work on the score until 1929. Though delayed further by a commission from a one-armed Austrian pianist (the result of which was his famous Piano Concerto for the Left Hand), Ravel finally completed the score for his Piano Concerto in G on Nov. 14, 1931. The process, however, was far from painless. Ravel remarked not a few times that the concerto was giving him considerable trouble — “The concerto is nearly finished and I am not far from being so myself,” he wrote to friend and conductor Henri Ribaud. The second movement, one of the greatest things to come from his pen, especially tormented him. He wrote of the opening, “That flowing phrase! How I worked over it bar by bar! It nearly killed me!”

Despite his frustration, the finished product was magnificent. Smitten with the jazz he had heard first-hand with Gershwin, Ravel cleverly wove his own bluesy elements into the score (most notably in the first movement). And although the second movement caused him great consternation, he later revealed that Mozart had been his guiding muse in crafting its opening theme, immediately recognizable and supremely placid. Unfortunately, Ravel’s constant poor health — exacerbated by his maniacal practicing of Lizst and Chopin — precluded his premiering the work. Instead, he took the podium while renowned French pianist Marguerite Long debuted the concerto in 1932.

Since its American debut on April 22, 1932 (in actuality, simultaneous performances given by the Philadelphia Orchestra and Boston Symphony Orchestra), Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G has left a lasting mark on the modern piano repertoire. It is at once fiery, impassioned and yet remarkably cerebral. Ever the perfectionist, Ravel crafted his Piano Concerto in G with an incredible precision. Igor Stravinsky, in fact, referred to Ravel as “the most perfect of Swiss watchmakers.” As I struggled through that first movement, I felt as though I was building a hopelessly complex machine myself. Yet, despite his machine-like meticulousness, Ravel never composed without sensitivity. That evening, nearly six years ago, as I listened to a recording of this very concerto for the first time, I felt as though I understood Ravel when he said that “Music … must be emotional first and intellectual second.”

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