Archive for Maurice Ravel

The Blue of the Night: Giant Steps from Ondine

Posted in Jazz, Music with tags , , , , , , on October 17, 2018 by telescoper

Time for a quick lunchtime post before I settle down to an afternoon of marking coursework.

On Monday evening after finishing preparing my lectures and things for Tuesday, I decided to tune in for a while to The Blue of the Night on RTÉ Lyric FM which is presented by Bernard Clarke. This is a programme that I listen to quite often in the evenings as I enjoy its eclectic mix of music.

Anyway, the Blue of Monday Night included a recording of the movement Ondine from the piano suite Gaspard de la Nuit by Maurice Ravel. As I listened to it, I started to think of an entirely different piece, the jazz classic Giant Steps, by John Coltrane (which I’ve actually posted on this blog here). Not really expecting anything to come of it, I sent a message on Twitter to Bernard Clarke mentioning the fact that the Ravel piece reminded me of Giant Steps. A few minutes later I was astonished to hear Giant Steps playing. Bernard had not only replied to me on Twitter, but had slipped the Coltrane track into the programme. Which was nice.

That confirmed the similarity in my mind and I did some frantic Googling to see if anyone else had noticed the similarity. Of course they have. In a rather dense article about music theory (most of which I don’t understand, having never really studied this properly) I found this:

I didn’t know at first what the up and down arrows annotating the two pieces were, but they represent the harmonic progression in a very interesting way that I had never thought about it before. The assertion is that in some sense the (sub-dominant) IV and (dominant) V chords which very common in popular music are closely related. To see why, imagine you play C on a piano keyboard. If you go 7 semitones to the right you will arrive at G, which is the root note of the relevant V chord. That’s up a perfect fifth. But if instead you go 7 semitones to the left you get to F which is a fifth down but is also a perfect fourth if looked at from the point of view of C an octave below where you started. In this way `up’ arrow represents a perfect fifth up (or a perfect fourth down) while the `down’ arrow is a perfect fifth down or a perfect fourth up. This is deemed to be the basic (or `simple proper’) chord progression.

Single or double arrows to left or right represent substitutions of various kinds (e.g. a minor third), but I won’t go further into the details. The key point is that while the actual chords differ after the first few changes because of the different substitutions, the chord progression in these two piece is remarkably similar judged by the sequence of arrows. The main exception is a different substitution in bar 3 of the Coltrane excerpt. Both pieces end up achieving the same thing: they complete an entire chromatic cycle through a sequence of basic progressions and substitutions.

I don’t know whether Coltrane was directly inspired by listening to Ravel or whether they both hit on the same idea independently, but I find this totally fascinating. So much so that I’ll probably end up trying to annotate some of the chord changes I’ve worked out from other recordings and see what they look like in the notation outlined above.

 

The Hallé at St David’s

Posted in Biographical, Music with tags , , , , , , on November 2, 2017 by telescoper

Last night, as part of an ongoing effort to enjoy as much culture as I can while I still have the chance, I went to St David’s Hall in Cardiff for a concert of music by Ravel, Debussy and Mussorgsky given by the Hallé Orchestra under the direction of Sir Mark Elder. It was a wonderful programme of music, performed with all the colour and verve and professionalism you’d expect from the Hallé.

First up we had the Rapsodie Espagnole, one of Ravel’s first compositions for the full orchestra (although in the original version was for two pianos, he orchestrated it a year after that version was published). For a piece of only about 15 minutes duration its four movements are full of changes of mood, tempo and tonality, which makes it a great piece to warm up both orchestra and audience.

Following that, we had the gorgeous Première Rhapsodie for orchestra and clarinet soloist by Claude Debussy. Written just a couple of years after the Ravel, and inhabiting a similarly impressionistic sound world, this was originally as a test piece for clarinettists at the Paris Conservatoire. The solo part was played with great agility and feeling by young Spanish musician Sergio Castello López. I’d never noticed before how similar the way the clarinet ends this piece is to the opening statement of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, written about 14 years later…

And then it was time for Ravel’s little inspiration, Boléro, which is easily his most famous composition despite the fact that, as Ravel himself put it, `it has no music in it’. What he meant by that is that it doesn’t have any variation or thematic development or invention, but was written deliberately as an experiment to see how far he could get in writing a work that was entirely based on rhythm and repetition. The result was a smash hit and earned him a very great deal of money, but he grew to resent the fact that it was so much more popular than the other works he himself thought were much better. I know some people who hate this piece, but I think it’s great fun and always enjoy hearing it. Last night was no exception.

The composition of Boléro is so simple that even a non-musician like me can play it. It’s basically written in a slow 3/4 time signature on which is superimposed the following figure:

The second part is basically a repeat of the first, with the last two eighth notes replaced with triplet. The whole pattern consists of 24 notes. I once tried to count how many times it is repeated in a performance of Boléro, but gave up when I got to 100. I think it must be over 200 times.  This figure is introduced first on a single snare drum, which carries on playing it for the duration, i.e. for about 15 minutes in total. As the piece develops the same pattern is picked up by various other instruments, either alone in combination. A second snare drum joins in too. The key to the piece is to keep this all very strictly in tempo, as the piece gradually gets louder.

As I’ve mentioned before on this blog, my Father was a (jazz) drummer. I remember once borrowing his snare drum and attempting to play along with a recording of Boléro. The pattern shown above is not that hard to play in itself, but it’s not as easy as you probably think to keep in tempo as you play it louder and louder. At the start it’s fine: you begin by tapping the sticks on the skin of the drum very close to the rim. To increase the volume you gradually move the point of impact closer to the centre of the drum, which naturally makes it louder. However, to get louder still you have to increase the distance the sticks move, and that makes it tougher to keep to tempo. Playing along at home is one thing, but playing the percussionist playing this in an orchestra must leave the drummer feeling very exposed. One mistake, any speeding up or slowing down, and the whole performance will be ruined.  Percussionists very often have little to do for long passages in an orchestral work, but this takes it to the opposite extreme. It requires constant concentration, but no variation or embellishment is allowed.  I suppose professional musicians just get into the zone and don’t think about the possibility of screwing up. Last night, Principal Percussionist David Hext looked as relaxed as anyone I’ve ever seen starting this piece and seemed even to be enjoying it too, thoroughly deserving the warm applause he got at the end of the performance.

The bolero rhythm is just one element of the composition, of course. There is a melody, in two parts. The first simple and catchy, the second bluesier and a bit syncopated. Each part is played twice, passed around the instruments of the orchestra, first individually and then in combinations. Sometimes the melodic line is doubled, but there are no complicated harmonies and the piece stays in C major throughout, apart from a sudden change of key near the very end. The second part of the melody allows the musicians to release their inner jazz a bit, playing behind or across the beat to generate the feeling that the tune is trying to escape the confines of the incessant rhythm. As is the case in jazz, this sense of tension only works if the basic rhythm is kept strictly in tempo as the crescendo builds

The third element of the composition is the simplest of all, but I feel that it is very important in determining whether a performance of Boléro really rocks. That is a rhythmic pulse based on the three beats of the underlying 3/4. When they’re not playing the melody or shadowing the bolero pattern, the orchestra play this figure and it ends up being boomed out by the timpani in tremendous style but also as the piece progresses the stress shifts between the three beats as different instruments contribute.

I know it’s a familiar piece but I really enjoyed last night’s performance. I’ll also reiterate that as well as making a great sound, a full symphony orchestra playing during a piece like this is a tremendous thing to watch, especially with the percussion section giving it some good old-fashioned welly.

Anyway, after the ensuing wine break interval we resumed with Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition (as orchestrated by that man Maurice Ravel).  I remember studying this in music lessons at school,as it was one of the teacher’s approved works. He never told us, however, that the `pictures’ concerned were not large-scale canvases but tiny drawings and design sketches done by one Victor Hartmann, whose sudden death led to the exhibition in question but also affected his friend Mussorgsky very deeply and inspired him to make a musical tribute based on the artwork displayed therein. Mussorgsky thus wrote the piano version which was then subsequently orchestrated by Maurice Ravel.

This is another extremely popular piece, also for good reason. It’s a set of ten movements linked by a `Promenade’ theme that represents the viewer walking around the exhibition (in different moods determined by the pictures). It ends with the most famous section, the magnificent Great Gate of Kiev which provided a suitable finale to a most enjoyable and varied evening of music.

Daphnis et Chloé at St David’s Hall

Posted in Music with tags , , , , , , , on November 11, 2016 by telescoper

Taking a short break from today’s duties – which are substantial – I’ve just got time to mention that last night I went once again to a concert at St David’s Hall in Cardiff. This time it was the BBC National Orchestra of Wales under the direction of conductor laureate Tadaaki Otaka, who were joined for the second half of the performance by the BBC National Chorus of Wales. The concert was broadcast live last night on BBC Radio 3, although I didn’t listen to it on the radio myself because I was there in person. In fact I only just got there in time because last night they switched on the Christmas lights in Cardiff city centre and I had to make my way through the crowds to get to St David’s Hall.

The programme began with an appetizer in the form Mozart’s, brief but dramatic overture to the opera Idomeneo which Mozart wrote when he was just 25. It’s interesting how much more attention one tends to pay to an overture when it’s detached from the main event it is supposed to precede. In fact you sometimes even find people talking during the overture at the Opera, which as far as I’m concerned is a crime of the most serious order. Anyway, the Idomeneo overture  is in a compact sonata form, which is something I’d never appreciated before despite having seen the Opera a number of times.

After that there was a memorable performance of  Prokofiev’s Second Violin Concerto with soloist Thomas Zehetmair. I’d never heard this piece before, and was captivated from the very opening in which the soloist enters alone without any orchestral preface or accompaniment. The piece consists of two sprightly and intense allegro movements either side of a more lyrical adagio. It’s a very virtuosic solo piece but also full of interesting melodies and innovative orchestration. I was sitting in the stalls directly in front of the cellos and basses who had to work phenomenally hard, sometimes doubling the melodic line of the much nimbler solo violin. Great stuff.

The interval was followed by a complete performance of the music to the ballet Daphnis et Chloé by Maurice Ravel. As is the case with Stravinsky’s Firebird (which I heard in St David’s Hall a few weeks ago) music from this ballet is often played in the form of a suite or, in the case of this ballet, two suites, but I have to say the whole is much greater than the sum of the suites. It’s a glorious (and very sensual) work, brilliantly orchestrated, full of vibrant colours and lush textures, and even more wonderful when accompanied by the wordless singing of the massed ranks of the BBC National Orchestra of Wales. The score lasts a full hour, but that time seemed to flash by in this performance which was extremely well received by a very appreciative audience.

Anyway, for the next month you can listen to the whole concert on the BBC iPlayer so feel free to add your comments below if you get the chance to hear it.

The only downside of the evening was that on the way out I bumped into disgraced former Conservative MP and current UKIP AM, Neil Hamilton, along with equally ghastly wife. So traumatised was I by that experience that I was forced to visit the Urban Tap House for a beer before walking home.