Program Notes: Lise de la Salle Plays Ravel

Program Notes: Lise de la Salle Plays Ravel

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Full program notes:

Maurice Ravel
Born: March 7, 1875, Ciboure, Basses-Pyrénées, France
Died: December 28, 1937, Paris, France

Maurice Ravel

Suite of Five Pieces from Mother Goose (Ma Mère l’Oye)

Ravel, a collector of miniatures, never lost his capacity for child-like wonder. Sometimes he masked his pleasure in toys and tales and the paraphernalia of the nursery behind young friends. Ma Mère l’Oye, which we know as the Mother Goose Suite, originated as a set of five children’s pieces for four-hand piano, a gift for the young Godebski children that Ravel composed between 1908 and 1910. In 1911 he transcribed it for the orchestra, whose colors added magic to the imagery.

The original piano version was first performed on April 20, 1910, by two little girls, ages six and seven. One of them, Jeanne Leleu, later a Paris Conservatoire professor and composer in her own right, recalled that Ravel asked them to play very simply, without seeking expression in every note: “He wanted the first piece, the Pavane, to be very slow—for children that’s quite difficult! He wanted Tom Thumb to be very uniform in sonority... Laideronnette had to be very clear, like little crystal bells, without hurrying the melodic phrase in the bass.”

Drawing from Charles Perrault’s Contes de ma Mère l’Oye, originally published in 1697, Ravel also borrowed Perrault’s title. The author’s opening tale became the Pavane of the Sleeping Beauty, who is lulled by a gentle oscillating figure based on the ancient Aeolian mode; the music is so lightly scored that there is little risk of waking her. Tom Thumb, who discovers that the birds have eaten the crumbs he has strewn on his pathway, is evoked by constantly varying time signatures and the changing direction of the line, as he turns hither and thither in a frantic effort to retrace his steps. In Laideronnette, Empress of the Pagodas (not buildings but tiny, insect-like creatures), the royal one is glimpsed in her bath, where she is serenaded by an orchestra of viols and lutes made of nutshells. Beauty and the Beast encounter each other in a dramatic waltz that contrasts the lyric charm of her voice, sweet in the clarinet, with his gruff responses, rumbling from the contrabassoon. The Enchanted Garden, so crystalline in texture that it might have been spun of glass, is capped by sparkling glissandos.

Instrumentation: 2 flutes (1 doubling piccolo), 2 oboes (1 doubling English horn), 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons (1 doubling contrabassoon), 2 horns, timpani, bass drum, cymbals, tamtam, triangle, xylophone, harp, celesta, keyboard glockenspiel and strings

Program note by Eric Bromberger.


Maurice Ravel
Born: March 7, 1875, Ciboure, Basses-Pyrénées, France
Died: December 28, 1937, Paris, France

Concerto in G major for Piano and Orchestra

Ravel was 54 before he wrote any concertos, and then, in the fall of 1929, he set to work simultaneously on two. His Concerto for Piano Left Hand, dark and serious, was for the pianist Paul Wittgenstein, and the other, the much lighter Piano Concerto in G major, was intended for the composer’s own use. But by the fall of 1931, when the G-major Concerto was complete, 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, and who had also given the first performance of Ravel’s Le Tombeau de Couperin in 1919.

brilliant, transparent—and sultry
Ravel described this work as “written in the spirit of Mozart and Saint-Saëns,” but listeners would hardly make those associations. 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 said that in it, he had expressed his thoughts just as he had wished.

allegramente. The first movement 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.

adagio assai. In a three-minute solo that opens the Adagio assai, one of Ravel’s most beautiful slow movements, the pianist lays out at length the haunting main theme, which later returns to great effect with the English horn heard over delicate piano accompaniment. 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.”

presto. The finale 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 phrase with which it began.

Instrumentation: solo piano with orchestra comprising flute, piccolo, oboe, English horn, clarinet, E-flat clarinet, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, trumpet, trombone, timpani, bass drum, cymbals, snare drum, slap stick, tamtam, triangle, wood block, harp and strings

Program note by Eric Bromberger.


Sergei Prokofiev
Born: April 23, 1891, Sontsovka, Russia
Died: March 5, 1953, Moscow, Russia

Symphony No. 5 in B-flat major, Opus 100

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. 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.

with vision and force
Prokofiev composed this music in the space of one month during the summer of 1944 in Ivanovo, at an artists’ retreat 150 miles northeast of Moscow. Like Stravinsky and Copland, Prokofiev was not by nature a symphonist, finding himself more comfortable with dance scores and smaller forms. 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.

The Fifth Symphony builds across an effective sequence in its four movements: a broad-scaled and conflicted first movement gives way to a propulsive scherzo, followed by a painful adagio; the symphony concludes with an almost happy-go-lucky finale that transforms themes from the first movement to suit its mood of celebration. The symphony’s themes are simple, even singable, its orchestration masterful. The combination of dramatic content, attractive themes, skillful orchestration and formal control makes this music almost unique among Prokofiev’s works.

the music
andante. 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 now explode as the strength pent up in those simple figures is unleashed.

allegro marcato. The almost demonic ticking accompaniment heard at the very beginning of the second movement continues throughout—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, thanks to Prokofiev’s imaginative handling of percussion. Oboe and clarinet herald the arrival of the good-natured trio, but the return of the opening material brings a surprise: over the halting 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.

adagio. While Prokofiev would not link this symphony with the war that raged while it was written, it is hard not to feel that the third movement 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 theme that rises up over a span of four octaves and a grotesque march that sounds like something plucked from 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.

allegro giocoso. The concluding finale is well named, for this truly is fast and happy music. Prokofiev re-introduces, transformed, several themes from the first movement—the once-poised ideas now are rollicking. Violas lead the way, full of sweep and high spirits, and 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.

Instrumentation: 2 flutes, piccolo, 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, E-flat clarinet, bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, bass drum, cymbals, wood block, snare drum, tambourine, suspended cymbal, tamtam, triangle, harp, piano and strings

Program note by Eric Bromberger.

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