Roman Festivals
Maurice Ravel 1875-1937
Maurice Ravel
Maurice Ravel
Alborada del Gracioso (The Jester's Dawn Song)

It has been said that the best Spanish music has been written by Frenchmen. Maurice Ravel was partially of Basque origin although born just north of the Spanish border, and always had a particular affinity for the music of his southern neighbor. In 1905 he composed Miroirs, five piano pieces that became instantly popular, primarily through the efforts of his friend, the Spanish pianist Ricardo Viñes. According to the composer, these pieces “…mark a decided turn in the development of my harmony, so that musicians had to revise the views they had previously been accustomed to hold about my style.”

Alborada del Gracioso was the fourth and most popular of the set. In 1918 Ravel gave it a brilliant orchestration, a foretaste for his orchestration of Pictures at an Exhibition four years later. Alborada, literally “Dawn Song,” was a form of morning serenade from the Basque region of Northern Spain, later becoming a popular folkdance. Ravel’s precise meaning in using the word “gracioso” in the title is unclear. While generally translated as “jester,” the gracioso was a stock figure in the rich theatrical tradition of Spanish comedias, the literally thousands of plays written and performed during Spain’s Siglo de Oro, Golden Age. The gracioso was the clever servant – the Spanish version of the “tricky slave” in Roman comedy – who accompanied his master and generally got him out of trouble. Although not a character in a drama, Don Quixote’s sidekick Sancho Panza is literature’s most famous gracioso. Leporello in Mozart’s Don Giovanni – itself based on a play by Spanish playwright Tirso de Molina – is another. In view of the history of the gracioso, the image, conjured by Ravel’s work is of a servant serenading his master’s lady.

Alborada is replete with Spanish folkloric harmonies and rhythms. In its orchestrated version Ravel dishes out plum solos, melodic ones for oboe and bassoon, rhythmic ones for trumpet and castanets. With such a variety of orchestral colors, one loses the sense of the lone serenader.

It opens with a Flamenco-sounding toccata for pizzicato strings (plus harp) and oboe. Example 1 Soon the entire orchestra chimes in. Example 2 The second and longest section begins as a recitative for the bassoon, Example 3 prelude to the rather brooding serenade in the lower strings with a harp ostinato. Example 4 With a protracted ostinato, including trumpet, snare drum and pizzicato strings, the alborada finally returns to a repeat of the oboe solo and the wash of color. Example 5

Subsequently, Ravel went on to compose a spate of Hispanic works, including Rapsodie espagnole, the opera L'Heure espagnole, Boléro, and the song cycle Don Quichotte à Dulcinée.
Edouard Lalo 1823-1892
Edouard Lalo
Edouard Lalo
Symphonie Espagnole, Op. 21

Edouard Lalo came from a military family in Northern France, his father having fought for Napoleon. Although his parents at first encouraged his musical talent and he studied both the violin and cello, his more serious inclinations towards music met with stern opposition from his father. He left home at the age of 16 to pursue his musical studies at the Conservatoire in Paris. While working for a long time in obscurity as a violinist and music teacher, in 1855 he started a string quartet to popularize the quartets of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven. It was only in the 1870s that Lalo got a break as a composer.

The debacle of the Franco-Prussian war of 1870 and its aftermath created havoc in France’s musical life. However, the rapid reconstruction that followed gave rise to the creation of the Société nationale de musique and the inauguration of three concert series under three great conductors, Jules Pasdeloup, Edouard Colonne and Charles Lamoureux, producing a demand for new works. Young French composers, including Lalo, were inspired to write large-scale orchestral works – like the enormous “history paintings” of Jacques Louis David – although such works had been out of fashion in France at the time.

Lalo’s name is primarily associated with a series of works he composed for the Spanish violinist Pablo Sarasate. Many composers dedicated works to him, including Max Bruch, Camille Saint-SaŽns, Joseph Joachim, Henryk Wieniawski, Antonín Dvorák, and in particular, Lalo. In 1873 Lalo composed his Violin Concerto, Op.20 for Sarasate and a year later followed up with another work for violin and orchestra, the Symphonie Espagnole, the composer’s most enduring work. Sarasate premiered both with the Colonne Orchestra.

Symphonie Espagnole is neither a real symphony, nor a traditional concerto. It is more like a five-movement suite, especially in its incorporation of dance rhythms. But Lalo hated the term “suite,” considering it “a tainted and discredited title.” The Symphonie is French in character, but Spanish in rhythm. What it lacks in musical depth it makes up for in bravura and a wealth of catchy themes. Although the five movements are not named for dances, they all correspond to Spanish dances and folk rhythms, although the structure of the movements corresponds to classical symphonic and concerto models.

The first movement is a habanera, with the three themes in the same rhythm – although not the same mood. The first two themes run together, and although the first is little more than a motive, it serves as the glue that holds the movement together as both refrain, and as the most developed musical idea. Example 1 & Example 2

The second movement, a seguidilla, is a modified ABA form. Example 3 The middle section is almost a recitative for the soloist, with dramatic shifts of tempo. Example 4

The Intermezzo opens with an introduction for orchestra of Spanish-Moorish origin, based on a two-beat measure alternating triple and duple meter. Example 5 The violin then introduces a series of themes, all with the underlying Moorish rhythm. Example 6†& Example 7 & Example 8 & Example 9

The pavane is a slow dance supposedly related to the gait of the peacock. The movement's slow tempo and minor key suggest a funeral procession. The orchestra introduces the movement's first theme, Example 10 which the violin answers with a new theme of its own, Example 11† continuing its lament after a brief orchestral interruption. Example 12

The lighthearted mood of the fifth and final movement breaks the lugubrious spell. The orchestra begins by setting up an ostinato pattern Example 13 over which the violin weaves delicate counter melody with elaborate embellishments. Example 14 The movement contains a malagueña in its slower middle section. Example 15
Pablo de Sarasate 1844-1908
Pablo de Sarasate
Pablo de Sarasate
Zigeunerweisen, Op. 20, for Violin and Orchestra

Gypsy (or Roma) melodies and the style of playing have become musical clichés and have often been parodied in film and on television – comedian Jack Benny made a career of ruining this piece.

On the other hand, one of the most spectacular violin virtuosos of the late nineteenth century, Pablo Martin Melitón Sarasate y Navascuez was known for his beautiful tone, perfect intonation and poise on the stage. He was a striking figure, usually dressed all in black, with a huge ego and flair for publicity to match. He lived in a lavish Paris mansion decorated by James McNeill Whistler in the nineteenth-century equivalent of "Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous."

Sarasate was a true fiddler; his supreme style and technique accompanied by little intellect. In virtuoso pieces he had no match, but how he played the classics is another story. In the Beethoven concerto "he was impossible" recalled Carl Flesch, a young violinist at the time. His unaccompanied Bach made music lovers shudder. Nevertheless, many composers dedicated works to him, including Max Bruch, Camille Saint-SaŽns, Henryk Wieniawski, Antonín Dvorák and especially Edouard Lalo.

In the nineteenth century, Gypsy music, played by roving band usually including violins and a cimbalom (a Hungarian folk instrument similar to a hammer dulcimer) roamed the streets and coffee houses of central Europe. Their melodies, thought erroneously to be true folk music, became popular material for composers of the era, including Johannes Brahms and Franz Liszt.

Sarasate composed the Zigeunerweisen (Gypsy Airs) in 1878 for his own use. It incorporates Gypsy melodies into a dazzling technical display to become an indispensable item on every virtuoso's repertoire. It was one of over 50 violin works Sarasate wrote to display his sparkling technique.

The typical Gypsy piece consists of two sections of opposite tempo and mood,: a slow lassu, often improvised; and the rapid friss. The lassu in Zigeunerweisen is considerably longer than the friss, with a stream of new melodies, Example 1 the most famous of which is Example 2. The friss more than makes up for its “air time.” Example 3

Ottorino Respighi 1879-1936
Ottorino Respighi
Ottorino Respighi
Feste romane (Roman Festivals)

Ottorino Respighi was one of the most imaginative orchestrators of the first part of the twentieth century. While most of his musical studies were undertaken in Italy, he spent two crucial years in Russia where he took lessons in orchestration from Nikolay Rimsky-Korsakov. Respighi developed a masterful technique in the use of instrumental colors and sonorities. Firmly rooted in the late-Romantic tradition, he maintained this style with only marginal influence from the revolutionary changes in music that occurred during his lifetime.

Respighi was a musical nationalist, keenly interested in reviving Italy’s musical heritage, especially its instrumental music. Beginning in 1906 he undertook to transcribe and arrange music from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, editing the works of Claudio Monteverdi and Tomaso Antonio Vitali. In 1917 he published the first of his three suites of Ancient Airs and Dances, based on Italian and French lute music, mostly from the early seventeenth century. In 1927 he composed Gli uccelli (The Birds), a five-movement suite using eighteenth-century keyboard works imitating birdsongs. Indeed, most of his works are based on the music of the past.

There has been some controversy regarding Respighi’s political affiliation. The fact that Italian dictator Benito Mussolini was particularly fond of the composer’s “Roman” tone poems and that Respighi accepted various honors from the Fascist government has led to the conclusion that Respighi was a Fascist himself. His supporters, however, cite the composer’s intervention in 1931 to save Arturo Toscanini from a Fascist mob in Bologna, and his remarks against the regime for threatening the conductor. There is also an allegedly hidden anti-Fascist message in the final scene of his opera Lucrezia, written in 1935-6, when Fascism was at its height: "Death to the tyrants, you be leader, Brutus! - Freedom, to Rome!"

Between 1914 and 1928, Respighi composed a trilogy of tone poems celebrating Rome’s history and culture. Fontane di Roma (Fountains of Rome) was the first, followed by Pini di Roma (Pines of Rome) and finally Feste romane. Composed in 1928 and premiered in New York a year later, Feste romane’s four movements span the history of Rome from ancient times to the present:

Circus Maximus. A trumpet fanfare and an orchestra snarl Example 1 heralds in somber and clashing dissonance the chilling struggles of early Christians in the city's stadium. The harsh sonorities contrast with the chants and prayers of the martyrs doomed to death. Example 2 & Example 3

Jubilee. Based on the old German hymn Christ ist erstanden (Christ has risen), this movement describes a medieval pilgrimage. Example 4 The music grows steadily in intensity and fervor as the procession approaches, Example 5 then fades away, with only the pealing of the bells echoing in the distance. The overall musical effect is that of set of free variations with brief interludes between them.

October Festival portrays the merriment of a renaissance fall festival. It opens with an old melody – one of those that Respighi was so fond of inserting into virtually all his compositions Example 6 According to the composer, it evokes "...echoes of the hunt, Example 9 tinkling bells Example 7 and songs of love [an Italian folk tune]" Example 8 of the traditional harvest celebrations. A beautiful solo violin melody, accompanied by the flute, plays a serenade to love. Example 10

Epiphany: Revelry in modern (1920s) Rome harks back to the excesses of the ancient city at its most decadent. Example 11 A calliope makes its appearance, together with competing bands, their tunes clashing. Towards the end, the tempo becomes frantic as the bands come together for the final orchestral climax. Listeners familiar with the carnival scenes in Igor Stravinsky’s Petrushka will feel right at home, Example 12 as will devotees of Charles Ives. An Irish jig, a waltz and other tunes show that all roads really did lead to Rome.

Copyright © Elizabeth and Joseph Kahn 2017