Ravel, Introduction and Allegro

February 8, 2018

Maurice Ravel (1875-1937)

Introduction and Allegro for harp, flute, clarinet and string quartet (1905)

Maurice Ravel In the first years of the 20th Century, Debussy and Ravel were championed as the latest important voices in French Art Music, each playing important roles within an intoxicating style generally labeled Impressionism. In a reflection more of fans and critics than the actual relationship between the two composers or their musical styles, Parisians would even take sides in a feisty rivalry of Debussy vs. Ravel. This passionate dichotomy lent itself to another contest of the period: a competition between two rival manufacturers of the concert harp, each with a different solution for equipping with instrument with the complete array of chromatic tones. In 1903, the Pleyel company commissioned Debussy to write an ensemble work featuring their new fangled chromatic harp resulting in Danse sacrée et Danse profane of 1904 for harp and string quartet. In 1905, the Érard company followed suite by offering Ravel the commission to feature their pedal harp and, quickly thereafter, in a rush that he described as “a week of continuous work and three sleepless nights”, Ravel completed his Introduction and Allegro for harp, flute, clarinet and string quartet.

As it requires an unconventional ensemble compared with the string quartet, piano trio or even a full orchestra, Ravel’s truly fantastic Introduction and Allegro is a relatively rare bird on the concert stage. Comprising a single movement with two sections—a short introduction presenting a few crucial motifs forming the thematic substance of the ensuing allegro—it can be regarded in some ways as little harp concerto. The harp takes the lead in stating the main theme of the Allegro, pursues a concertante rivalry with the ensemble and eventually indulges in solo cadenza celebrating Érard’s harp in its full glory. But with its independence of parts, brilliant color and its myriad of ingenious textures often juxtaposing strings against winds, Ravel’s piece makes for well-balanced chamber music.

A familiar and beloved Impressionistic style features both poetic languor and sparkling animation so richly wrought from an economy of musical motifs. At the heart is the solo cadenza for harp: a nearly still reflecting pool of the entire work very gently grazed with the ripples of a soft breeze and sparse, mesmerizing harmonics like a meditative Asian zither of a rarefied, exotic aesthetic.

Many have noted that Ravel ultimately omitted this work from his catalog and made no mention of it in his autobiography. Yet it was the first of a small number of works he recorded in 1923.

© Kai Christiansen Used by permission. All rights reserved.