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Though like Messiaen something of a prodigy and hard working, Ravel found his experience of the Paris Conservatoire and the official Parisian musical world frustrating. Having failed to win any prizes as a pianist, he left the Conservatoire in 1895, only to return two years later to study composition with Fauré. In the first years of the 20th century, Ravel made five efforts to win the Prix de Rome. His elimination in the first round of the 1905 competition caused a furor, when the chosen finalists all turned out to be students of one professor, who was on the jury.
But by that time Ravel did not really need that acknowledgment of conventional success. He had already begun to gather critical attention for works such as his String Quartet and Jeux d’eau for piano, and in the same year as the competition scandal he completed Miroirs, a suite of five piano pieces that, he said, “marked a rather considerable change in my harmonic evolution.”
Each of these Impressionistic sound reflections is dedicated to one of Ravel’s friends, members of a literary and artistic circle known as Les Apaches. The symbolist poet Léon-Paul Fargue was the dedicatee of “Noctuelles,” a fleet, flickering depiction of the night flight of moths. (Ravel set one of Fargue’s poems, “Rêves,” to music in 1927.)
“Oiseaux tristes” (Sorrowful Birds) – Ravel’s own favorite from the set and the first to be composed – is dedicated to Ravel’s mentor, the Spanish pianist Ricardo Viñes, who gave the premiere of the suite. Ravel evoked “birds lost in the torpor of a somber forest, during the most torrid hours of summertime.” Soft chirps and calls are heard over a syncopated accompaniment, bursting into the wayward panic of a lost bird. The opening material returns, and a cadenza-like passage leads into the fading birdcalls, marked “sombre et lointain” (melancholy and remote).
The Apaches usually met at the home of painter Paul Sordes, and Ravel dedicated “Une barque sur l’océan” (A Ship on the Ocean) to him. The rippling waves grow in power and expanse, suggesting the lonely danger of a ship in the vastness of the ocean.
The most famous and strenuously virtuosic piece of the set is “Alborada del gracioso” (Morning Song of the Jester), dedicated to Michel Calvocoressi, a music critic who moved to London in 1914. It summons the Spain and keyboard music of Domenico Scarlatti with a framing seguidilla and crisp pianistic suggestions of guitars, and is equally popular in Ravel’s orchestral arrangement. (Ravel also orchestrated “Une barque sur l’océan,” which he later withdrew.)
Ravel dedicated “La vallée des cloches” (The Valley of Bells) to Maurice Delage, his only pupil. This is an exercise in stunning sonorities, with regular metrical time as delicately suspended as the tolling sounds. Ravel said that the big closing chords in the bass were the sound of the big bell in the Basilica of Montmartre in Paris.
– John Henken is Director of Publications for the Los Angeles Philharmonic.