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In March 1913, Ravel joined Stravinsky in Clarens to prepare a performing edition of Modest Mussorgsky's opera Khovanshchina for Diaghilev. Stravinsky played through The Rite of Spring at the piano for him and showed Ravel the Three Japanese Lyrics. He also introduced Ravel to Pierrot lunaire and explained how it had influenced the development of the Japanese Lyrics.
These works gave Ravel the idea to try something of his own for voice and chamber ensemble (the same instrumentation as the Japanese Lyrics), "the principal feature being the use of the voice in the ensemble rather than in solo with accompaniment," according to Ravel biographer Norman Demuth. Ravel chose three poems by the Symbolist poet Stéphane Mallarmé, completing "Soupir" (dedicated to Stravinsky) while still in Clarens. "Placet futile" (dedicated to Florent Schmitt) was composed after Ravel's return to Paris and "Surgi de la croupe et du bond" (dedicated to Erik Satie) was not finished until August. ("Soupir" and "Placet futile" were also the first two of Debussy's Three Poems of Mallarmé, also composed in 1913.)
Demuth's concept notwithstanding, "Soupir" is certainly a case of solo and accompaniment (albeit gorgeously scored), as the voice drifts on a rippling river of arppegiated string harmonics. The accompaniment shifts to soft chords for the back half of the poem, with its "langueur infinie," with just a bit of the ripple in a tiny postlude.
"Placet futile" is even more closely shaped by the text, in ornamental detail as well as overall shape. A limping line seems to be continually rising in different parts like an M.C. Escher graphic, suggesting the futility of the supplication. Some pointed, angular intervals put an edge on the otherwise lullaby-like vocal line.
"Surgi de la croupe et du bond" presents a spare world of flickers and flourishes around a solo line that rises and falls as though each verse were a single breath. Tremolo lends a shivery texture to an accompaniment that is often bare octaves, and the song fades to black on the final words, "dans les ténèbres."
- John Henken is Director of Publications for the Los Angeles Philharmonic Association.