The Kennedy Center

Shéhérazade, Three Songs on Poems of Tristan Klingsor

About the Work

Photo for Maurice Ravel Composer: Maurice Ravel
© Richard Freed

When he was 23 years old Ravel, responding to the stimulus of the fantasy elements in Weber and Wagner, and those in such Russian orchestral works as Balakirev’s Tamara and Rimsky-Korsakov’s Antar, conceived his first idea for an opera, on the same subject as one of Rimsky’s better-known symphonic suites, and he roughed out a libretto of his own for Shéhérazade, based on Galland’s Mille et une Nuits. That project was abandoned before he got very far with it, but he did complete two Shéhérazades in other forms. One was his very first orchestral work, which he designated an "ouverture de féerie" and in which he made his conducting début on May 27, 1899. That piece was hissed by the audience, trounced by the critics, and withdrawn by the composer, who never performed it again and did not allow the score to be published in his lifetime. He recycleded some of its material, however, in a different kind of Shéhérazade which proved to be far more successful, a sumptuous song-cycle with texts by Tristan Klingsor.

That suspiciously Wagnerian name was actually the pseudonym of Ravel’s friend Léon Leclère, one of the most versatile members of the circle of young poets, painters and musicians who called themselves "Apaches." Leclère/Klingsor was known primarily as a painter and poet, but had also composed songs; as Alexis Roland-Manuel noted in his biographical memoir of Ravel, Klingsor "teased all the Muses, and came to no harm." As soon as Klingsor’s Shéhérazade was published, in 1903, Ravel indicated his eagerness to set some of the poems; he began at once, completed the orchestral settings before the end of the year, and attended the very successful premiere on May 17, 1904, when the work was sung by the soprano Jane Hatto in a concert of the Société National de Musique conducted by Alfred Cortot. A few years later, Klingsor himself wrote that Ravel’s

love of difficulty made him choose, together with "L’Indifférent" and "La Flûte enchantée," [a poem] whose long narrative made it appear quite unsuitable for his purpose: "Asie." For at that time he was engaged in a study of spoken verse, and was aiming at emphasizing accents and inflections and magnifying them by melodic transposition; to fix his design firmly, he insisted on my reading the lines aloud. . . . For Ravel, setting a poem meant transforming it into expressive recitative, to exalt the inflections of speech to the state of song, to exalt all the possibilities of the word, but not to subjugate it. Ravel made himself the servant of the poet.

In his Shéhérazade Overture (which finally got a second hearing at the time of the Ravel centenary, and has been recorded several times since then) Ravel had made use of Debussy’s whole-tone scale, and he acknowledged in so many words that "Debussy’s spiritual influence at least is fairly obvious" in these orchestral songs. "In them again," he added, "I have succumbed to the profound fascination which the East has held for me since childhood."