The Kennedy Center

Rapsodie espagnole

About the Work

Photo for Maurice Ravel Composer: Maurice Ravel
© Richard Freed

The Rapsodie espagnole, composed in 1907 and 1908, was first performed on March 15 of the latter year in a Paris concert of the Orchestre Colonne, ?douard Colonne conducting. The National Symphony Orchestra first performed the work on November 15, 1942, at Trinity College, under Hans Kindler, and presented it last on July 25, 1997, at the Carter Barron Amphitheater, Luis Haza conducting.

The score, dedicated "? mon cher maître Charles de B?riot," calls for 2 piccolos, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, 3 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, snare drum, bass drum, cymbals, tam-tam, castanets, triangle, tambourine, xylophone, celesta, 2 harps, and strings. Duration, 15 minutes.


Ravel composed a number of works in the Spanish idiom, from his early piano pieces to the notoriously popular Bol?ro of 1928, and his very last composition was the song cycle Don Quichotte ? Dulcin?e, a by-product of his abortive score for a film treatment of the Cervantes classic. The impetus for these Spanish-flavored works was not provided by Bizet's Carmen (whose premiere, incidentally, took place only four days before Ravel's birth), or by Chabrier's Espa?a (though Ravel revered Chabrier and acknowledged him as his model for some of his early works), or by the general French fascination with Spanish music, but may be explained largely in terms of his lineage, which was by no means entirely French. His father was a descendant of an old Swiss family, and his mother was Basque. Spanish was spoken and sung in his home throughout his childhood, and when the family moved to Paris his closest friend among his classmates at the Conservatoire was the Spanish pianist Ricardo Vi?es, whose mother was a frequent visitor to the Ravel home. Alexis Roland-Manuel, Ravel's pupil, confidant and biographer, noted that throughout his life

Ravel was so attracted to Spain that he sometimes took to composing in the Spanish manner during the course of a page of pure music when his subject did not demand it. He confessed that he was attracted to a certain type of Spanish music shamelessly derived from the Italian, a tradition which lasted throughout the nineteenth century to emerge as the zarzuela. Amused and delighted by what he called "the Louis-Philippe habaneras," he abandoned a false Andalusia to conquer a Spain which, though not genuine, seems to be more convincing than the real Spain because its creator knew how to give it the semblance of the natural and necessary. . . . Thus the French Ravel created a virtue out of flanquisme, which according to his friend Manuel de Falla is the vice common to Spanish composers. This virtue enlivens the habaneras, Malague?as and boleros which crowd his work . . .

With this in mind, it is hardly surprising that the first of Ravel's original orchestral compositions should be in the Spanish idiom. Actually, the Rapsodie espagnole was not Ravel's very first work for orchestra, but it was the first he cared to release for publication. He did not begin work on it until 1907, and the third of its four sections is the Habanera he had composed for two pianos a dozen years earlier. He was careful to point this out himself by having the date of the original version of that section printed in the orchestra score. Roland-Manuel stated:

It was not chance that led Ravel to introduce the Habanera of 1895 without modification into his Rapsodie. It is so much more appropriate there that it seems to have given something of its spirit to the other sections of this fantasy in the Spanish manner. In the Pr?lude ? la nuit, the imitative Malague?a or the vehement final Feria, stereotyped Andalusian formulas are boldly introduced into the symphonic structure.

[Within that structure,] there is shown for the first time that taut and subtle orchestration, exemplified in the transparency, vigor and clarity of its outlines; that pervading dry and silky quality in the orchestral coloring that serves to distinguish Ravel.

At the premiere of the Rapsodie espagnole, at the Th??tre du Ch?telet, an encore of the Malague?a was demanded from the upper gallery and duly performed. This set off some agitated murmurs in the audience, provoking the composer Florent Schmitt to rise again from his gallery seat and call out, "Just once more, for the gentlemen below who haven't been able to understand!"