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Alborada del gracioso

About the Work

Maurice Ravel
Quick Look Composer: Maurice Ravel
Program note originally written for the following performance:
National Symphony Orchestra: Leonard Slatkin, conductor/Yundi Li, piano, performs Liszt Apr. 5 - 7, 2007
© Richard Freed
This piece was originally composed as the fourth of the five numbers in the piano suite Miroirs, which Ravel completed in 1905 and his friend Ricardo Viñes introduced at the Salle Erard on January 6, 1906. The orchestral version of the Alborada, which Ravel created in 1918, was introduced in Paris on May 17 of the following year by the Pasdeloup Orchestra under Rhené-Baton. The National Symphony Orchestra first performed this work on October 30, 1956, under Howard Mitchell, and presented it last on July 25, 1997, Luis Haza conducting.

The score calls for piccolo, 3 flutes, 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, snare drum, bass drum, cymbals, triangle, tambourine, castanets, crotales, xylophone, 2 harps, and strings. Duration, 8 minutes.
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It might be said that the piano is an underlying connection for the various works in the present concerts. All three composers represented were strongly identified with the instrument. Liszt most of all, of course: he was to the piano what Paganini was to the violin—and then some. Prokofiev was a splendid pianist in his own right, and it was as such, rather than as a composer, that he was graduated with honors from the St. Petersburg Conservatory. Even the Prokofiev music that closes this week's concerts exists in the composer's own keyboard settings: he arranged suites for piano as well as the more familiar ones for orchestra from his score for the ballet Romeo and Juliet. Ravel might be said to have had more ambition than actual talent as a pianist: he intended to introduce his Concerto in G major as soloist and tour Europe with it, but its difficulties led to his giving the solo honors to Marguerite Long and assignng himself the role of conductor in that work's premiere and the tour that followed. (He is said to have found the final movement of his earlier Sonatine more than he could handle, too.) But Ravel, like Liszt and Prokofiev, left some remarkable additions to the piano repertory, and most of his orchestral works (among them the first three pieces on the present program) were in fact his transcriptions of music he had originally composed for piano. Even La Valse, which was conceived from the beginning as an orchestral work, was first heard in a version of his own for two pianos.

In Ravel's case, the word "transcription" is perhaps not the best term for his orchestrations of music composed for the piano. Whether we are dealing with his own works or his orchestral settings of such music as Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition and Debussy's Tarantelle styrienne (which came to be labeled simply Danse), Ravel's idea of "transcribing" involved nothing less than actually recomposing the material in an idiom as thoroughly symphonic as the original had been thoroughly pianistic. The music simply does not betray its keyboard origins, which have come to be regarded—not by pianists, to be sure, but by many of today's concertgoers and record collectors—as mere footnotes, or initial sketches, for prominent parts of the "standard" orchestral repertory.

The title Alborada del gracioso is usually translated as "Morning Song of a Jester," the gracioso having been the household jester in the classic Spanish comedies of Calderón and Lope de Vega. The piece has remained enormously popular on its own, in both the original keyboard version and the subsequent one for orchestra. Ravel's pupil, confidant and biographer Alexis Roland-Manuel characterized the piece as one "in which the dry and biting virtuosity is contrasted, Spanish-wise, with the swooning flow of the lovelorn melodic line which interrupts the angry buzzing of guitars."

Until 1905, the year in which he completed both the Miroirs and the Sonatine, Ravel's output for piano solo had consisted entirely of brief individual pieces. Roland-Manuel observed that the five pieces that constitute the Miroirs announced a "completely new style" for Ravel, and that they seemed for a long time as difficult to understand as they are to play. Ravel did not orchestrate the entire suite, but as early as 1906, just after the suite's premiere, he orchestrated its third section, Une Barque sur l'océan, and Gabriel Pierné conducted it in a concert of the Colonne Orchestra on February 3, 1907. Since Ravel's time, the remaining parts of the Miroirs have been orchestrated by such musicians as Percy Grainger, Ernesto Halffter, Felix Guenter and Michael Round.

In the piano suite, each of the five movements bears a dedication to one of Ravel's friends and/or colleagues. The Alborada was dedicated to M.D. Calvocoressi, the critic and musical scholar who was among Ravel's earliest supporters, encouraged his very productive interest in the music of Mussorgsky, and supplied him with the texts for the Cinq Mélodies populaires grecques.