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Menuet antique

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
The Menuet antique, one of Ravel's earliest works, was composed for piano solo in 1895 and dedicated to Ricardo Viñes, who gave the premiere at the Salle Erard on April 18, 1898. The orchestral version, the very last Ravel made of any of his piano pieces, was prepared in 1929 and received its premiere in a concert of the Lamoureux Orchestra on January 11, 1930, with Ravel himself conducting. This work enters the repertory of the National Symphony Orchestra in the present concerts.

The score specifies piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, harp, and strings. Duration, 7 minutes.
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In dedicating the first edition of the original piano version of the Menuet antique to the composer Henri Ghys, who had been one of his teachers (a later edition was dedicated to Viñes, who gave the premiere), Ravel referred to the piece as "this somewhat retrograde work," but the advantage of hindsight reveals in it a foretaste of the style to be shown in more polished form in the Sonatine of 1905 and, still later, in Le Tombeau de Couperin. Among other qualities which may be worth noting, the Menuet antique is an early indication of Ravel's penchant for provocative titles. The German critic H.H. Stuckenschmidt, who found "visions of gentle Arcadian sunshine" in this piece, wrote about its title on a very serious level:


The name is a paradoxical anachronism. There were no minuets, at least by that name, before the sixteenth century. They were then a variety of branles, old French dances. In the seventeenth century the minuet became current as a folk dance from Poitou. Needless to say, the ancients knew nothing of minuets, and Ravel was very well aware of this. What was his reason for this anachronistic name? In an inset square, the title page shows a picture by P. Borie, showing a Greek shepherd, surrounded by vine tendrils, playing an aulos, a double reed instrument like those represented on many Greek vases. His hands also grasp a posy of roses. The pseudo-antique character of the illustration is plain. The music, too, has similar traits, without pretending, however, to be an imitation of Greek models in its polyphony and harmony. It is only the consistent avoiding of the leading tone, of the raised seventh in minor, that indicates its pre-tonal character. It might just as readily have been modeled on church modes as on ancient systems of tonality.


The illustration described by Stuckenschmidt, of course, immediately calls to mind Daphnis and Chloe, in which score Ravel declared, he was "less scrupulous as to archaism than faithful to the Greece of my dreams." This early work may be regarded as reflecting a fascination only slightly less pervasive in Ravel's work than that with the Spanish influence, and in its much later orchestral form it might appear almost as an appendix to his ballet masterpiece of 1912.