MAURICE RAVEL (1875–1937)
Alborada del gracioso (Morning Song of a Jester) (1918)
Maurice Ravel’s Alborada del gracioso was originally part of a collection of five piano pieces, Miroirs (1904–05), each of which was dedicated to a member of “Le club des Apaches” — a bohemian group of French composers, painters, poets, and critics. Their exotic name was a French slang term for raucous young men or hooligans. The Apaches hung out together in Paris on Saturday nights, discussing, debating, arguing, and not hesitating to make their opinions known about all things artistic. Alborada was dedicated to Michel-Dimitri Calvocoressi, a critic and musicologist. Ravel orchestrated the piano piece in 1918, and it was premiered in Paris in 1919. Ravel, who hailed from the Basque region of France, near the Spanish border, here shows his heritage. An alborada, or “morning music” (from alba = Sp. “white of dawn”), is a Spanish folk song, accompanied by guitar, traditionally played in the morning under the window of one’s sweetheart while she is still asleep. A gracioso, rendered in English as “jester,” is a comic character, usually a lowly type, in the classic Spanish comedies of Calderón and Lope de Vega, and is reminiscent of the fools in Shakespearean comedies. The seven-minute work has a three-part structure. Toward the beginning you’ll hear harps and pizzicato (It. “plucked”) strings mimicking the strumming of a guitar. The jester’s awkward singing in the next section is rendered by the mournful sound of the bassoon. The final section finds the jester of better cheer. Though the piece sounds light and simple, the score places big demands on the performers; Ravel, known for his magnificent orchestrations, calls for many special effects: for example, glissandi from the trombones, flutter-tonguing from the winds, and, in the final section, strings divided into 24 separate parts.