THURSDAY, September 19, 2019
Famous for 107 years…
There are two phenomenally famous French Impressionist composers from the late 1800s and early 1900s – Debussy and Ravel. Impressionism refers to a style of music that came of age at that time. Both composers rejected the term, but the rest of the world adopted it, and it has stuck.
Debussy August 22, 1862 to March 25, 1918) was perhaps more revolutionary because he was born earlier than Ravel (March 7, 1875 to December 18, 1937) and had to fight against a very conservative, stuffy musical establishment that continually tried to tell him he literally was not allowed to write music the way he did, with new chords, new sounds, new ideas. Debussy challenged authority from early in his life, and his music was not fully accepted until close to the end of his life, tragically cut short from cancer.
It’s hard to believe today, when the whole world uses the sounds Debussy used, that he had to fight against the world to be accepted as a master composer.
Ravel was born about 13 years later and so his path was easier. Debussy had already opened things up a bit for him, so he gained acceptance more easily. There is a reason why his music often sounds similar to Debussy’s, because he was not born in an entirely different time, and of course he was born in the same country. But Ravel also lived 19 years longer, which gave him a lot more time to be accepted as a composer with ideas that by that time were accepted. So in a way you could consider Ravel’s path in life a bit easier, and his musical language had more time to be comfortably developed and exploited.
If Debussy was arguably more revolutionary, Ravel’s was just as original in other ways, and his orchestrations remain the gold standard among composers who write programmatic music, and most of all film scores. So those who love big, epic movies with super heroes and a ton of action will already be familiar with a lot of Ravel’s sounds. If it sounds at times as though John Williams (Star Wars) is channeling Ravel, it’s because he has studied his music carefully and uses many of his sounds and techniques. All the great film composers study the music of Ravel. They have to.
Daphnis et Chloé is a ballet, but most of the time you will hear this as pure music. There are two main versions, the original, complete ballet music, and shorter “suites”. There are two suites, and for obvious reasons they are easier to listen to at first because they are much shorter than the full version for ballet. The Suite No. 2 is the most famous and most popular, and this is what I heard many years ago when I heard this music for the first time. The Suites are performed with and without choruses but sound best with choruses, which add a whole extra dimension to the music.
Here is a brief description of the ballet:
Now the Suite No. 2, one of the best versions around, and it is with chorus:
Now, Suite No. 1, not heard as often but still very interesting.
And finally the complete ballet music, almost an hour long. This is the most interesting to me because nothing is cut, and there are things that are not in either Suite One or Suite Two. I’m not love with the chorus at the beginning, which at times is a bit flat, but the rest of the performance is superb, and it’s fun to watch all the players.