Ravel: Piano Concerto in G Major

Maurice Ravel, 1875-1937. Concerto in G Major for Piano and Orchestra. Completed 1931, first performance January 14, 1932, in Paris. Scored for solo piano, 2 flutes (2nd doubling piccolo), 2 oboes (2nd doubling English horn), clarinet, E flat clarinet, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, trumpet, trombone, triangle, snare drum, cymbals, bass drum, tam-tam, wood block, whip, tympani, harp, and strings.

The decline of Maurice Ravel was one of the most tragic in the annals of music history. Beethoven's famous deafness, though debilitating, did not prevent him from composing music in his head. Bach's increasing blindness still allowed new works to be dictated to family. But Ravel's brain disease left him lucid yet helpless, unable to write, speak, or play an instrument, full of ideas yet with no way to communicate them.

In 1929, still healthy and having finally achieved popularity via the ballet Boléro and financial success through an American concert tour, Ravel set to creating a long-postponed piano concerto for himself. The work would be a showcase for both his remarkable virtuosity and his compositional talents. Some of the material came from abandoned works of a decade before, while other parts were strongly influenced by the jazz craze that was then sweeping the world.

To prepare himself for the anticipated premiere, Ravel also spent long hours at the piano, playing études by both Chopin and Liszt. He was happily writing and practicing when he was forced to stop to attend a festival in his honor. Writing to friends about this, he said,

In the midst of my pregnancy with the concerto (I am at the stage of throwing up) I am suddenly called to Biarritz. You must have seen the billboards designed by Fugita [a famous Japanese painter] announcing ``Le grand festival de Maurice Ravel.'' Two hundred francs for a ticket! It's lucky that I can get in ``on the house.''

This interruption was a brief one, but another would distract him longer. The Austrian pianist Paul Wittgenstein, who had lost his right arm in the First World War, asked Ravel to write a concerto for the left hand only. Ravel agreed, and the work he produced is undoubtedly the best-known of all the left-hand works commissioned by Wittgenstein.

Despite little sleep and many marathon composing sessions, the distraction of the commission delayed the completion of his own vehicle until late 1931. By then, however, the illness that would eventually kill him had affected him sufficiently that he could not manage the challenges of the keyboard, so he was forced to settle for conducting the premiere, which was played by Marguerite Long.

Ravel's brain tumor (if it was that) may have been exacerbated by a car accident in 1932, in which he struck his head severely. In any case, the sickness progressed so rapidly that he completed only one more work, a song cycle on the subject of Don Quixote, before being forced into retirement. He suffered from both aphasia (a speech disorder) and a motor impairment that caused absurdities such as placing a match in his mouth and trying to light it with a cigarette. As if this were not torture enough, his mental acuity was unaffected, so that he was fully aware of his ludicrous actions even though he was unable to control them.

The composer survived six years after the first performance of his masterful concerto, never responding to treatment. Finally, in desperation, his doctors attempted surgery. The operation was unsuccessful, and Ravel lasted only eight more days in a coma before succumbing to the affliction that robbed the world of one of the most fertile and entertaining composers ever given us.

© 1996, Geoff Kuenning

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