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Ravel's Spanish key; An Iberian influence colours much of Maurice Ravel's finest work, not least Bolero. Christopher Morley looks at his genius.

Byline: Christopher Morley

We think of Maurice Ravel as the quintessential Parisian dandy, Homburg hat at a natty angle, watch-chain clinking against a pin-striped blazer over immaculate, razor-creased dark trousers, silver-topped cane much in evidence and a cigarette-holder at his lips.

And yet there is a swarthier side to the composer, a Spanish element which emerges again and again in his immaculately-crafted scores. Ravel's mother came from the Basque region, and whether consciously or not, an Iberian atmosphere pervades so much of his output, despite the fact that he never set foot in Spain until 1935, two years before his death after an unsuccessful operation for a brain tumour.

The Spanish idiom colours so many of Ravel's compositions, most spectacularly in his oneact opera L'Heure Espagnole. This is a charming farce about the young wife of an elderly watch-maker (Ravel's father was of Swiss derivation - could there be an horological link there?), who takes advantage of her husband's weekly hour-long absence winding the Town Hall clock to entertain her lover.

Unfortunately she has more than one admirer, and they all turn up at the same time. Carry on ticking, yes, but let's not overlook how subtly the Spanish idiom is ingrained in this delightful score.

L'Heure Espagnole is the largest of Ravel's compositions, though the Hellenic ballet Daphnis and Chloe and his other opera, the typically Parisian, Colette-derived L'Enfant et les Sortileges come close. Yet all through the gamut of his works a whiff of Spain emerges from so many of them, including the magnificent Concerto for Piano Left Hand and Orchestra, whose opening emerges from subterranean darkness into a soundscape of Castilian grandeur.

Many small piano works by Ravel look nostalgically to Spain: the Habanera, Pavane pour une Infante Defunte, Alborada del Gracioso, and others.

With a pragmatic eye to the market, he orchestrated some of these. The Pavane is a grave little masterpiece to insert into a lollipops-style programme, and the Alborada del Gracioso (literally "the Jester's Dawn Song") is a lot of fun.

But the biggest individual Spanish-inspired piece of them all is the Bolero, famous in a truncated form for the maximum point-winning ice-skating performance by Jayne Torvill and Christopher Dean in the 1980s, but more famous, I hope, for the spectacle of its sustained crescendo over 17 stamina-sapping minutes for the snare-drummer, tapping out an incessant rhythm as his orchestral colleagues, including oboe d'amore, E-flat clarinet, bass clarinet, trumpet in D and three saxophones, gradually overlay each other.

Purists sneer at the piece. I don't, and I can't understand why they should choose so to do. It is a brilliant exercise in orchestration, a continuous crescendo for orchestra, building up tension inexorably with a wonderful sense of release at the end (don't bother with Torvill and Dean to convey this), and it is just a fabulous addition to the orchestral repertoire.

Bolero was written for the dancer Ida Rubinstein, and composed during the summer of 1928 after a punishing tour Ravel made of the United States. It was premiered on November 29 at the Paris Opera.

Typically ironic, quizzical and self-deprecating, Ravel described his Bolero as "a piece for orchestra without music". He is not the only composer to denigrate himself; Elgar was always doing it (I wonder if these contemporaries ever met?), as was Brahms.

Away from the Spanish element, Ravel was touchingly nostalgic about his native France. The piano suite Le Tombeau de Couperin (four of its movements later orchestrated) breathes life into the ancient suite dance-forms of baroque composers.

And ancient French fairytales cast their spell, too: Ma Mere l'Oye (piano four hands, later orchestrated), various stories cropping up in the piano pieces, including (Ondine in the fiendishly difficult suite Gaspard de la Nuit, all add savour to the output of this grasshopper of a genius.

There are major, abstract works as well. The Introduction and Allegro for Harp, Strings and Wind, its dreamlike waftings too evanescent to pin down in words; the string quartet; the sonata for violin and piano, the piano trio, the G major Piano Concerto with all its jazz influences.

That piano concerto strikes a tremendous chord with that by George Gershwin, who travelled to Paris in order to study with Ravel. Ravel asked him, "how much do you earn each year?" to which Gershwin replied, "about two million dollars". Ravel said, "perhaps it is I who should be studying with you".

* Andris Nelsons and the CBSO perform Ravel at Symphony Hall on June 7 (including L'Heure Espagnole) 7.30pm, and June 15, 7.30pm. Details on 0121 780 3333.

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Maurice Ravel, above, who composed Bolero, famously performed to by Torvill and Dean
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:The Birmingham Post (England)
Geographic Code:4EUSP
Date:Jun 2, 2011
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