Ravel's Pianoforte Technique

download Ravel's Pianoforte Technique

of 5


Ravel's Pianoforte Technique

Transcript of Ravel's Pianoforte Technique

  • Ravel's Pianoforte TechniqueAuthor(s): Henri Gil-Marchex and Fred RothwellSource: The Musical Times, Vol. 67, No. 1006 (Dec. 1, 1926), pp. 1087-1090Published by: Musical Times Publications Ltd.Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/912607Accessed: 26/07/2010 21:17

    Your use of the JSTOR archive indicates your acceptance of JSTOR's Terms and Conditions of Use, available athttp://www.jstor.org/page/info/about/policies/terms.jsp. JSTOR's Terms and Conditions of Use provides, in part, that unlessyou have obtained prior permission, you may not download an entire issue of a journal or multiple copies of articles, and youmay use content in the JSTOR archive only for your personal, non-commercial use.

    Please contact the publisher regarding any further use of this work. Publisher contact information may be obtained athttp://www.jstor.org/action/showPublisher?publisherCode=mtpl.

    Each copy of any part of a JSTOR transmission must contain the same copyright notice that appears on the screen or printedpage of such transmission.

    JSTOR is a not-for-profit service that helps scholars, researchers, and students discover, use, and build upon a wide range ofcontent in a trusted digital archive. We use information technology and tools to increase productivity and facilitate new formsof scholarship. For more information about JSTOR, please contact [email protected].

    Musical Times Publications Ltd. is collaborating with JSTOR to digitize, preserve and extend access to TheMusical Times.




    It was in 1902 that Demets, a far-sighted publisher, brought out 'Jeux d'eau.' This work proved to be the beginning of a new pianoforte technique which was destined to restore to virtuosity all the clat it had lost and to revivify many ingenious combinations which had become only monotonous. The austere and despotic influence of C6sar Franck and of B'rahms-as embarrassing in the domain of chamber music as was the influence of Wagner in that of theatrical music-had practically done away with all subtle refinement in musical composition. One was content to utilise Mendelssohn's adroit processes, though these were already outworn, or Beethoven's m1aladresses, which did not always bear the stamp of genius. Any skill of a somewhat audacious order seemed put out of court, and all invention was an object of suspicion. One had to continue in servile fashion to put up with the old methods, and the pianoforte itself was no more than an almost useless instrument, on the down grade, which composers mainly used as the best substitute they could find for the orchestra. The marvellous discoveries of Liszt and Chopin were either neglected or despised. Music had become a means of philosophising, and the pianoforte had ceased to. be the instrument of secret avowals, the interpreter of the most intimate sensations.

    With that delightful symbolical line of Henri de R6gnier, 'Dieu fluvial riant de l'eau qui le chatouille,' as exergue, 'Jeux d'eau' made its appearance.

    Debussy was quite the first to perceive the coming of a new pianistic orchestration; he saw a whole universe of sound to be explored, far removed from the burlesque musical digressions or the so-called 'salon' morceaux-occasionally charming, and then greatly in the fashion--of Grieg and Massenet : modest works which have endured longer than lucubrations with more pompous claims.

    Adapting his subtle genius to the discoveries of Ravel, Debussy immediately turned them to good account, as we see in the case of the three 'Estampes,' composed in 1903. We need but compare them

    with the Suite 'Pour le piano,' written two years previously-a charming work, assuredly, though quite conventional in style-to have a proof of the influence of 'Jeux d'eau.'

    In 'Pagodes,' the first of the 'Estampes,' the theme is given by the left hand in octaves, against a delicate counter-theme played by the right hand, whilst the pedal, kept long pressed down, creates a delightful harmonic atmosphere, drowning all the notes which nevertheless do not blend into one another, by reason of the registers in which they are placed:

    Ex. I. - -

    P --t

    ,-c .

    I -

    ? -


    -L -


    In order to express daintily the theme in octaves, it should be played by slightly pressing the keys with a very pronounced movement of the forearm from below upwards, keeping the wrist extremely supple, thus causing the hand to leave the keyboard with a gesture somewhat resembling the graceful attitude of a harpist striking a harp string. Is not this method a direct outcome of the following passage from 'Jeux d'eau'?:

    amazing A natural, also in - Jeux d'eau':



    In botll instances, the technical means to be used are the same. And that glissando culminating in an amazing A natural, also in 'Jeux d'eau'"

    8va.......... .......................

    Ex, 3. ff

    long. - : 8ve.



    There is the same striking effect in ' Jardins sous la pluie':

    Ex. 4.m-- , ---. j.- ml, j

    r-4-- ----

    _-!Ti__"ll .. .

    ~I4 ! I ! I

    . . -



    5 i zi f.-

    r'etenu 4O

    1 .4 ' ' I' I r3 ! yi A ~

    l-tr .r_-

    - - -L-_ .

    -- "4

    ., . -

    _ _

    The technique of 'Jeux d'eau' came direct from Liszt, but the necessity for a clearness and evenness of tone as precise as on the clavecin, the balance of skilful pedalling, which should inevitably vary with each instrument and combine with the constant variety of attack, the absence of any vehement or sentimental laisser-aller--all this, along with many another peculiarity, demands of the performer a very different preparation from that which was used in solving the pianistic problems of romantic music. It is rather with the clavecinists, and particularly Scarlatti, that Ravel may be compared as regards fingering; for subtlety of touch, the Chopin of the 'Etudes' and the 'Preludes' is an excellent guide; the mode of phrasing frequently resembles that of Chabrier.

    Had he wished, Ravel, like Saint-Sains, could have been a very fine virtuoso, but he contented himself- for he never practised-with being a tolerably efficient pianist whose hands are perhaps 'the tyrants of musical creation,' as Weber wrote with reference to himself. He takes an amazingly low seat at the keyboard, a peculiarity which is perhaps one of the reasons why he never utilises octave strokes ; his long, agile fingers and slender hand attached to an extremely supple wrist seem to be those of a sleight- of-hand conjurer; his thumb comes back to the palm of the hand with incredible facility, which enables him easily to strike several notes together. It is this thumb which explains the seconds in 'Scarbo':


    ............................ ...... .

    ....... 5x. 9-3 Jfoj 2-3 X -nI

    ' ,Ii



    "I - --I i-_._ i1ii

    I __

    .__.. __






    It is impossible to overcome this difficulty other- 'vise than by this fingering, aided by a violent balancing of the hand: a new habit for pianists to adopt. Articulation is useless, the play of the fingers upon the keys being subordinated to the movement of the wrist which controls the oscillation of the first and second fingers, forming a compact mass and moving in a piece, as does the thumb.

    Another passage, a few bars earlier, seems to present a difficulty of the same kind:

    - -I 2- 1-1 2-: "


    Ex. 6. . .

    ii i ii I ii







    Here, however, the wrist simply facilitates the activity of the fingers which have the chief part to play and must attack the notes with very clear articulation, though more or less emphasised according as they have to reach .black keys or white ones. The inconvenience created at the outset by these seconds is not easy to overcome, and the endless


    exercises written to explain how to play double notes are scarcely of the slightest use.

    Another instance of a thumb effect, absolutely different in character, may be seen in the sixth of the 'Valses nobles et sentimentales':

    Ex 7.

    - ----


    I PP ___:I .---

    I Zl 4

    o-4 --"

    _ .!. C udez Zn


    -- . - .----------

    t,-s troux el unz fieu lan;i/ssant

    Here again the wrist is the principal factor ; the thumb, if it is to be expressive, glides from the bottom of the black key to the edge of the white one ; to aid this movement, the hand must be continuously rotating.

    Extremely rapid thumb passings are very frequent, and are often combined with repeated notes, in a way that bears a striking resemblance to that of Scarlatti. This may be seen in all Ravel's works as well as in the latest 'Tzigane,' where, although the pianoforte plays only the part of' accompaniment, the composer insisted on writing the fingering himself :

    1 4 3 2 1

    Ex. 8. 2 . 5A -2

    v.., ....


    i I ;.

    I .. -

    -F - -

    This feature, while being an imitation of the Hungarian cembalo, is nevertheless extremely Ravelian in its technique, and it is interesting to note how it is connected with the following extract from the Finale of the 'Sonatine':

    Ex 9. 1_3_1

    .23 2

    To conclude the special thumb gymnastics, I mention also the dainty arpeggios, placed outside the bars, which they must not slow down ; this we have seen in the ' Pavane pour une Infante D6funte,' and again in 'Une Barque sur l'Oc6an,' but more particularly in ' Ondine': C

    Ex. Io.


    Ped. '- - -



    7_ Y+F---- This kind of very light arpeggio gives the

    impression of a glissando, and compels the-articula- tion of fingers and wrist to be reduced to a minimum. Still, the clearness of the performance should be as pronounced as for a brilliant arpeggio; it calls for exactness in moving the hand somewhat as on a string instrument when the position is changed; a pedal vibrato ensures an airy and vaporous sound effect.

    As a rule, the pedal is not difficult to manage, but as it frequently happens that it has to remain pressed down for a lengthy period, considerable variety of attack is necessary if the various harmonies are not to be confused. The pianist must have at his disposal a 'sound palette' whose colours it is impossible to enumerate, so different are they, and so unlike anything hitherto supplied by pianoforte music. The keys should be struck or gently stroked now right at the edge, now in the middle, now almost against the keyboard cover, with a well- thought-out manipulation of the different weights of fingers, hand, forearm, and entire arm.

    Sometimes it is the finger alone that has to play very loud'y, sometimes the entire arm is needed to obtain the requisite quality of fianissimo.

    Each interpretei, according to his physical powers, will create for himself a whole system of varied sounds, the rules and regulations of which will doubtless one day be standardised in some hand- book or other.

    I have calculated that in the ' Gibet ' it is necessary to use twenty-seven different methods of touch. It would take too long to demonstrate them here.

    I should like, however, to point again to the combined movements for both hands in producing certain effects; as, for instance, in the sparkling peroration of the 'Toccata' in the 'Tombeau de Couperin ':

    Ex.iz. h i-, .i- 1


    Ex. 1 .-0 =I--C " I. =I

    - - -(r-

    TL?? Fl


    necessitating independence in the arms-a technique which has to be acquired, even after having worked up Liszt's 'Etudes transcendantes.' The same


    difficulty-for pianissimo-is found in 'Ondine,' though here it calls for articulation of the wrist alone because of the nuance:

    Ex. -2. A PP

    -p -MR

    Thus Ravel made it possible for the pianoforte to play in music an important r6le which, ever since the time of Liszt, it seemed to have lost. I have pointed out no more than a few technical curiosities characteristic of his manner ; a volume might be filled with exercises to meet the new difficulties of this pianistic style. Fortunately Ravel's composition is always admirably clear, each sign having its own exact importance. The magical formulae are ready prepared, with almost meticulous precision; the player has but to read the text scrupulously and no doubt is possible as to the pianistic interpretation. On the other hand, the poetical interpretation is extremely subtle; the effort of imagination needed to express the thought of Ravel goes far beyond the powers of an ordinary player. In the music of Chopin, Schumann, or Beethoven, feelings are encountered in the rough; whether we are dealing with love or hate, tenderness or anger, the interpreter may make them his own by utilising his powers of sensibility in every way and without the least shame. Ravel's music does not permit of a like sans-gibe, his genius being most punctiliously sensitive. His is an art of extra- ordinarily voluptuous refinement, though one which simulates an almost disconcerting impassiveness

    amid the keenness of the sensations the composer evokes in all their complexity.

    This is music which must be played with the heart, though also with a clear intellect: the latter controlling the possible unruliness of the former. To enter into and assimilate the thought of a composer, in order to pass it on with ever new fervour to an audience that is irregularly attentive and variously impressionable, is, in the case of 'Les Miroirs' and 'Gaspard de la Nuit,' a very delicate task to fulfil worthily. It is a delightful game-full of pleasing surprises-to try to make one's own the thought of Ravel: one can never get altogether lost, for the text is too precise; and yet this music, clear as it is, will not mean the same thing to every one; it will always be coloured by the various susceptibilities of different performers.

    This universality of character is the sign of its importance, and pianists should be grateful to the author of 'Jeux d'eau' for having so frequently chosen their own particular instrument to reveal somnewhat of the impenetrable mystery which each man bears within himself.

    (Autihorised translation by Fred Rothwell.)

    (lusic in the jforeigtn SIIres THE MUSICAL LORE OF THE EAST

    The first issue of Muzykalnaya Etnograkhia, published at Leningrad under the editorship of Prof. Findeisen, contains twenty-five Kirghiz folk-tunes collected by A. Bimboes, songs from the Kostroma district, collected by L. Karunovskaya, an article on musical theory in contemporary Persia by E. Bertels, and an essay on the Jewish tympanon and its music by the Editor. It is to be hoped that this highly instructive publication will continue. Judging by the reports and programmes which it contains, the commission for the study of folk-music, under whose auspices it is issued, is very active at present.


    In the Zeitsc/kriftfiir Musikwissensch/aft (October), Peter Wagner investigates the origin of part-singing :

    In the 7th-century Ordo Romanus mention is made of the ' Paraphonistae' and the ' Archiparaphonista,' who sang not at the 'antiphonic' interval of the octave, but at the 'paxraphonic' intervals of the fourth or fifth. Hence it is obvious that Roman 'paraphony' preceded the Organum or diaphony by at least two centuries.

    In the same issue, Friedrich Gennrich devotes a long and instructive essay to the relation between the Trouvbre songs and the earliest known examples of Motets. This is to be continued in the November issue.


    The October Musica d Oggi reminds us of certain criticisms of Beethoven recently quoted by Karl Grunsky :

    Kreutzer, the violinist to whom Beethoven had inscribed a Sonata, urged Habeneck to cease pro- pagating Beethoven's 'barbaric filth.' Spohr said that the opening theme of the fifth Symphony lacked the dignity which should characterise the main theme of a symphony, and that the noisy Finale was unsatis- factory. The Leipsic Allgemeine Musikalische Zeitung described the 'Eroica' as teeming with harsh and bizarre effects. Johann Spazier (said to have been an esteemed composer and an influential critic and editor of musical journals) considered the second Symphony as monstrous and repulsive.

    Article Contentsp. 1087p. 1088p. 1089p. 1090

    Issue Table of ContentsThe Musical Times, Vol. 67, No. 1006 (Dec. 1, 1926), pp. 1073-1136+1-4+1-4Gustav Holst: Notes for a Biography (I) [pp. 1073-1075]Some Notes on 'My Ladye Nevells Booke' [pp. 1075-1076]Music with Tears [pp. 1076-1078]Wireless and the Concert-Goer [pp. 1078-1080]Theoretical Teaching: Some Suggestions for Reform [pp. 1080-1081]Ad Libitum [pp. 1081-1082]Dr. Blow's Church Music and Its Deformities (Concluded) [pp. 1083-1085]Points from Lectures [pp. 1085-1086]Ravel's Pianoforte Technique [pp. 1087-1090]Music in the Foreign Press [pp. 1090-1091]A Neglected Opera: Gluck's 'Alceste' [pp. 1091-1094]Permanent British Opera in London [pp. 1094-1095]Review: New Music [pp. 1095-1098]The Musician's BookshelfReview: untitled [pp. 1098-1099]Review: untitled [p. 1099]Review: untitled [pp. 1099-1100]Review: untitled [p. 1100]Books Received [p. 1100]

    Sacred MusicA Lullaby Carol [pp. 1101-1108]

    Occasional Notes [p. 1109]Review: Player-Piano Notes [p. 1110]Review: Gramophone Notes [pp. 1110-1112]Church and Organ Music. Royal College of Organists [pp. 1112-1113]Liverpool Cathedral. Specification of the 'Willis' Organ [pp. 1114-1116]Letters to the Editor'Pedantry in Examinations [pp. 1116-1117]Music and Tears [p. 1117]A Pianophone [p. 1117]Colour Music [p. 1117]'Inexpensive' and Other Counterfeits [p. 1117]Disingenuous Journalism [pp. 1117-1118]A Correction [p. 1118]Standard Pitch [p. 1118]

    The Amateurs' Exchange [p. 1118]Sharps and Flats [p. 1118]Society of Women Musicians [p. 1118]Visit of a Famous Czech Choir: The Prague Teachers [pp. 1118-1119]The Bristol Opera Season [p. 1119]Eastbourne Musical Festival [pp. 1119-1120]The New Buildings at the Royal Academy of Music [pp. 1120-1121]Royal Academy of Music [p. 1121]Royal College of Music [p. 1121]Trinity College of Music [p. 1122]London Concerts [pp. 1122-1126]Competition Festival Record [p. 1126]Music in the Provinces [pp. 1126-1128]Music in Scotland [pp. 1128-1129]Music in Wales [p. 1129]Music in Ireland [p. 1130]Musical Notes from Abroad [pp. 1130-1133]Francis Koeller: An Appreciation [pp. 1133-1134]Obituary: Robert Newman [p. 1134]Obituary: Horton Allison [p. 1134]Obituary: Frank Kidson [p. 1134]Obituary: Henry Martin Dowson [p. 1134]Miscellaneous [p. 1135]Answers to Correspondents [p. 1135]Extra Supplement: The Christ-Child [pp. 1-4]Extra Supplement: While Shepherds Watched [pp. 1-4]Back Matter [p. 1136-1136]