This weekend, the MSO plays the music of Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel. If an all-French program sounds familiar to you, it was the same idea behind our Carnegie Hall performance last May. That concert featured three generations of French composers – Debussy, Messiaen, and Qigang Chen. But I have to say it feels odd to treat this weekend’s program like an all-French program since the two major orchestral works are both inspired by Spain.
The term “impressionism” is often used when speaking about the music of Debussy and Ravel. I try to avoid it knowing that the composers themselves disliked it. However, in the case of our program, I think the term fits quite nicely. Rather than directly approaching a subject, impressionistic music merely suggests a certain place or culture. Ibéria by Debussy and Rapsodie Espagnole by Ravel bring to mind Spanish music, but both are far from being any musicological statement.
Debussy is perhaps the more guilty of the two for giving his work such cultural flair. Debussy never set foot in Spain longer than a day and conjured up his “impression” of a country largely in his imagination. Yet his success at depicting this landscape is remarkable and was praised by the great Spanish composer Manuel de Falla of all people! De Falla wrote that listening to the work brought back visions of Spanish villages in the countryside. That’s quite some praise coming the composer of the most famous Spanish orchestral work: The Three-Cornered Hat! As you’ll hear in Ibéria and Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun, Debussy’s music has a way of transporting us to some exotic realm and even if it is not always an accurate picture, we still feel like we’ve been on a journey somewhere. As De Falla wrote, “our imagination is continually kept awake and dazzled by the power of an intensely expressive and richly varied music.”
For Rapsodie Espagnol, Ravel could draw on more than his imagination. His mother was Basque and Spanish was spoken and sung during his childhood, even when his family moved to Paris. Throughout his compositional output, Ravel stayed close to his Spanish background and he admitted to often including Spanish flavored rhythms in many of his other works. But like Debussy, Ravel’s Rapsodie intends to be solely an impression. For instance, don’t expect the movement titled “Habanera” to sound anything like the famous aria from Bizet’s Carmen. Instead we get a murmuring of lilting rhythms and those graceful, seductive melodies tease us as they fade in and out.
This isn’t the kind of concert that will make you feel like you are in Spain – but it might convince you that you left some memories there…