Ravel: Tzigane

performed by Itzhak Perlman and the New York Philharmonic under Zubin Mehta


or in its original piano-accompaniment version, with Midori Goto as soloist, a must-watch:

I left today’s earlier work for later in the week for a few reasons. For one, my original idea was to present an earlier sonata and later concerto, with the idea that the concerto is a more complete, more full-blown virtuosic work, even if some performers might argue that the sonata is actually the more exhausting with the naked focus directly on the performer, without an orchestra to rely on.

The other reason was that it suited the contrast in my head. We talked in Tuesday’s post about how spectacularly well Ravel was able to infuse the jazz and blues idiom into the second movement (and even third, sort of) of his violin sonata. It’s a ‘language’ that was not in the composer’s blood, but he heard jazz and blues in Parisian clubs and lounges and was enamored with the style.

In contrast, today’s work is a very different but equally effective, and perhaps far more thoroughly-executed idiom, that of gypsy music. But in what fashion? Wikipedia says of the title of the piece:

The name of the piece is derived from the generic European term for “gypsy” (in French: gitan, tsigane or tzigane rather than the Hungarian cigány) although it does not use any authentic Gypsy melodies.

It also states clearly that this term isn’t specifically referring to any single ethnic group, or to any specific actual folk tunes, but rather to the idea of exoticism, in much the way Mozart wrote ‘Turkish’ music, called so because it included a snare and bass drum or whatever.

One could argue, though, that the Frenchman with Basque blood has this spirit in his veins (much more than that of the blues, obviously), and what he produces here is a fantastically virtuosic, rich, fireworks-expressive showpiece for violin. It was originally written with piano accompaniment, in April of 1924, and dedicated to the great-niece of legendary violinist Joseph Joachim. Later that year it was scored for orchestra and performed for the first time in this version by Pierre Monteux and the Concertgebouw Orchestra with Samuel Dushkin as soloist.

I think it unnecessary to state that I know this isn’t a concerto. There were a handful (to say the least) of other composers who brought us quartets and both sonatas and concertos for the violin, and they were all under consideration, but I like Ravel, and it’s been a while since he’s made an appearance. So… in order to keep from having two violin-and-piano works this week, as well as to program a concertante-type thing, we have the Tzigane.

(Pretend you’re around a campfire in some foreign destination, visiting friends who’ve taken you out to the wilderness to enjoy dinner and storytelling around a bonfire or something. Someone’s old uncle or other family member is there; he’s master of ceremonies that evening, and begins to tell an old folk tale… maybe a love story.)

Whether it’s piano or orchestral accompaniment, they don’t appear for some time. The opening of the score is marked quasi cadenza, and the dramatics and expression of the opening line seems very much like a cadenza you’d hear in a full-fledged concerto, with dramatic pauses, stop-and-go antics, and an overall extremely rich, full-bodied violin sound. At rehearsal mark 2, the opening figure repeats, and we have a section of the same melody, with double stops at the octave, followed by trills, harmonics, and more exciting fireworks. This, overall, is kind of the first section of the piece, and it’s maybe more like a third than a half that the accompaniment enters. I do very much enjoy Ravel’s piano writing for the accompaniment; it has a shimmering, dramatic flare that isn’t there in the orchestra. The effect with the orchestra isn’t bad, just different.

Tables turn as the violin accompanies the accompanist for a bit before a new theme appears. We’re in 2/4 now, by the way, and it’s a dotted-quarter/eighth note pulse that marks the beginning of some really hair-raising writing for the violin. Watch the video with Midori above and/or take a gander at the score if you can read it. At rehearsal mark 7, there are tons of empty diamond shapes. String players (and I guess most other musicians) know those are harmonics. For strings, they’re made by doing fancy physics things with the string (shortening it by a certain amount) on the fingerboard and then lightly touching it at another point, to produce a note sounding higher than the actual fingering, and with glassy, ethereal, almost heavenly, but sometimes shrill qualities. This happens on and off at frightening speed with much of the rest of the quartet. In Perlman’s version, if you’re not used to hearing it, you might think it was a flute or a piccolo singing crystal-clear in the high register, but no, it’s the violinist weaving this technique in and out of sixteenth-note runs.

As I’m sure you see, this piece is somewhat of a departure from what you might be used to hearing from Ravel, and we’ll talk about that momentarily, but it’s another reason I wanted to feature this work more prominently than in the sonata.

After the harmonics comes more exciting technique, super fast pizzicato. All of these virtuosic techniques then reappear in various forms, the double stops, harmonics, and pizzicato passages as the work cranks up to an even higher level of energy. At rehearsal mark 25 (are these the same on all scores?) there’s a three-bar piano introduction before the violinist enters with straight-up sixteenth notes that take us almost to the very end of the piece. It starts at vivo, then accelerando poco a poco, then a few lines down at sempre accelerando, finally reaching full on presto until three final stomp-like pizzicato chords to end the piece.

Truthfully, there’s no need for a play-by-play here. While I wanted to feature the violin-and-orchestra version, there’s something viscerally virtuosic about watching someone play the piece with the intimacy of only piano accompaniment. You can’t watch it and not get it. It’s inherently expressive, mesmerizing, musical, and passionate. That’s the word. Passion. While in the other Ravel posts this week, I used words like sensual seductive, and others, because his music really is, the word here is passion. And that, essentially, is what sets this work apart from Ravel’s other works.

The composer was foremost a pianist, but he was also a master orchestrator, in complete, stunning command of orchestral sound and texture. No matter how much he may or may not have liked it, he was labelled an impressionist, someone who evoked colors, scenes, emotions, entire worlds with his music, but as Wikipedia references, this work is pure virtuosity of the Romantic era. It’s in a very distinct idiom, but not one that is supposed to evoke some French poem or an underwater scene or a gallows in the desert, just a purely musical expression in a very specific style, and what a success it is.

I’m fascinated by Ravel’s writing for the piano; he was a pianist. I do not play the violin, but it seems from this work that the composer had an intimate knowledge of that instrument as well, not only from the standpoint of what was (maybe only barely) possible, but also what sounded good, what characteristics were flattering to the instrument and how to put it to expressive use in a very specific way to play the role Ravel had cast it for. I’d argue that his ‘gypsy music’ was far more convincing a role for the violin than the jazz-inspired violin sonata, which is the primary reason I’ve left it for last this week. Also interesting to think about is that for me personally, the violin’s role in the sonata (especially in the second movement), with the exception of some double stops and things, could easily be swapped out and written for clarinet just as effectively. I think. But this work is the violin. It couldn’t be anything else.

While the bonfire storytelling image might be a bit cliché, it’s not far off from the kind of folksy, wild, passionate exciting expression I feel this piece evokes. Tzigane is a fiery, engaging, jaw-dropping piece that I would think could not be misunderstood. Watch either of the performances above (Perlman’s sound-only) and enjoy another tidbit of Ravel’s mastery.

We’re done with him for now, and will be moving on to our next featured composer in our focus on violin, so stay tuned for who that might be.

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