Program 30
"Ravel: The Composer as Pianist
and Conductor"

MUSIC: Ravel playing his Pavane pour une infante défunte [Pierian 0013, track 12] [under the following]

You are listening to a miracle. What else would you call it when the composer of this piano piece, Maurice Ravel, who died in 1937, comes back to life and plays his piece for you in full stereo sound in your living room, bedroom or automobile!

Hello, I’m Fred Flaxman, this is Compact Discoveries, and you are going to hear nothing but miracles for the next hour as we listen together to "Maurice Ravel: The Composer as Pianist and Conductor."

: fades out.

Fortunately for us, the lifetime of Maurice Ravel paralleled the birth of the phonograph and the earliest developments in the recording industry. And as further luck would have it, all the solo piano recordings he made playing his own compositions were made not on the early phonograph machines, but on uniquely coded piano rolls that accurately reproduce the dynamic of each note or chord as well as the pianist’s pedaling and note placement. When played back on a properly equipped piano, these rolls are capable of reproducing every nuance of the performance. That’s why they are called reproducing piano rolls.

Ravel recorded some of his most famous pieces using this method: Valses nobles et sentimentales, his Sonatine, Miroirs, and Pavane pour une Infante défunte. These are now available on a single Pierian compact disc. First let’s hear the opening selection on this CD, Ravel’s Valses nobles et sentimentales, which was written in 1911. He recorded it in Paris two years later, in 1913.

This sequence of eight waltzes was written originally for piano. In 1912 Ravel orchestrated them to form the score of a ballet.

The title, Valses nobles et sentimentales, was inspired by the Valses nobles and Valses sentimentales by Franz Schubert. The first performance of the piano version was given on May 9, 1911, in Paris. At this concert the names of the composers were withheld from the audience, who were invited to guess who the composers were. When the Valses were played, there were cries of protest from the audience, perhaps because of their nontraditional harmonies. Some people attributed the work to Satie or Kodaly. A slim majority was able to identify Ravel.

MUSIC: Ravel plays his Valses nobles et sentimentales [Pierian 0013, tracks 1-7] [13:29]

Valses nobles et sentimentales by Maurice Ravel as performed by the composer and recorded on a reproducing piano roll in 1913, two years after it was written. This turns out to have been an excellent device for recording the piano at a time when phonograph recordings were new, short, of poor sound quality, and highly subject to scratches and pops. It makes it possible for us today to hear Maurice Ravel play his own work in high quality, stereo sound.

Next we’ll listen to Maurice Ravel performing his Sonatine for piano, which was written between 1903 and 1905. This reproducing piano roll was made in Paris in 1913. Ravel recorded the first and second movements only, so that is all you’ll hear right now. We like to perform miracles for you, such as bringing Ravel’s playing to you in high fidelity stereo sound, but we still haven’t figured out how to bring you a recording he never made!

MUSIC: Ravel: Sonatine [Pierian 0013, tracks 8 and 9 ] [6:22]

Maurice Ravel played the first two movements of his Sonatine, as recorded on a reproducing piano roll in Paris in 1913. No one knows for sure why he didn’t record the third movement. He did perform the entire work on his 1928 U.S. tour.

Next, Maurice Ravel performs "Oiseaux tristes" ("Unhappy Birds" — but it sounds better in French) and "La Vallée des cloches" ("Valley of the Bells") from his piano suite, Miroirs, written in 1904 and 5, and recorded in London in 1922 and 1928.

MUSIC: Ravel: Miroirs [Pierian 0013, tracks 10 and 11] [10:07]

Maurice Ravel performed "Oiseaux tristes" and "La Vallée des cloches" from his piano suite, Miroirs. The sound is as clear as it is on this compact disc because Ravel originally recorded these pieces on a reproducing piano roll rather than a phonograph record.

Let’s listen to another cut from this almost miraculous CD now: composer Maurice Ravel performing perhaps his second most famous piece after Boléro, the Pavane pour une infante défunte. It was written in 1899 and recorded on a reproducing piano roll by Ravel in London in 1922.

This piece was dedicated to the Princesse de Polignac. She was the former Winnaretta Singer, who inherited the large fortune that her father had made from sewing machines. Ravel was a regular at her salon while he was a student, and later.

The Pavane was orchestrated by Ravel in 1910, and first performed at a Promenade concert in London in the summer of 1911.

In choosing his title, Ravel was more influenced by the alliteration of the sound of the words than by any historical Spanish princess. Ravel cautioned conductors and pianists against overly dramatizing the piece. "It isn’t a funeral of an infant who just died," Ravel wrote, "but an evocation of a pavane that would have been danced by such a little princess at the court of Spain."

The work was immensely popular with the public from the start, but much disparaged by other musicians and critics.

One thing that makes Ravel’s recording of his own piece different than that of other pianists is that he didn’t stick to the published notes. For example, he splits several chords into their individual, rapidly played notes, making them into arpeggios, while that is not indicated in the score. This illustrates his free, Romantic approach to piano playing.

MUSIC: Ravel: Pavane pour une infante défunte [Pierian 0013, track 12] [5:45]

The original piano version of Pavane pour une Infante défunte as recorded by the composer, Maurice Ravel, on a reproducing piano roll in 1922.

The final selection on our Compact Discoveries program is also the final selection on the "Maurice Ravel: The Composer as Pianist and Conductor" compact disc that I am featuring this hour. It is Ravel’s most famous piece. It may well be the most frequently played and recorded orchestral composition of the 20th century. I’m referring to Ravel’s Boléro.

This piece has brought in millions of dollars of royalties over the years and is still under copyright protection. But exactly who is benefiting from all this money is far from clear. Ravel never married and had no children. He left his estate to his brother Edouard. But in 1954 Edouard and his wife were in a horrendous car accident. In need of constant help, the couple hired Jeanne Taverne, a 48-year-old nurse, and her husband, who acted as their chauffeur. When Edouard’s wife died two years later, the Tavernes moved in… and never left.

In 1957, Edouard Ravel made a rare trip to Paris for the 20th anniversary of his brother’s death. He announced his intention of turning over 80 percent of the composer’s rights to the city of Paris, with the idea of endowing a Nobel Prize for music.

But once back home, according to an article on this subject in the British newspaper, the Guardian, he changed his mind and Jeanne Taverne became his sole inheritor. The story goes on and on and becomes more and more complicated. In the end, the descendants of Maurice Ravel’s brother’s nurse may still have their hands on some of this vast fortune, though there is no way to know for sure. On the other hand, it looks almost certain, the Guardian article says, that the former legal eagle at the French music rights association, hiding behind a string of paper companies, has enriched himself by around 1.5 million pounds per year for the past 30 years.

Most of that money is the result of this one piece of music, written originally on a commission for a ballet, to be called Fandango. Ravel’s intention was to orchestrate some pieces from Iberia by Albéniz, but as he was beginning work on it, he discovered that the rights to the music were already assigned to another composer. Ravel was initially at a loss for how to fulfill his commission. However, on vacation he developed a Spanish-sounding theme which had about it "quelque chose d'insistant," as he put it (something insistant).

, as the work was renamed, lasts approximately 16 minutes with the composer conducting, and repeats each of the theme's two parts nine times in the same key, using different orchestrations to vary the texture and to create a gradual crescendo. Ravel wanted the work played at a steady and unvarying tempo — as his own recording demonstrates.

Incidentally, he didn‚t see this piece as being sexy or sensual. In fact, what he had in mind was quite the opposite: the constant, uniform rhythm of… factory machinery! Not very romantic! No wonder he never married!

Here, then, are the final minutes of Boléro as recorded by the Lamoureux Orchestra in Paris in 1930, conducted by the composer, Maurice Ravel, and restored by Karl F. Miller for the Pierian Recording Society compact disc.

MUSIC: Ravel: Boléro excerpt with Maurice Ravel conducting the Lamoureux Orchestra [Pierian 0013, track 13]

This is Fred Flaxman thanking you for listening to Compact Discoveries. I welcome your comments on this program or the Compact Discoveries series in general. You can contact me via the Compact Discoveries web site, or by mail in care of this station.

Compact Discoveries is distributed by PRX, the Public Radio Exchange, where you can stream these programs on demand at

: up, then out at 57:45

ANNOUNCER [Steve Jencks]: This program was made possible in part by the National Endowment for the Arts -- a great nation deserves great art -- and by the PRX Reversioning Project. The Public Radio Exchange is at

  ©2009 Compact Discoveries