The country of Spain has always been a significant influence upon the musical life of the French. Debussy, Bizet, and Chabrier are just a few of the French who paid tribute to Spain in their own music. Maurice Ravel was born in Ciboure, France which is near the Atlantic Ocean in the southwest part of the country. It was an area populated by Swiss as well as Basque families. Since Ravel’s mother was Basque, he learned much about the music of the area when his mother would sing folk songs to him as a child. The influence was a profound one, and it is not surprising that he would turn to the passionate spirit of the Spanish for inspiration. The Rapsodie espagnole was one of Ravel's earliest full-scale compositions for orchestra. The pieces were at first sketched in a version for 2 pianos in the summer of 1907. The orchestration was completed in February 1908, and the first performance, under the direction of Eduard Colonne, took place in March of that year. The work was dedicated to Charles Wilfrid de Bériot. He was Ravel's piano teacher at the Conservatoire from 1891 to 1895, and he was the son of the famous violin virtuoso Charles Auguste de Beriot.
The four-movement work begins with a prelude to the night. The mystery of the evening is conveyed by an ostinato of four notes that plays throughout the movement and returns in some fashion in the other three sections. The mood created is much like the atmosphere found in the 1897 Henri Rousseau painting, The Sleeping Gypsy, which seems the perfect visual counterpart to Ravel’s music. The second movement is a Malagueña, a type of fandango danced in Malaga, Spain. Thirdly is an Habanera,, which was imported to France in Bizet’s opera Carmen This is the second Habanera written by Ravel and it is virtually identical to the first he wrote for two pianos after leaving the Paris Conservatory in 1895. The final movement is a lively Feria an energetic festival complete with castanets and tambourines.
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