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Substantial works by Ravel which YOU probably haven't heard! ;-)

I'm referring of course to the Cantatas which Ravel wrote as entries in the French Prix de Rome, an annual competition in the arts which had a storied history dating back to 1663 (in painting) and to 1803 in music composition. The winners in music included Berlioz (1830), Gounod (1839), Bizet (1857), and Debussy (1884), along with a host of composers whom no one has ever heard of these days. (Check Wikipedia if you want more details.) In addition, some musicians who eventually became more famous for their other musical activities (i.e., other than composition) also won during certain years, such as Paul Paray in 1911.

During the period 1900-1905, Ravel made no less than five attempts to win the darn first prize, the final time being a rather spectacular failure even to pass the elimination round - which caused a scandal in the French musical community, especially since Ravel had by this time already composed such works as the String Quartet, Menuet antique, Pavane, Jeux d'eau and Sheherazade. Despite Ravel's fame, these Prix de Rome Cantata entries weren't even published until (I think) the 1980's. According to Gerard Conde, the reasons for the jury's elimination of Ravel's preliminary round entries in 1905 included the use of parallel octaves and unresolved sevenths in the fugue he submitted. Conde also quotes an article by Jean Marnold in Le Mercure de France from June 1, 1905, which takes the conservative jury to task, with an especially venomous (Conde's word!) attack on Charles Lenepveu, six of whose students DID make it to the final round that year:
Lenepveu, whose works are the dread and the laughing stock of the musical public!
Marnold was just getting started, as he asked about Lenepveu's fellow-jurors Paladilhe and Dubois at the Académie des Beaux-Arts:
How did this trio of mules manage to sneak in its threefold and notorious inaptitude [sic] into that building in order to govern and make decisions according to the jealous caprice of their senility or their self-interest, with the help of old rogues and new careerists, and with the clueless complicity of the weak?. . . For the sake of our music's future, it is time to sweep away this clique of pedants, rogues and evil rascals.
And WE have dust ups here on AA? LOL!

BIS has just issued a 2-SACD set of all these Ravel attempts to win the Prix de Rome, and I was eager to hear what they sounded like. Gerard Conde, whom I referred to above, is the booklet note writer for this album, and his essay includes a wealth of information about the history and reception of these various works. It seems that Ravel came closest to winning first prize with his 1901 cantata, "Myrrha", a work which impressed both Massenet (who unsuccessfully lobbied to get it awarded a first prize, rather than the second prize it eventually received) and Saint-Saens, who declared "That fellow Ravel seems to me destined for a serious future!". The interesting thing is that "Myrrha" seems the most forward-looking and interesting of Ravel's Cantatas, even though it was the earliest composed.

With the subsequent Cantatas ("Alcyone" in 1902 and "Alyssa" in 1903), it almost seems as if Ravel might have been trying to "outguess" what the more conservative juries of those years would have wanted to hear. The style is very much "dialed back", with few of the stylistic fingerprints which we think of as typical of Ravel's music. In fact, if I had to guess who wrote these Ravel Cantatas without knowing that Ravel was the composer, I would say without hesitation, Massenet - and that even includes "Myrrha", the most interesting of them.

The performances, by the Orchestre National des Pays de la Loire, conducted by Pascal Rophe, seem very good, although the engineering is not quite top notch, with a slight congestion to the proceedings. The soloists are also fine, with the two best known singers (Veronique Gens and Sophie Koch) marking a step up from the others. The album also includes the choral works which were submitted in the elimination round of the competition

This is an album which will certainly expand your notion of what Ravel's music sounds like, and, in that sense, is worthwhile listening.

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Topic - Substantial works by Ravel which YOU probably haven't heard! ;-) - Chris from Lafayette 13:29:58 05/14/22 (5)


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