I had heard the title of this work, but I had never actually heard it performed until the other night. I became entranced. The name of the piece in English is “Pavanne for a dead princess”. “Infante” is the French equivalent of the the Spanish word “infanta” who was a child of the rulers of Spain or Portugal. The Pavane pour une infante defunte was written as a piano piece for Princesse Edmond de Polignac, whose father was Isaac Singer, the famous sewing machine manufacturer. Ravel was at pains to point out that, despite the title, the piece is not a funeral lament but ‘rather an evocation of the pavane that might have been danced by such a little princess as painted by Velazquez.’
Here is the same piece played by four very famous pianists, each one of them very different. The last recording by Richter is live, and, unfortunately, it sounds as if were being recorded in a hospital; there is a lot of sneezing and coughing. Try to listen through the noise.
In each of these pianists’ interpretations, you will will different colorings and tempi. Especially, with Cherkassky, you will hear a lot of rubato. See which one you like best.
Born: November 5, 1895 – Lyons, France
Died: October 26, 1956 – London, England
The celebrated French-German pianist, Walter (Wilhelm) Gieseking, was largely self-taught as a pianist. He was born in France, and travelled with his family (his father was a distinguished doctor and entomologist) in France and Italy until he enrolled at the Hannover Conservatory, where he came under the tutelage of Karl Leimer, graduating in 1916.
In 1912 (or 1915) Walter Gieseking made his debut in Hannover. He was drafted into the German army in 1916, but escaped combat by performing in his regimental band. After the War, he undertook the life of a working musician, accompanying singers and instrumentalists, playing in chamber music ensembles, and working as an opera coach. He could hardly avoid the heady artistic atmosphere of post-war Germany, and he became an advocate of new music, playing works by Arnold Schoenberg, Ferruccio Busoni, Paul Hindemith, K. Szymanowski, and H. Pfitzner, whose Piano Concerto he premiered under Fritz Busch in 1923. From 1921 he made tours of Europe. In 1923 he made his British debut in London, his American debut at Aeolian Hall in New York in February 1926, and his debut in Paris in 1928. His debuts were highly acclaimed, with audiences and critics responding enthusiastically to Gieseking’s subtle shadings and contrapuntal clarity. After that he appeared regularly in the USA and Europe with orchestras and in solo recitals.
During the hostilities of World War II, Walter Gieseking, like many other artists, remained in Germany, and also performed sometimes in Nazi-occupied France. After the War he became the centre of political controversy when he arrived in the USA in 1949 for a concert tour; he was accused of cultural collaboration with the Nazi regime, and public protests forced the cancellation of his scheduled performances at Carnegie Hall in New York. However, he was later cleared by an Allied court in Germany and was able to resume his career in America, with the success it had formerly enjoyed. He appeared again at a Carnegie Hall recital in April 1953, and until his death continued to give numerous performances in both hemispheres.
To this activity Walter Gieseking added a heavy schedule of recording, committing to disc the complete solo piano music of Mozart and the L.v. Beethoven concertos, as well as complete sets of Debussy’s and Ravel’s piano works. At the time of his death in London, Gieseking was engaged on a project to record all the L.v. Beethoven piano sonatas. He recorded L.v. Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No 15 for HMV, had completed the first three movements and, the following day, was due to record the fourth. Sadly, he died during the night. HMV released the unfinished recording. His recordings of Debussy and Ravel are regarded as benchmarks for every subsequent performer. His recordings of Debussy’s Préludes, done in 1953 and 1955, have been re-released by EMI Classics in their “Great Recordings of the Century” collection. He was also a fine Bach interpreter and left an impressive legacy of Bach recordings (many of them from live German broadcasts).
Walter Gieseking was one of the most extraordinary pianists of his time. He is said to have been a natural and intuitive pianist. According to legend, he never practised except in his own mind. He apparently would study the score, imagine playing it, and then perform it flawlessly. His habit of spending hours in total silence as he pored over scores is said to have frustrated his wife greatly. A superb musician capable of profound interpretations of both Classical and modern scores, his dual German-French background enabled him to project with the utmost authenticity the masterpieces of both cultures. He particularly excelled in the music of Mozart, L.v. Beethoven, Schubert, and Johannes Brahms. It was with the repertoire of French masters that he became most famous. The impressionistic piano writing of C. Debussy and M. Ravel required the most sensitive touch and attention to colour and nuance, and Gieseking’s finger acuity, imaginative pedalling, and above all, preternaturally alert ear made him an ideal interpreter of this music. Nevertheless, his own repertoire ranged widely across eras and national boundaries. He was also an excellent performer of more modern works by the likes of S. Prokofiev, F. Busoni, P. Hindemith, A. Schoenberg, and the lesser-known Italian Goffredo Petrassi. He composed some chamber music and made piano transcriptions of songs by Richard Strauss. His autobiography, So Wurde ich Pianist, was published posth. in Wiesbaden (1963).
Born: May 18, 1924 – Frankfurt am Main, Germany
Died: October 22, 1970 – Paris, France
The admired French pianist, Samson Pascal François, was born in Frankfurt where his father worked at the French consulate. His mother, Rose, named him Samson, for strength, and Pascal, for spirit. François discovered the piano early – at the age of two – and his first studies were in Italy, with Mascagni, who encouraged him to give his first concert at the age of 6, in which he played a W.A. Mozart concerto under Mascagni. Moving from country to country with his itinerant family, he studied in Belgrade with Cyril Licar, obtaining a first prize in performance. Licar also introduced him to the works of Béla Bartók. Having studied in the Conservatoire in Nice from 1932 to 1935, where he again won first prize, François came to the attention of Alfred Cortot, who encouraged him to move to Paris and study with Yvonne Lefébure at the l’École Normale de Musique, the school Cortot co-founded with Auguste Mangeot. He also studied piano with Alfred Cortot (who reportedly found him almost impossible to teach), and harmony with Nadia Boulanger. In 1938, he moved to the Paris Conservatoire to study with Marguerite Long, the doyenne of French teachers of the age. In 1940 he won premier prix at this Conservatoire.
In 1943, having reached the age of 20, Samson François won the Long-Thibaud Competition and thereafter embarked on a career of international scale once World War II ended. During the war, Jacques Thibaud brought François to the attention of Walter Legge, the English recording producer turned wartime concert organiser; François was soon flown to England for an extended tour of factories and camps. From 1945 he toured regularly in Europe, and in 1947 he made his first appearances in the USA. He subsequently played all over the globe, including Communist China in 1964. Concentrating on the Romantic piano literature, and especially the French repertoire, he was acclaimed for his performances of Franz Liszt, Robert Schumann, and Frédéric Chopin, as well as Gabriel Fauré, Debussy, and Ravel. His Prokofiev, too, was impressive. French critics and audiences were especially receptive to his virtuosic approach. François found an appreciative audience in London as well, and enjoyed a largely positive reputation there during his mature years. His extravagant lifestyle, good looks, and passionate but highly disciplined playing, gave him a cult status as a pianist. Though, his passion for night life and his reckless behaviour (characterised by lavish drinking and drug use) resulted in a heart attack on the concert platform in 1968. His early death followed only two years later.
Born: October 7, 1909 – Odessa
Died: December 17, 1995 – London, England
The remarkable Russian-born American pianist, Shura (Alexander Isaakovich) Cherkassky, began piano training with his mother. While still a child, he was taken by his family to the USA, where he continued his studies with Josef Hofmann at the newly founded Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. After making his debut in Baltimore at the age of 11, he appeared as a soloist with Walter Damrosch and the New York Symphony Orchestra and performed at the White House in Washington, D.C. in 1923.
Shura Cherkassky made his first tour abroad in 1928 with visits to Australia and South Africa. Although he also made a few recordings during the 1920’s and 1930’s, his career did not really take off until after World War II. By that time, the pianists, like Hofmann, who had learned from the 19th century greats Liszt, Moszkowski, and others, were no longer around. Following a major tour of Europe in 1946, he moved to London. Cherkassky was acknowledged as the heir of that particular school of performance, and just as Franz Liszt and the others had had their own idiosyncrasies, he had his own individual style that seemed to give fresh meaning to everything he played. He toured almost continually around the world during his career, making some time nearly every year to take a holiday in Thailand. He made a successful debut in Russia in 1976 and returned for subsequent tours in 1977 and 1987. He gave many recitals at New York’s 92nd Street Y, which honoured him in 1986 with the establishment of the Shura Cherkassky Recital Award to be given annually to a gifted young pianist. On December 2, 1991, he celebrated his 80th year with a recital at New York’s Carnegie Hall in a program of works by Robert Schumann, Frédéric Chopin, Bach-Busoni, Tchaikovsky-Pabst, Josef Hofmann, and well-received encores.
As one of the last representatives of the hallowed Romantic school of piano virtuosity, Shura Cherkassky regaled audiences with a bravura technique and singing tone in the grand Russian manner. He combined Romantic sensitivity of touch with the power of a modern player, and he traveled easily between works by the Romantics and those by Charles Ives, Paul Hindemith, Pierre Boulez, and Ligeti. This blend of talents served him well, particularly in works such as Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition.
Born: March 20, 1915 – Zhitomir, Russia (in the territory of modern Ukraine)
Died: August 1, 1997 – Moscow, Russia
Sviatoslav Teofilovich Richter (Russian: Святосла́в Теофи́лович Ри́хтер) was a Soviet pianist of German extraction (German father). He was widely recognized as one of the greatest pianists of the 20th century, and is sometimes proposed as the greatest of all. He was well known for his vast repertoire, effortless technique and poetic phrasing.
Sviatoslav Richter was born in Zhitomir but grew up in Odessa. Unusually, he was largely self-taught although his organist father provided him with a basic education in music. Even at an early age, Richter was an excellent sight-reader, and regularly practiced with local opera and ballet companies. He developed a lifelong passion for opera, vocal and chamber music that found its full expression in the festival he established in Grange de Meslay, France. He started to work at the Odessa Conservatory where he accompanied the opera rehearsals. He gave his first recital in 1934 at the engineer club of Odessa but did not formally study piano until three years later, when he enrolled in the Moscow Conservatory, which waived the entrance exam for the young prodigy after it was clear he would not pass. He studied with Heinrich Neuhaus who also taught Emil Gilels, and who claimed Richter to be “the genius pupil, for whom he had been waiting all his life”. In 1940, while still a student, he gave the world premiere of the Sonata No. 6 by Sergei Prokofiev, a composer with whose works he was ever after associated. He also became known for skipping compulsory political lessons at the conservatory and being expelled twice during his first year. Richter remained a political outsider in the U.S.S.R. and never joined the Party.
Sviatoslav Richter met the soprano Nina Dorliak in 1945 when he accompanied her in a program that included songs by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov and Prokofiev. “This was the first meeting in an association that would last the rest of their lives. Richter and Dorliak were never officially married, but they were constant companions. She was the practical counterbalance to his impulsive nature. She would wind his watch for him, remind him of appointments, and manage his professional commitments” (Geffen 1999). In 1949 he won the Stalin Prize, which led to extensive concert tours in Russia, Eastern Europe and China.
The West first became aware of Sviatoslav Richter through recordings made in the 1950’s. He was not allowed to tour the USA until 1960, but when he did, he created a sensation, playing a series of sold-out concerts in Carnegie Hall. Touring, however, was not Richter’s forté. He preferred not to plan concerts years in advance, and in later years took to playing on very short notice in small, often darkened halls, sometimes with only a small lamp lighting his piano. He died in Moscow while studying for a concert series he was to give.
Sviatoslav Richter’s repertoire spanned the major works of the piano repertoire, although with many omissions (e.g., J.S. Bach’s Goldberg Variations (BWV 988), L.v. Beethoven’s Waldstein sonata and Fourth and Fifth Piano Concertos, Schubert’s A-major sonata D. 959). Among his noted recordings are works by Franz Schubert, L.v. Beethoven, J.S. Bach(whose Well-Tempered Clavier part II he is said to have learned by heart in one month), Frédéric Chopin, Franz Liszt, Sergei Prokofiev, Sergei Rachmaninov, Alexander Scriabin and many others. He was said to be the finest interpreter of the piano works of Robert Schumann. He gave the premiere of Prokofiev’s Sonata No. 7 (which he learned in just four days before staging a performance of the work), and Prokofiev dedicated his Sonata No. 9 to him. Apart from playing solo he also enjoyed playing chamber music with partners such as David Oistrakh, Benjamin Britten, and Mstislav Rostropovich. He had unusually large hands, capable of taking a twelfth.
Maurice Ravel was a 19th and early 20th century French composer of classical music. His best known works are Bolero and Daphnis et Chloé.
Maurice Ravel was born Joseph-Maurice Ravel on March 7, 1875, in Ciboure, France, to a Basque mother and Swiss father. In 1889, at the age of 14, Ravel began taking courses at the Paris Conservatoire, a prestigious music and dance school located in the capital of France, studying under Gabriel Fauré.
When he was seven, Ravel started piano lessons with Henry Ghys, a friend of Emmanuel Chabrier; five years later, in 1887, he began studying harmony, counterpoint and composition with Charles-René, a pupil of Léo Delibes.
In 1888, Ravel met the young pianist Ricardo Viñes, who became not only a lifelong friend, but also one of the foremost interpreters of his works, and an important link between Ravel and Spanish music. The two shared an appreciation of Wagner, Russian music, and the writings of Poe, Baudelaire, and Mallarmé. At the Exposition Universelle in Paris in 1889, Ravel was much struck by the new Russian works conducted by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov. This music had a lasting effect on both Ravel and his older contemporary Claude Debussy, as did the exotic sound of the Javanese gamelan, also heard during the Exposition.
Émile Decombes took over as Ravel’s piano teacher in 1889; in the same year Ravel gave his earliest public performance. Aged fourteen, he took part in a concert at the Salle Érard along with other pupils of Decombes, including Reynaldo Hahn and Alfred Cortot.
With the encouragement of his parents, Ravel applied for entry to France’s most important musical college, the Conservatoire de Paris. In November 1889, playing music by Chopin, he passed the examination for admission to the preparatory piano class run by Eugène Anthiome. Ravel won the first prize in the Conservatoire’s piano competition in 1891, but otherwise he did not stand out as a student.
Ravel was never so assiduous a student of the piano as his colleagues such as Viñes and Cortot were. It was plain that as a pianist he would never match them, and his overriding ambition was to be a composer. From this point he concentrated on composition. His works from the period include the songs “Un grand sommeil noir” and “D’Anne jouant de l’espinette” to words by Paul Verlaine and Clément Marot, and the piano pieces Menuet antique and Habanera (for four-hands), the latter eventually incorporated into the Rapsodie espagnole. At around this time, Joseph Ravel introduced his son to Erik Satie, who was earning a living as a café pianist. Ravel was one of the first musicians – Debussy was another – who recognised Satie’s originality and talent. Satie’s constant experiments in musical form were an inspiration to Ravel, who counted them “of inestimable value”.
In 1897, Ravel was readmitted to the Conservatoire, studying composition with Fauré, and taking private lessons in counterpoint with André Gedalge. Both these teachers, particularly Fauré, regarded him highly and were key influences on his development as a composer. As Ravel’s course progressed, Fauré reported “a distinct gain in maturity … engaging wealth of imagination”.
In 1899, Ravel composed his first piece to become widely known, though it made little impact initially: Pavane pour une infante défunte (“Pavane for a dead princess”). It was originally a solo piano work, commissioned by the Princesse de Polignac. In 1897 he conducted the first performance of the Shéhérazade overture, which had a mixed reception, with boos mingling with applause from the audience, and unflattering reviews from the critics. One described the piece as “a jolting debut: a clumsy plagiarism of the Russian School” and called Ravel a “mediocrely gifted debutant … who will perhaps become something if not someone in about ten years, if he works hard.” Another critic, Pierre Lalo, thought that Ravel showed talent, but was too indebted to Debussy and should instead emulate Beethoven. Over the succeeding decades Lalo became Ravel’s most implacable critic.
Les Apaches and Debussy
Around 1900, Ravel and a number of innovative young artists, poets, critics, and musicians joined together in an informal group; they came to be known as Les Apaches (“The Hooligans”), a name coined by Viñes to represent their status as “artistic outcasts”. They met regularly until the beginning of the First World War, and members stimulated one another with intellectual argument and performances of their works. The membership of the group was fluid, and at various times included Igor Stravinsky and Manuel de Falla as well as their French friends.
Among the enthusiasms of the Apaches was the music of Debussy. Ravel, twelve years his junior, had known Debussy slightly since the 1890s, and their friendship, though never close, continued for more than ten years. In 1902, André Messager conducted the premiere of Debussy’s opéra Pelléas et Mélisande at the Opéra-Comique. It divided musical opinion. Dubois unavailingly forbade Conservatoire students to attend, and the conductor’s friend and former teacher Camille Saint-Saëns was prominent among those who detested the piece. The Apaches were loud in their support. The first run of the opera consisted of fourteen performances: Ravel attended all of them.
Debussy was widely held to be an impressionist composer – a label he intensely disliked. Many music lovers began to apply the same term to Ravel, and the works of the two composers were frequently taken as part of a single genre. Ravel thought that Debussy was indeed an impressionist but that he himself was not.
The two composers ceased to be on friendly terms in the middle of the first decade of the 1900s, for musical and possibly personal reasons. Their admirers began to form factions, with adherents of one composer denigrating the other. Disputes arose about the chronology of the composers’ works and who influenced whom.
During the first years of the new century, Ravel made five attempts to win France’s most prestigious prize for young composers, the Prix de Rome, past winners of which included Berlioz, Gounod, Bizet, Massenet and Debussy. In 1900 Ravel was eliminated in the first round; in 1901 he won the second prize for the competition. In 1902 and 1903 he won nothing. In 1905 Ravel, by now thirty, competed for the last time, inadvertently causing a furor. He was eliminated in the first round, which even critics unsympathetic to his music, including Lalo, denounced as unjustifiable.
Ravel was not by inclination a teacher, but he gave lessons to a few young musicians he felt could benefit from them. Manuel Rosenthal was one, and records that Ravel was a very demanding teacher when he thought his pupil had talent. Like his own teacher, Fauré, he was concerned that his pupils should find their own individual voices and not be excessively influenced by established masters. He warned Rosenthal that it was impossible to learn from studying Debussy’s music: “Only Debussy could have written it and made it sound like only Debussy can sound.” When George Gershwin asked him for lessons in the 1920s, Ravel, after serious consideration, refused, on the grounds that they “would probably cause him to write bad Ravel and lose his great gift of melody and spontaneity”. The best known composer who studied with Ravel was probably Ralph Vaughan Williams, who was his pupil for three months in 1907–08. Vaughan Williams recalled that Ravel helped him escape from “the heavy contrapuntal Teutonic manner … Complexe mais pas compliqué was his motto.”
Ravel’s first concert outside France was in 1909. As the guest of the Vaughan Williamses, he visited London, where he played for the Société des Concerts Français, gaining favourable reviews and enhancing his growing international reputation.
1910 to First World War
The Société Nationale de Musique, founded in 1871 to promote the music of rising French composers, had been dominated since the mid-1880s by a conservative faction led by Vincent d’Indy. Ravel, together with several other former pupils of Fauré, set up a new, modernist organisation, the Société Musicale Indépendante, with Fauré as its president. The new society’s inaugural concert took place on April 20, 1910; the seven items on the programme included premieres of Fauré’s song cycle La chanson d’Ève, Debussy’s piano suite D’un cahier d’esquisses, Zoltán Kodály’s Six pièces pour piano, and the original piano duet version of Ravel’s Ma mère l’Oye. The performers included Fauré, Florent Schmitt, Ernest Bloch, Pierre Monteux and, in the Debussy work, Ravel. Kelly considers it a sign of Ravel’s new influence that the society featured Satie’s music in a concert in January 1911.
The first of Ravel’s two operas, the one-act comedy L’heure espagnole was premiered in 1911. The work had been completed in 1907, but the manager of the Opéra-Comique, Albert Carré, repeatedly deferred its presentation. He was concerned that its plot – a bedroom farce – would be badly received by the ultra-respectable mothers and daughters who were an important part of the Opéra-Comique’s audience. The piece was only modestly successful at its first production, and it was not until the 1920s that it became popular.
Daphnis et Chloé was commissioned in or about 1909 by the impresario Sergei Diaghilev for his company, the Ballets Russes. Ravel began work with Diaghilev’s choreographer, Michel Fokine, and designer, Léon Bakst. Fokine had a reputation for his modern approach to dance, with individual numbers replaced by continuous music. This appealed to Ravel, and after discussing the action in great detail with Fokine, Ravel began composing the music. There were frequent disagreements between the collaborators, and the premiere was under-rehearsed because of the late completion of the work. It had an unenthusiastic reception and was quickly withdrawn, although it was revived successfully a year later in Monte Carlo and London. The effort to complete the ballet took its toll on Ravel’s health.
Ravel composed little during 1913. He collaborated with Stravinsky on a performing version of Mussorgsky’s unfinished opera Khovanshchina, and his own works were the Trois poèmes de Mallarmé for soprano and chamber ensemble, and two short piano pieces, À la manière de Borodine and À la manière de Chabrier. In 1913, together with Debussy, Ravel was among the musicians present at the dress rehearsal of The Rite of Spring. Stravinsky later said that Ravel was the only person who immediately understood the music. Ravel predicted that the premiere of the Rite would be seen as an event of historic importance equal to that of Pelléas et Mélisande.
First World War
When Germany invaded France in 1914, Ravel tried to join the French Air Force. He considered his small stature and light weight ideal for an aviator, but was rejected because of his age and a minor heart complaint. After several unsuccessful attempts to enlist, Ravel finally joined the Thirteenth Artillery Regiment as a lorry driver in March 1915, when he was forty. Stravinsky expressed admiration for his friend’s courage: “at his age and with his name he could have had an easier place, or done nothing”. Some of Ravel’s duties put him in mortal danger, driving munitions at night under heavy German bombardment. At the same time his peace of mind was undermined by his mother’s failing health. His own health also deteriorated; he suffered from insomnia and digestive problems, underwent a bowel operation following amoebic dysentery in September 1916, and had frostbite in his feet the following winter.
Ravel’s mother died in January 1917, and he fell into a “horrible despair”, compounding the distress he felt at the suffering endured by the people of his country during the war. He composed few works in the war years. The Piano Trio was almost complete when the conflict began, and the most substantial of his wartime works is Le tombeau de Couperin, composed between 1914 and 1917. The suite celebrates the tradition of François Couperin, the 18th-century French composer; each movement is dedicated to a friend of Ravel’s who died in the war.
After the war, those close to Ravel recognised that he had lost much of his physical and mental stamina. His output, never large, became smaller. Nonetheless, after the death of Debussy in 1918, he was generally seen, in France and abroad, as the leading French composer of the era. Fauré wrote to him, “I am happier than you can imagine about the solid position which you occupy and which you have acquired so brilliantly and so rapidly. It is a source of joy and pride for your old professor.” Ravel was offered the Légion of Honour in 1920, and although he declined the decoration, he was viewed by the new generation of composers typified by Satie’s protégés Les Six as an establishment figure. Through the Société Musicale Indépendente, he was able to encourage them and composers from other countries. The Société presented concerts of recent works by American composers including Aaron Copland, Virgil Thomson and George Antheil and by Vaughan Williams and his English colleagues Arnold Bax and Cyril Scott.
The last composition Ravel completed in the 1920s, Boléro, became his most famous. He was commissioned to provide a score for Ida Rubinstein’s ballet company, and having been unable to secure the rights to orchestrate Albéniz’s Iberia, he decided on “an experiment in a very special and limited direction … a piece lasting seventeen minutes and consisting wholly of orchestral tissue without music.” Ravel continued that the work was “one long, very gradual crescendo. There are no contrasts, and there is practically no invention except the plan and the manner of the execution. The themes are altogether impersonal”. He was astonished, and not wholly pleased, that it became a mass success. When one elderly member of the audience at the Opéra shouted “Rubbish!” at the premiere, he remarked, “That old lady got the message!” The work was popularised by the conductor Arturo Toscanini, and has been recorded several hundred times. Ravel commented to Arthur Honegger, one of Les Six, “I’ve written only one masterpiece – Boléro. Unfortunately there’s no music in it.”
Ravel died on 28 December, at the age of 62.