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MAURICE RAVEL (1875-1937)

Cinq mélodies populaires grecques

March 29, 2015 – Matthew Polenzani, tenor; Ken Noda, piano

Early in 1904 French musicologist and philologist Pierre Aubry was preparing a lecture on Greek and Armenian folklore entitled “Songs of the Oppressed,” and he asked Greek-born fellow musicologist and critic Michel-Dimitri Calvocoressi to provide some examples from Greece. Singer Louise Thomasset agreed to perform them on short notice, but only with piano accompaniment, so Calvocoressi enlisted the help of his longtime friend Ravel. They selected five folk songs—four out of Pericles Matsa’s Chansons (Constantinople, 1883) and the fifth, “Les cueilleuses de lentisques,” from a Hubert Pernot collection entitled Chansons populaires de l’le de Chio. Ravel came up with the accompaniments in only thirty-six hours—his first foray into folk settings—and the lecture-demonstration duly took place on February 20 at the Sorbonne.

The following year Ravel decided that three of the songs were “too brief,” so he arranged three others from the Pernot collection, which together with two of the originals,  “Quel galant” and “Chanson des cueilleuses,” now make up his Cinq mélodies populaires grecques. On April 28, 1906, Calvocoressi presented a recital on popular Greek song, on which Marguerite Babaïan gave the first performance of the set in its new configuration. These songs were the first of Ravel’s piece to be accepted by prestigious music publisher Durand, who wished to be granted first option on all of his subsequent works. Ravel left his stamp on these accompaniments with their chromatic inflections and reinterpretations of modes, but without destroying their original flavor.

“Chanson de la mariée” (Song of the bride) is a lively wake-up call for a bride on her wedding day. Ravel accentuates the modal tune (Phrygian) with his chromatic harmonies, and uses rapid-fire repeated notes to generate excitement. “Là-bas, vers l’église” (There by the church) takes up the same mode, but in gentle, serious reflection on those buried in the cemetery, replete with softly chiming “bells.” “Quel galant m’est comparable” (What gallant compares with me?) begins in a boastful proclamation, takes up a dancelike strut, then indulges in a moment of tenderness, before a brief return to the dance. In “Chanson des cueilleuses de lentisques” (Song of the Lentisk Gatherers) Ravel keeps his setting simple, with floating harmonies and occasional spun-out elebortion for the voice alone. “Tout gai” (All Gay!) cavorts happily in the major mode with no chromatic inflections. Ravel’s alternating-hand patterns provide lively interest to the ebullient “Tra-la-las.”

© Jane Vial Jaffe

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