Introduction and Allegro
December 18, 2016: Emmanuel Ceysson, harp; Érik Gratton, flute; Inn-hyuck Cho, clarinet; David Chan, concertmaster; Catherine Ro, violin; Dov Scheindlin, viola; Jerry Grossman, cello
At the turn of the twentieth century, two harp manufacturers waged a private little war. The firm of Pleyel had commissioned a work from Debussy (Danses sacrée et profane, 1904) to further sales of the newly invented chromatic harp. The Érard piano company, which supplied the Paris Conservatoire with harps and pianos, countered by requesting a work from Maurice Ravel to be written for the customary double-action harp. The resulting Introduction and Allegro was dedicated to M. A. Blondel, the director of the Érard company.
Ravel received the commission in 1905 just days before he was to set sail on an extended vacation to Belgium, Holland, and Germany on the Aimée, Alfred and Misia Edwards’s yacht. One of the composer’s letters describes “a week of continuous work and three sleepless nights,” trying to complete the score before the sailing date. Ravel intended to polish his score during the cruise, and hence had it with him on a quick detour to a chemisier for shirts he had ordered for the journey. He then dashed to the harbor only to find that the yacht had sailed without him; to worsen matters, he had left his score at the clothing shop. On his way to Soissons to catch up with the Aimée, Ravel returned to the chemisier who turned out to be an amateur musician. The manuscript was returned to the composer only after much persuasion, and Ravel subsequently met his party at Soissons.
The work received its first performance on February 22, 1907, in Paris by the Cercle Musical, a group devoted to chamber music. Though the title page bears the wording “pour Harpe avec accompagnement de Quatuor à cordes, Flute et Clarinette,” other editors indicate “partition d’orchestre” and Ravel himself often conducted the work with a small string orchestra.
The slow Introduction presents material to be used in the Allegro, alternating with themes of its own, in a series of colors and textures that show Ravel’s mastery of orchestration. Double-tonguing and tremolo figures in the winds with arpeggios in the strings create an unusually rich sonority. Passages in which the first violin takes on the lowest notes of the string choir provide unusual sonorities; similarly the harp often supplies bass notes that one might expect from the accompaniment.
The Allegro can be thought of as an exposition, development, and recapitulation. Ravel’s search for interesting instrumental combinations continues throughout. The harp cadenza, just before the recapitulation, effectively recalls themes from the Introduction. A brilliant coda polishes off this tour de force for the harp.
The clear winner in the little harp war was the double-action harp, which is still commonly used today. The chromatic harp failed: in order to finger chords the strings had to be positioned so close together that they would cause unwanted vibrations against one another in any loud passages.
© Jane Vial Jaffe