Ravel’s Alborada del gracioso (Morning Song of the Jester) started life as a piano piece, the fourth number in the composer’s Miroirs. The set straddles a divide in the composer’s biography between his years as an up-and-coming young Turk and those of his celebrity. In 1905, Ravel took his last shot at the Prix de Rome, a scholarship awarded by the French government to promising young artists. He had finished second in the 1901 competition and made it past the preliminary screening in 1902 and 1903, but in 1905 he failed to qualify. The uproar in the press and among leading figures in French arts and letters – Romain Rolland, who didn’t even like Ravel’s music, wrote to the director of the Academy of Fine Arts on the composer’s behalf – turned the composer into a cause célèbre.

Once the furor died down, Ravel was able to complete Miroirs, including the Alborada, which he wrote in 1905. He orchestrated the movement in 1918 and it premiered the following year in Paris. Pizzicato violins and harps give a hint of Spanish flavor, imitating the sound of a strummed guitar. Solo winds and strings foreshadow the seguidilla – a moderately fast Spanish dance traditionally accompanied by guitar – that functions as a framing device in the work. A long bassoon solo, marked “expressive like a recitative” by the composer, begins the jester’s awkward, but earnest, serenade, which is punctuated by rhythmic interjections from strings divided into 24 parts, harps, and percussion. Fragments of the seguidilla intrude from time to time, and it eventually returns to bring the work to a close.

- John Mangum is Vice President of Artistic Planning for the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra.