Length: c. 23 minutes
Orchestration: piccolo, flute, oboe, English horn, E-flat clarinet, clarinet, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, trumpet, trombone, tuba, timpani, percussion (bass drum, cymbals, snare drum, slapstick, tam-tam, triangle, and wood block), harp, strings, and solo piano
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: April 6, 1933, Artur Rodziński conducting, with Gunnar Johansen, soloist
About this Piece
Maurice Ravel spent November 1927 through April 1928 on tour as pianist and conductor in North America at the invitation of Elie Robert Schmitz, the Parisian-American founder of the Franco-American musical society Pro Musica. Ravel wrote numerous letters home to friends and family, including his brother, Édouard, and the critic and composer Roland-Manuel, about the awe-striking vistas, hectic pace, and incredible jazz he found in the U.S. As Ravel was known to infuse his work with the flavors of exotic places he’d visited (or even those he just imagined: He wrote such Iberian-inspired works as Boléro and L’heure espagnole years before ever setting foot in Spain), it was only a matter of time before the sound of American music would wend its way into his music. The Piano Concerto in G, as well as the Concerto for the Left Hand, was begun in 1929 and completed in 1931, the first of a number of works to reflect the fast-moving, turbulent life Ravel encountered in North America.
The first movement starts with the crack of a whip—it’s frolicking, bright, heavy on percussion and syncopated strings, setting the stage for a performance that Ravel stated should “dispense with drama and depth.” In typical Ravel fashion, winds are treated as solo instruments throughout the concerto. The piccolo introduces a jaunty pastoral tune. Eventually solo piano introduces a slower, more lyrical contrasting theme. The prominence of clarinet and trumpet, in addition to the blue notes, betrays the influence of jazz. The piano expands the orchestra’s jazz motifs with punctuation from the winds. After a short return to a mood similar to the opening, harp and percussion introduce a slower, fantasia-like section, a lyrical melody that the rest of the orchestra repeatedly interrupts with jazz “isms.” An intricate piano cadenza ends on quiet trills, and the strings lead the orchestra from a jazzy lush episode to a brief reprise of the first theme and a rollicking conclusion.
The second movement begins with a lengthy piano solo. The theme is nostalgic and bittersweet, yet perfectly at ease. It is heard first in the woodwinds, then in the strings, with piano now playing the role of accompanist. An English horn solo—a simple, heartfelt aria—emerges from the orchestra. The tune passes through the orchestra, ultimately landing in the hands of strings and piano, which briefly restate the first theme and fade to silence.
A virtuosic display for both piano and orchestra, the finale is a race between the two. It begins with a fanfare-like brass introduction, then piano bursts through the gates on the first theme, a perpetuum mobile underpinning of outbursts from the winds.
Horns and trumpets present a second theme resembling hunting horn calls, which quickly dissolves to a short piano development, with strings as accompaniment. A huge duo between piano and bassoons precedes a rapid succession of motivic fragments. Blue notes recall the first movement in a final rush to the end. —Meg Ryan