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Composed: 1895; 1907-1908
Length: c. 15 minutes
Orchestration: 2 pianos

There is a chicken-and-the-egg aspect to Ravel’s Rapsodie espagnole: Which came first, the orchestral score or the version for two pianos? Rapsodie espagnole is usually introduced as the first work that Ravel composed specifically for orchestra (ignoring or excepting the “fairy overture” Shéhérazade that he wrote in 1898), with the immediate caveat that its third movement, the Habanera, is in fact an orchestration of a two-piano piece he had written in 1895. The first public performance of the complete work was in its orchestral guise (in March 1908), but the two-piano version seems to have been constructed simultaneously.

That is probably not surprising for a composer who was himself a fine pianist and worked out ideas at the keyboard. What is perhaps surprising is how much of the work’s renowned color, muted and glittering alike, is inherent in the notes themselves, without the brilliance of Ravel’s orchestration. Or it might be better said that the work is equally well-orchestrated for keyboard, since the piano version is replete with tolling and chiming bell effects and the illusion of castanets and guitars.

The opening Prélude à la nuit (Prelude to the Night) is haunted by an obsessively repeated motif of four descending notes, interrupted only by two briefly rustling cadenzas. The Malagueña emerges from it with quiet, rhythmically sharply defined energy, dancing to an explosive climax. Intimations of night return in a little recitative, with the harmonic and psychological jolt of the reappearance of the Prelude’s four-note motif.

The Habanera, of “a weary rhythm” but elusively syncopated, is picked up directly from its original keyboard incarnation. As such, it is the only movement that does not include reference to the introductory four-note obsession, but it is remarkably consistent with the newer music in terms of style and voice.

To conclude, Ravel offers a Feria (Fiesta) of dazzling compositional and pianistic virtuosity, almost as long as the other movements combined. It has another arresting recollection of the Prelude’s music at mid-point, and a less obvious one (transposed) to set up the final surge to Ravel’s thunderous conclusion.

— John Henken is Director of Publications for the Los Angeles Philharmonic Association.