About this Piece
This exquisite work, in effect a miniature harp concerto, replete with mini-cadenza, was commissioned in 1905 by the Parisian publisher and instrument-maker Maison Erard to promote their new model of pedal-harp.
Erard, who early in the 19th century had patented a forerunner (favored by Rossini and Donizetti in their operas) of the chromatic harp in general use today, was responding to the challenge of their crosstown piano-making rivals, Pleyel et Cie., who had recently branched out and introduced their own harp, without pedal, by commissioning that other French master, Claude Debussy, to create for it a musical promo, his Danses sacrée et profane.
Ravel has justifiably acquired the reputation of being a cool perfectionist, not given to breaking out in sweats, whose muse not only inspired but kept time (in both the musical and horological senses) for him. In this instance, however, the composer felt the heat: from Erard, to deliver the piece by mid-August, and from an invitation to join a cruise party. Set to depart at the same time, it was hosted by Alfred Edwards, the English publisher of the influential (and pro-Ravel) Paris daily Le Matin, and his wife, Ravel’s lifelong friend, Misia Godebska—confidant of Mallarmé, a model for Renoir and, later in life, the wife of Spanish painter José-Maria Sert, doyenne of one of the legendary Paris salons of the 1920s. Ravel would dedicate his La Valse to her.
Business, diplomacy, friendship, and the sacred demands of art were in conflict, but Ravel met all his obligations. Erard was satisfied after, in the composer’s words, “a week of concentrated work and three sleepless nights” and the cruise (of the inland waterways of Holland, Belgium, and Germany) proved to be a pleasant experience, according to what we can glean from Ravel’s characteristically unexpansive account.
For reasons as yet unexplained—the body of Ravel biography in print remains appallingly slim—the Introduction and Allegro was not performed until nearly a year after its publication in 1906. It may have had something to do with the Erard vs. Pleyel battle of the harps turning out to be a dud: Pleyel’s instrument, the excellence of the Debussy score notwithstanding, didn’t meet with the approval of its intended client, the Paris Conservatoire, where Erard had for a century had a foothold.
Ravel’s piece made its debut in February of 1907, when it was presented by Le Cercle Musical, an exclusive chamber society, not (again, curiously) in Erard’s own auditorium, but in the salle of the French Photographic Society. The program also included Ravel’s String Quartet and his recently completed song cycle Histoires naturelles.
In its rhythmic subtleties and languid sensuality, the Introduction and Allegro strongly recalls the Shéhérazade songs of 1903, the composer’s greatest success up to that time. Thus, it bridges the lavish, curvaceous earlier style, with its whiffs of César Franck—derived from the example of Gabriel Fauré, Ravel’s principal teacher and as meticulous a craftsman as his pupil—and the more spare textures and angularity of such forthcoming works as the Rapsodie espagnole and L’Heure espagnole.
The entire piece is built on the theme in thirds stated at the outset by flute and clarinet, followed quickly by two additional themes, the second also announced by the winds and a third by the cello. The harp embellishes each briefly before taking centerstage in the Allegro, commencing a series of brief, harmonically dazzling exchanges with the other ensemble members. —Herbert Glass