MAURICE RAVEL: Tzigane, rapsodie de concert

Joseph Maurice Ravel was born in Ciboure near Saint-Jean-de-Luz, Basses-Pyrénées, in the Basque region of France just a short distance from the Spanish border, on March 7, l875, and died in Paris on December 28, 1937. He composed his Tzigane for violin and piano for the Hungarian violinist Jelly d’Arányi. Later, he orchestrated the accompaniment for two flutes (second doubling piccolo), two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoons, two horns, trumpet, percussion (suspended cymbal, triangle, and glockenspiel), harp, celesta, and strings.

At the beginning of the first act finale of Emmerich Kálmán’s wonderful 1924 operetta Countess Maritza, the hero, who seems to have lost all possibility of gaining the countess’s love, cries out, “Komm, Zigan! Spiel mir was vor!” (Come, gypsies! Play something for me!). And, sure enough, a band of gypsy musicians obligingly appears to launch into one of the show’s hit tunes, guaranteed to drive away the hero’s despair.

If we could credit the make-believe world of Kálmán’s operetta, Hungary was filled with gypsies of rare musical talent, who could always be counted on for a sweetly rhythmic melody, tinged with sadness at first, but then turning fiery in a brilliant burst of decoration and energy, so that the listener could not but forget his cares.

Strictly speaking, there is no international style of gypsy music. However, in the nineteenth century the musical activity of the Roma in Hungary led everyone to equate “Hungarian music” with “gypsy music,” an idea that was spread across the musical world by the Hungarian rhapsodies of Franz Liszt, then taken up by Brahms and other “serious” composers before becoming part and parcel of the operetta from Johann Strauss II (The Gypsy Baron) to Lehár and Kálmán.

So “gypsy music” was widespread and popular as a kind of accessible exoticism. And when a composer, such as Ravel, created music of the greatest flash and brilliance for a virtuoso of the highest caliber or a superstar performer, such as Pablo de Sarasate, and wanted to write a piece to show off his technique, it cannot be a surprise that they chose to write at least once in a style that favored such virtuosity from the outset, with a constant tendency to ramp up the speed and elaborate the melodies.

Maurice Ravel wrote Tzigane in 1924 for the Hungarian violinist Jelly d’Arányi, who was a grandniece of Joseph Joachim and one of the leading violinists of her day (Bartók had already composed his two sonatas for violin and piano for her a few years earlier). No doubt because of the soloist’s background, Ravel decided to write a work à la Hongroise. The dedicatee was presented with the score only days before the first performance, but she made such a hit with it that Ravel later provided an orchestral version. —© Steven Ledbetter