Reflections on Ravel
It was through Frank Sinatra's music that I got the first inkling of Ravel's enormous influence on 20th century music. Sinatra's arranger Nelson Riddle, the one who arranged almost every big Sinatra tune you know and something of a quiet genius - anyway, he said that he always turned to Ravel for ideas about orchestration and harmony. I found that surprising and delightful. For example, Riddle said he based the famous instrumental crescendo in Sinatra's "I've Got You Under My Skin" on the long, tantalising crescendo in Boléro with its gradual addition of instruments.
It rubbed off on Frank. On an episode of the Tonight Show in 1976 when Johnny Carson asked Sinatra: "What music do you listen to?", the reply was "Daphnis and Chloe" which is a ballet by..... Ravel.
This set me wondering who else had fallen under Ravel's spell. The list is impressive. It turns out that George Gershwin admired Ravel greatly. He visited Paris in the mid-1920s and begged Ravel for lessons. To his credit Ravel declined because he was afraid he would ruin Gershwin's unique gift. The story goes that Ravel asked Gershwin how much he earned and upon hearing the reply (basically, a lot!) said "In that case, maybe you should teach me!"
Ravel also influenced musicians as diverse Holst, Vaughan Williams, John Williams, Quincy Jones - and he inspired most of the all-time great jazz pianists from Art Tatum to Herbie Hancock.
Why should this be? I wonder if maybe because his way of expressing a mood or evoking an image is strikingly original. Look at this superb live, outdoor recording of Alborada del Gracioso ("the morning song of the jester") in which Ravel creates unmistakable Spanish dance and guitar-strumming sound effects at the piano. It is witty, rhythmic, tense, exciting, slightly self-mocking and calls for pretty decent piano technique - repeated notes at light speed and glissandi up and down the keys with the back of your fingers.
Ravel's masterpiece Ondine is again astonishingly original and in some respects a kind of new technology of piano playing. I think it is at the pinnacle of piano composition and stands as one of the greatest achievements in writing for the piano. Come to the 25 September concert in Radlett to learn about it and hear it!
Alborada del Gracioso
played live by Jean-Yves Thibaudet