Thursday, October 6, 2016

Ravel - Tzigane For Violin And Luthéal

Music is an art that goes through stages and fads like any other art. Turkish or Janissary music was a fad that saw Mozart, Haydn and Beethoven among other composers write music in that style. In the style of is an important phrase, for these composers and others Westernized the traditional music of Janissary bands to make it more suitable for their audiences. They used the rhythms and (for the time) the exotic sounds of drums, bells, and cymbals.

Another fad that lasted even longer was Gypsy music, although this was most often referred to as Hungarian such as Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsodies and the Hungarian Dances of Brahms. This too was in the style of Gypsy music, and didn't necessarily mean that authentic gypsy melodies were used. The Roma people tend to adapt the native music while also adding their own unique textures and rhythms to the mix. This mixture of cultures and styles is what came to be known as Hungarian music in the Romantic era. It wasn't until the research of musicians and ethnomusicologists such as Béla Bartók and Zoltán Kodály that the differences between Hungarian music and Gypsy (Roma) music were delineated.

Maurice Ravel was in the vanguard of modern composers of his generation, most often lumped into the category of Impressionist. But he explored different styles as well, and Tzigane has him looking back to the virtuosic violin works of Romanticism for inspiration. It was composed in 1924, and was originally for violin and luthéal. The luthéal was an attachment for grand piano that added a mechanism that could be lowered on the strings that would give the approximate sounds of a harp, harpsichord or cimbalom (a hammered dulcimer used in Gypsy music). The luthéal was invented by a Belgian organ builder in 1919, and Ravel wrote Tzigane for the instrument and used it in one of his operas.  The attachment proved to be unreliable and sensitive. It required constant adjustment and soon disappeared. The original score of Ravel's composition lists the instrument as well as the stops to be used, but the piece was usually played on the piano with out it. There was an original luthéal found rusting away in the museum of the Brussels Conservatory that was restored. There has also been a copy made.

Roughly half of the length of the work is a violin solo that uses virtuiosic techniques to create a sound world of a master Gypsy violinist. When the piano with luthéal enters, it does sound like a cimbalom, but with possibilites that the cimbalom doesn't have.  The title of the work itslef is a European term meaning Gypsy, but as other composers, Ravel writes in the style of Gypsy music and uses no gypsy themes.

Ravel orchestrated the work shortly after he wrote it, and it is most often heard in that version. The chamber version for violin and piano are heard, but the rarity of the luthéal makes a performance of Ravel's original as rare as the attachemnt itself. The video included below is a recording of the original version including the luthéal attachment.

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