Miroirs is a five-movement suite was written by Maurice Ravel (1875-1937) between 1904-1905. Each movement is dedicated to a fellow member of the Les Apaches. Les Apaches translates to “hooligans”, as the French musicians, writers, and artists that made up the group thought themselves as artistic outcasts. Ricardo Viñes, a close friend of Ravel and one of the groups members, premiered the work in 1906.
The work is firmly in the impressionistic repertoire, written about the same time as the Sonatine, and predating Gaspard de la Nuit by a couple of years. Miroirs foreshadows some of the musical ideas seen in Gaspard de la Nuit, with its accompaniment patterns, upper extension harmonies in which the 9th, 11th, and even 13rd is voiced in the melody, and its layering of sounds, such as in La vallée des cloches. The third and fourth movements of the suite were later orchestrated by Ravel, while the fifth movement was orchestrated by Percy Grainger, among many others.
This movement translates roughly to “Night Moths” and is dedicated to the poet Léon-Paul Fargue. In Db major, it has many flighty passages that seem to vanish in thin air, so as to depict a moth quickly disappearing into the night. The overall form is ABA, and as is typical of Ravel, his voicing of chords using non-triadic degrees of the chord saturate both fast and slow sections of this piece. Below is a progression that provides an example of this. An Eb dominant-seventh chord in which the b9 and b13 scale degrees are voiced at the top moves down to a Db dominant-seventh (parallel motion) which voices out the #11. This chord than resolves to a Gb major, with the downbeat featuring a chordal appoggiatura voicing out the 6th and 9th of the chord. There is then a fluttering motive where the moth would be vanishing:
Another characteristic feature of Ravel made use of in Noctuelles is his use of technically difficult accompaniment patterns with a very simple melody. However, the melody passes between the hands very often while the accompaniment is happening, making it very difficult to play and distinguish the melody, let alone to phrase it well. Below is an example of the difficult right hand accompanimental figures he uses in the piece, and one can see in the second bar of the figure, the melody starts on an F in the left hand, drops to C before moving to Db in the right hand. The right hand keeps this melody until the fifth bar of the figure, where it moves back to the left hand (Db):
Ravel also makes use of several different meters in this piece, using time signatures of 2/4, 3/4, 5/4, 3/8, 5/8 etc.
Dedicated to Ricardo Viñes, the pianist who premiered many of Ravel’s works, including this one, which translates roughly (and perhapes lamely) to “sad birds.” One can start to see strong comparisons between Miroirs and Gaspard de la Nuit in this movement, as the beginning has a motive almost exactly the same as Le Gibet. Even the key and opening harmony are the same: Eb minor. See these below the opening to Oiseaux tristes:
Notice the motive in the second bar, probably an imitation of a bird call. This motive reappears throughout the piece over different harmonies. See now the opening to Le gibet:
Ravel gives this piece a very somber quality with harmonic language, as the end of the piece features (as with Noctuelles) a parallel progression from Eb to Db. This time however, ravel voices the major seventh over a minor chord, ending with the bell-tolling motive:
Une barque sur l’océan
This piece, dedicated to the painter Paul Sordes translates to “boat on the ocean.” Ravel orchestrated this movement shortly after its premiere in 1906. It contains violent depictions of ocean water similar to that of Ondine from Gaspard de la Nuit. Impressions of water are very common in Ravel (who also composed Jeux d’eau), and his style of writing is perfect for these impressions. Even in other pieces he used rapid, wavy accompaniment figures underneath simple, pristine melodies. This is evident in this movement, as the whole first page has a total of nine melodic notes, while the number of notes in the accompaniment is too great to bother counting:
In the key of F# major, Ravel again voices out the non-triadic degrees of chords, using the ninth degree quite often. As in the first two movements, Ravel again uses parallel motion down a whole step. One of these examples goes from E minor to D minor (close to the Eb to Db motion seen in the first two movements) and voices out the ninths:
It is interesting to compare the most violent “wave-like” patterns in both this piece as well as Ondine, because the effect of a crashing wave is attained in different waves. The figure below is from Une barque sur l’océan. See how Ravel uses great rises in dynamics as well as left hand register, while maintaining constant 32nd notes (in the right hand perhaps faster) before attaining a fortississimo at the top of the keyboard and then crashing down:
Compare that excerpt with the climax of Ondine, seen below. Both hands begin the “crash of the wave” at the extremes of their respective register, converging on each other while gradually diminishing in volume:
Alborada del gracioso
This piece translates roughly to “Dance of the morning jester”, and is perhaps the most technically challenging of the set. It is dedicated to the music writer and critic Michel-Dimitri Calvocoressi. Ravel also orchestrated this movement, but not until 1918, twelve years after the premiere and his orchestration of Une barque sur l’océan.
Alborada del gracioso mirrors Scarbo from Gaspard de la Nuit in certain ways; perhaps the two are not as close as the previously explored comparisons, but there are some technical challenge that arise in both movements. One of these is repeated notes. Alborada del gracioso features triplet-sixteenth repeated notes, which are often unplayable on certain pianos with heavier actions if the performer wants to play at the marked tempo of 92 to the dotted-quarter.
There is also an accompaniment pattern that foreshadows Scarbo. It makes use of octaves on the same pitch in both hands, rising up the register on the keyboard. Here is an excerpt from Alborada del gracioso with this pattern:
Compare that excerpt with the figure below, from Scarbo, notice how the triple meter is also consistent:
Though there are similarities, Alborada del gracioso stands on its own in several ways. There is a section with double-glissandi in the right hand. Again the action of the keyboard is very important, as attempting these glissandi on a heavy action can cause injury to the skin of the fingers:
La vallée des cloches
This last movement is dedicated to the French composer and pianist, Maurice Delage. This piece was not orchestrated by Ravel, but many other prominent musicians have taken up the opportunity to do so, perhaps most notably, Percy Grainger. The piece translates to “valley of the bells.” To portray this, Ravel uses multiple layering sounds, attempting to imitate different bells. The figure below has five different motives, all intended to be a different bell, therein creating a different layer of sound. The right hand plays the sixteenth-note repeating pattern, which may be the continuous chiming of the smaller bells. The left hand has a deep bass gong-like bell, a louder struck chime on E#, and two other bells:
The piece also has a chordal section which is reminiscent of the ending progression of his Sonatine, in its literal progression, as well as the previous movements, in its parallel descent downward a whole step. The movement ends with the deep gong sounds dying away.
Publishers of Ravel’s music include:
- Henle Verlag
Notable performers with recordings of this piece include:
- Walter Gieseking
- Sviatoslav Richter
Captain Thaddius’ Hot Take:
This is a suite that the Captain played in his doctoral days. It gave him a great deal of trouble but the challenge was worth it. Ravel’s music speaks to very many people if it is played well. To achieve this, the accompanimental figures need to be done without tension and with ease, so as to allow for concentration in shaping a melody. A poor performance of this will feature a melody that is merely played louder than the accompaniment, but only this ease with the accompaniment will allow for phrasing in the melody. I would only recommending choosing one or two for advanced students, and would not assign this to an intermediate. The repeated notes, double-glissandi, varying subdivisions of beats (often in both hands simultaneously), and non-negotiable need for excellent voicing of chords make this out of reach to most pianists.