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The Colorful Music of Maurice Ravel

How His "Piano Concerto for the Left Hand" Captures the Post-War Struggle for Hope

From his birth in 1875 till his death in 1937, Maurice Ravel encountered change wherever he looked. And for this composer, the era’s changes in musical composition were as significant as the changes brought by technological advancements and a world war. In fact, while we might tend to view developments in music theory as far removed from these historical transformations, Ravel was keenly aware that change in music reflects change in the world. His own compositions can help us to understand this truth.

It doesn’t take a music scholar to hear that 18th-century Mozart sounds different from 20th-century Ravel. This different sound is largely owing to distinct changes in the harmonic system, or the harmonies deemed fit to use and pleasing to hear. Twentieth-century composers accepted harmonies that Mozart would have considered dissonant (some people think this represents the evolution of music, showing how music changes just as languages do; others think it symbolizes the breakdown of the music system, mirroring the philosophical movements of the age). And changes in music vocabulary and grammar rules reflected the ways that colonization had brought diverse cultures together: world fairs brought non-Western music to the West, and new forms of music, like jazz, were accepted among professional musicians.

The changing darkness and light of Ravel’s concerto mirror the darkness and light of the changing twentieth-century world.

While Ravel’s work sounds more “modern” than earlier composers, he still followed many of his predecessors’ musical rules rather than the modern avante-garde innovations. But what most distinguishes Ravel’s music from other composers is his use of musical color: Ravel masterfully used instruments with “bright” and “dark” tones, brilliantly blending the timbres, or distinct sounds of different instruments, in ways no other composer had imagined—or audience had heard.

One piece which gives us a glimpse of Ravel’s use of color, and is a striking example of the way he translated change in the world to change in music, is his Piano Concerto in D Major for the Left Hand. This piece, written between 1929-1930, was part of a set of pieces illustrating the hardiness and resilience of that generation. Written for Paul Wittgenstein (1887-1961), an Austrian concert pianist before World War I who lost his right arm during the war and for whom several famous composers wrote pieces, this concerto, or piece for solo instrument accompanied by orchestra, is played exclusively with the left hand.

Here’s a recording of the piece:

Beginning with its dark opening and continuing throughout its single-handed performance, this concerto captures aurally much of the sense of loss and the struggle for normalcy that marked Wittgenstein’s generation.

A virtuosic piece above the capabilities of many two-handed pianists, Ravel’s masterpiece really can be performed with only the left hand. Much of the melody is written in single notes (not chords), but the piece is still incredibly complex, requiring the performer to play both melody and accompaniment with a single hand.

The opening of the piece, with the rumble of the low string instruments, is very dark; yet, as the piece progresses, it brings smoother (“legato”) sections that sound much more serene and peaceful. Other parts of the piece, which use higher strings, winds, and the upper notes of the piano, sound even more bright and energetic. However, these brighter sections are interspersed with descending chord progressions, giving the impression of falling back to the depths of the opening; in music, downward motion often—though not always—signifies sadness or depression, while ascending lines represent joy. This actually reflects English speech patterns; try listening for where your friends’ voices inflect up or down as they express emotion. The continual rising and falling of this concerto captures the attitude of its generation.

In listening to this concerto, then, we can hear the post-war struggle for hope: a famous concert pianist not only survived the war and had a prodigious performance career despite the loss of a hand, but he also left a legacy of masterpieces written in his honor that have been played by other concert pianists who have lost the use of their right hands. The changing darkness and light of Ravel’s concerto mirror the darkness and light of the changing twentieth-century world.

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