Inon Barnatan Program Notes

Portland Ovations presents Inon Barnatan – Classical Pianist

Performing in Portland at Hannaford Hall on Saturday, October 13 at 2 pm


Program notes by Linda Russell


Le Tombeau de Couperin by Maurice Ravel (1875-1937)

French composer Maurice Ravel began composing at age twelve; he studied piano at the Paris Conservatory. Major influences on Ravel’s style were the music of Claude Debussy, American jazz, Asian music, and folk music. In 1932 he was in an automobile accident that severely affected his health and ability to compose. In 1937 he had a neurological operation that he hoped would restore his health, but the operation was a failure and he died soon after.

Originally for solo piano and based on the movements of a traditional Baroque suite, Le Tombeau de Couperin was composed between 1914 and 1917; it was Ravel’s last composition for solo piano. He dedicated each of the six movements to the memory of a friend who died fighting in World War I. The title tombeau reflects a long and honored French tradition to compose musical tributes to a departed colleague or master. Besides honoring his friends, Ravel also composed the suite as a tribute to a golden age in French music—the great eighteenth-century keyboard composer François Couperin and his peers. Le Tombeau de Couperin is a light-hearted and sometimes-reflective celebration of life rather than a somber requiem; Ravel explained his stylistic choices: “The dead are sad enough in their eternal silence.”

Typical of a Baroque suite, Le Tombeau de Couperin begins with a boisterous Prélude with rapid figuration for both hands. The following Fugue has a lyric subject and shows Ravel’s mastery of contrapuntal techniques. The Forlane, an Italian folk song, was a form popular with gondoliers in the early seventeenth century; Ravel gives his Forlane an antique sound with modal harmonies. Similar to a bourrée, the rigaudon is a boisterous, high-stepping folk dance; Ravel’s Rigaudon features spritely rhythms and bright sonorities with a contrasting middle section featuring a gentle pastoral melody accompanied by guitar-like plucked chords. The Menuet is a graceful, lyrical dance in triple meter with prominent use of mordents; Ravel uses a musette for the contrasting trio section. For the concluding Toccata Ravel composed a brilliant perpetual motion with repeated notes and a pentatonic theme. Throughout the suite Ravel references Baroque style with modal harmonies and eighteenth-century ornamentation, but seen through the lens of early twentieth-century neoclassicism and chromaticism.

The premier performance of the piano version was in April 1919; in that year Ravel also created an orchestral version of four movements: Prélude, Forlane, Menuet and Rigaudon.


Jeux d’eau by Maurice Ravel

Ravel composed Jeux d’eau (“play of water” or “fountains”) while a student at the Paris Conservatoire and dedicated it to his teacher, Gabriel Fauré. Franz Liszt’s Les jeux d’eau à la Villa d’Este inspired Ravel who described his musical depiction of water:

Jeux d’eau, appearing in 1901, is at the origin of the pianistic novelties which one would notice in my work. This piece, inspired by the noise of water and by the musical sounds which make one hear the sprays of water, the cascades, and the brooks, is based on two motives in the manner of the movement of a sonata—without, however, subjecting itself to the classical tonal plan.

Virtuosic rippling cascades of sound, glissandi, chromatic scale runs, and irregular rhythms evoke the fluid sounds of water in this musical tone poem that inspired Debussy to compose his piano solo, Reflets dans l’eau, on a similar theme. Major seventh chords, the juxtaposition of two harmonies, and chromaticism display Ravel’s rich harmonic language. In his manuscript Ravel included a quote from Henri de Régnier that captures the ebullient splashing spirit of the music: “River god laughing as the water tickles him . . .”


Pavane pour en infante défunte by Maurice Ravel

Ravel composed Pavane pour en infante défunte in 1899 while a student at the Paris Conservatoire; it was his first popular success. He described the piece as “an evocation of a pavane that a little princess might, in former times, have danced at the Spanish court.” Infanta is the term for a princess of the royal house of Spain. The piece is not a tribute to a particular dead princess, but instead nostalgia for Spain and Spanish customs. A pavane was a stately processional dance in duple time popular in European courts during the Renaissance. When asked how he arrived at the title Ravel replied, “When I put together the words that make up this title my only thought was the pleasure of alliteration.”

Ravel intended the piece to be played slowly, but also commented that the piece was called Pavane for a dead princess, not “dead pavane for a princess.” The piece has a subdued atmosphere and Ravel used harmonies that evoke past centuries, but spiced with coloristic use of dissonance. In 1910 Ravel published an orchestral version, which was received with great success. Despite this success, Ravel wrote in 1912: “By an irony of fate, the first work which I must review is my own Pavane . . . I no longer see its good points . . . But, alas, I perceive its faults very clearly: the glaring influence of Chabrier and the rather poverty-stricken form.”


La Valse by Maurice Ravel

Composed in 1920 originally as a “choreographic poem for orchestra,” La valse was later transcribed by Ravel for two pianos and then solo piano. Composer George Benjamin commented on the work, “Whether or not it was intended as a metaphor for the predicament of European civilization in the aftermath of the Great War, its one-movement design plots the birth, decay and destruction of a musical genre: the waltz.” Ravel, however, denied that, saying,

While some discover an attempt at parody, indeed caricature, others categorically see a tragic allusion in it—the end of the Second Empire, the situation in Vienna after the war. . . This dance may seem tragic, like any other emotion. . . pushed to the extreme. But one should only see in it what the music expresses: an ascending progression of sonority, to which the stage comes along to add light and movement.

In a letter Ravel expressed his desire to pay compositional tribute to Johann Strauss, Jr.: “You know of my deep sympathy for these wonderful rhythms, and that I value the joie de vivre expressed by the dance.”

Ravel described La valse in the preface to his score:

Through whirling clouds, waltzing couples may be faintly distinguished. The clouds gradually scatter: one sees. . . an immense hall peopled with a whirling crowd. The scene is gradually illuminated. The light of the chandeliers bursts forth at the fortissimo. . . Set in an imperial court, about 1855.

Whirling figuration, harmonic ambiguity, charming melodies create this nostaligic homage to the Viennese waltz and old-world elegance. Duo-pianists Greg Anderson & Elizabeth Joy describe La Valse:

 As the piece unfolds, the waltz becomes increasingly distorted and dissonant; Ravel seems to mordantly comment on the poisonous effects of sociopolitical corruption as well as the eventual chaos of warfare. The music escalates with hallucinatory frenzy to a cataclysmic climax. . . Motivic fragments collide until the music spins itself to a conclusion of darkly exultant finality.

The first performance of La Valse was the two-piano version in 1920, and the audience included Serge Diaghilev, Igor Stravinsky, and Francis Poulenc.


Pictures at an Exhibition by Modest Mussorgsky (1839-1881)

Modest Mussorgsky received musical training as a child but made his livelihood as a civil servant in Russian government circles until his dismissal in 1867 due to alcoholism. As one of a group of prominent nineteenth-century Russian composers known as “The Five” who endeavored to create music with a unique Russian musical identity, Mussorgsky used Russian history or folklore as inspiration for much of his music.

Mussorgsky’s most important piano composition is Pictures at an Exhibition (1874), a brilliant and bold suite of ten character pieces inspired by a memorial exhibition of paintings and drawings by his friend Victor Hartmann. Mussorgsky evokes the mood, scene, thought, or emotion of each painting with a simple ternary form (ABA). His piano writing in the suite is highly original and very picturesque. He achieves mystery, frenzy, humor, and grandeur with his strikingly original and somewhat exotic melodies.

Using a folk-style melody in the Promenade, Mussorgsky depicts himself entering the exhibition and walking through the gallery to the first exhibit. It features shifting time signatures throughout, depicting the dawdling, irregular way a visitor to an exhibition would walk around. Throughout the suite and in the final movement the promenade theme is repeated, but further and further apart, representing a viewer who is being drawn into the works and becoming lost in thought.

Hartmann’s design sketch of a toy nutcracker shaped like “a little gnome walking awkwardly on deformed legs” was the inspiration for Gnomus, a piece in 3/4 with frequent accents and irregular phrase structure.

Il vecchio castello (The Old Castle), based on Hartmann’s painting of a troubadour singing in front of a castle, has a medieval feel created by the sustained bass note that runs through the piece, a Russian “song without words.”

Mussorgsky musically added children chattering, playing, and quarrelling in the Tuileries garden in France (Dispute d’enfants après jeux—Dispute among children after play). Frequent falling thirds mimic the cries and taunts of the children and the figuration creates a playful atmosphere.

Thick, ponderous, left-hand chords and an angular folk-like melody represent the plodding of the Polish oxen as they pull a cart with enormous wheels through the mud in Bydlo.

Hartmann’s costume design sketches for the ballet Trilbi provided the inspiration for Ballet of the Unhatched Chicks, a short playful scherzo in the treble register with rapid chords and dissonant grace notes. Percussive high piano sounds represent the chicks tapping to break their shells.

 Samuel Goldenberg und Schmuÿle are two separate pencil drawings, given as gifts from Hartmann to Mussorgsky. Samuel Goldenberg, probably large, well-dressed, and rich, is represented by the pompous long-phrased melody in the bass while Schmuÿle is represented by a piercing, troubled-sounding melody in the treble with rapid staccato repeated, making him appear to be thin and poor.

Limoges le marché represents a bustling market place in Limoges. In the original score, Mussorgsky noted some imaginary calls and shouts between trades-people.

Hartmann pictured himself by the light of a lantern in the subterranean Catacombae sepulchrum Romanum of Paris surrounded by piles of human skulls. Long sustained chords produce an eerie sonority in Mussorgsky’s picture.

Con mortuis in lingua mortua (With the Dead in a Dead Language) is Mussorgsky’s reflection on death. He wrote in the margin of the score: “The creative genius of the late Hartman leads me to the skulls and invokes them; the skulls begin to glow with a soft luminousness from within.”

Baba Yaga, the witch of death in Russian mythology, ate human bones and lived in La Cabane sur des pattes de poule (The Hut on Hen’s Legs). Hartman painted a design for an elaborately carved clock based on the hut. Mussorgsky created a dark, spooky movement with tonal ambiguity.

Hartmann drew sketches for a planned, but never built, monumental gate for Tsar Alexander II. In La Porte des Bohatyrs de Kiev (The Knight’s Gate in the Ancient Capital of Kiev) the music begins with big, long chords which musically depict the grandness of the gate and the many people walking through it. The ending is victorious with priests chanting a Russian Orthodox hymn and church bells pealing the Promenade theme.

Orchestrations and arrangements of Pictures at an Exhibition by other musicians and composers increased its popularity; Ravel’s arrangement is the most recorded and performed.


Linda Russell is a member of Maine Music Teachers Association and an independent piano teacher, lives in Portland with her longtime spouse.