Tzigane: Ravel and French Impressionism

Maurice Ravel was a French composer living in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, regarded as one of the greatest ever to come out of France.  He was also a classically trained pianist, though he apparently never distinguished himself on the instrument.  I learned more about him yesterday reading Wikipedia as I listened to Perlman play Tzigane, a composition for violin and orchestra categorized as a “Rhapsody.” Also according to Wikipedia, a rhapsody is a single-movement, free flowing work that crosses moods and colors and conveys a sense of spontaneous improvisation.

Tzigane certainly does all of that – the word itself means Gypsy, which at the time did not so much refer to the Roma people of Europe, rather to a general style of music.  The work is divided into two halves of similar length – the first is about four and a half minutes of solo violin, a mostly dark and contemplative exploration with quite a bit of technical complexity.  After the violin solo, the orchestra enters with a harp in the foreground, creating a mood of wonder for a moment, just until piccolos herald the entry of the main orchestra, and then the mood shifts notably, ranging out to triumph and whimsy. Considering the relatively short – nine minute – length of the work, a relatively large number of instruments from the orchestra are given a moment to shine.

In the past, not knowing the definition of a Rhapsody, I might have referred to the piece as a Tone Poem.  The music is expressive, and ranges far and wide emotionally – from darkly intellectual to bright and whimsical.  The work makes it easy to see how Ravel gets classified as an impressionistic composer, though he rejected the label.   Ravel is an artist who bridges the Romantic and Modern eras of composition.

Obviously, Perlman’s interpretation of the work is informed and beautiful and intricate – it would be interesting to hear others perform the piece.  In my quest to learn more about what it means to play a distinctive interpretation, listening to performances of compositions like Tzigane is most instructive.

Thanks for reading.


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