Hear Ravel Play Ravel in 1922

Yes­ter­day we fea­tured a piano-roll record­ing of the French com­pos­er Claude Debussy play­ing his “La soirée dans Grenade” in 1913. Today we bring you a lyri­cal and melan­choly work record­ed in 1922 on a sim­i­lar device by Debussy’s younger friend and rival, Mau­rice Rav­el. It’s called “Oiseaux tristes,” or “Sad Birds.”

The impe­tus for com­pos­ing the piece came in 1904, when Rav­el heard a sec­ond-hand account of some­thing Debussy had said. Accord­ing to Alex­is Roland-Manuel, Rav­el’s friend and biog­ra­ph­er, Debussy had told the pianist Ricar­do Viñes that when writ­ing his exper­i­men­tal piece, “D’un cahi­er d’esquiss­es,” he had been “dream­ing of a kind of music whose form was so free that it would sound impro­vised, of works which would seem to have been torn out of a sketch­book.”

Viñes recount­ed Debussy’s state­ment at a meet­ing of “Les Apach­es,” a group of rad­i­cal writ­ers, artists and musi­cians, of which Rav­el was a mem­ber. Rav­el respond­ed by say­ing that he was ready to put Debussy’s dream into action. He drew his inspi­ra­tion from an expe­ri­ence he had one morn­ing in the for­est at Fontain­bleau. Rav­el’s friend and for­mer music school class­mate Émile Vuiller­moz remem­bered:

He was stay­ing with friends and one morn­ing he heard a black­bird whistling a tune and was enchant­ed by its ele­gant, melan­choly arabesque. He had mere­ly to tran­scribe this tune accu­rate­ly, with­out chang­ing a note, to pro­duce the limpid, poet­ic piece which spir­i­tu­alis­es the nos­tal­gic call of this French broth­er of the For­est Bird in Siegfried.

After the meet­ing, Rav­el set to work on the E Flat Minor “Oiseaux tristes,” which he ded­i­cat­ed to Viñes and includ­ed in his five-piece suite, Miroirs. “Oiseaux tristes is the most typ­i­cal of my way of think­ing,” Rav­el wrote in his 1928 auto­bi­o­graph­i­cal sketch. “It evokes birds lost in the oppres­sive­ness of a very dark for­est dur­ing the hottest hours of sum­mer.”

Rav­el record­ed “Oiseaux tristes” and four oth­er pieces in Lon­don on June 30, 1922, using a Duo-Art repro­duc­ing piano. Unlike the Welte-Mignon machine used by Debussy in 1913 (Rav­el also made a pair of record­ings on the Welte-Mignon at about the same time as Debussy) the Duo-Art sys­tem did not auto­mat­i­cal­ly record the dynam­ics of the per­for­mance. So when Rav­el played “Oiseaux tristes” at the stu­dio in Lon­don, there was an engi­neer seat­ed next to him at a con­sole, turn­ing dials to cap­ture the dynam­ic mod­u­la­tions in his play­ing. After­ward, Rav­el lis­tened to a play­back on a pianola and, sat­is­fied with the results, signed his name on the orig­i­nal roll.

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Comments (5)
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  • sprinke says:

    We had a piano roll of George Gersh­win him­self play­ing “Rhap­sody in Blue.” It bog­gled the mind — what the keys were doing did not seem human­ly pos­si­ble.

  • Mari says:

    Mood music nev­er sound­ed so good. I find it amaz­ing that this still exists in playable form.

  • David says:

    Sprin­kle: Do you know of any exist­ing record­ings oth­er than the piano roll of Gersh­win play­ing “Rhap­sody in Blue”? I’d love to hear that.

  • Aaron Alter says:

    I read some­where that the piano rolls were “edit­ed” and more notes were added.

  • David Long says:

    Depends on which sys­tem was used. The Welte Mignon’s edit­ing process was almost total­ly unob­tru­sive because of the fideli­ty of its dynam­ic cap­tur­ing sys­tem. The Welte com­pa­ny had a strict phi­los­o­phy of min­i­mal intru­sion on their record­ings, the one excep­tion being the clean­ing of wrong notes — which was rare (they even some­times left wrong notes in).

    The Duo Art and Pianola, gen­er­al­ly speak­ing, were high­ly edit­ed in the man­ner described in the above arti­cle. They added notes, erased wrong ones, put in dynam­ics, tem­po changes. Not tru­ly authen­tic to the orig­i­nal per­for­mance.

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