January 30, 2019

Ravel’s Take on Madagascar

At her November 2018 concert, Tomoko performed Ravel’s "Chansons madecasses" with flautist Tod Brody, cellist Eric Gaenslen, and soprano Miwako Isano. 

This composition, written in 1925-1926, marked a turning point in Ravel’s career, when he focused more on melody and linear ensembles. The music is very impressionistic with its evocative sensuality. Ravel had a long-term interest in ethnic music. However, the work veered away from his usual Spanish inspiration. Apparently, Malagasy traditional music was known in France at that time. 

The text is based on the 18th century Creole poet Evariste-Desire de Parny, whom Ravel was reading when he was commissioned to write a chamber work. The poems cry for liberation from Madagascar’s colonialism and slavery. 

The first song, “Nahandove,” recounts a native woman’s section. The voice interprets the story as the other instruments provide an evocative landscape.

The second song, “Aoua!!”, shrieks about dangerous white men. The title’s rendition in minor thirds, the piano’s percussive role, the undulating flute, and the ensemble’s bitonality together paint a sharp warning picture. 

The third song, “Il est doux de se coucher,” begins with a melancholy flute, evoking the end of the day (the song is translated as “it is sweet to lie down”). The voice then takes center stage, seems to drift off, and then bristly ends – to the realities of day.

Altogether, Ravel’s experimental music embodies the text in a dramatic and erotic way. Today’s listeners feel the quartet’s pull in a very immediate way.