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Jeux d'eau

Maurice Ravel (1875-1937)

Jeux d’eau

 Jeux d’eau (1901) is the first great Symbolist work for piano and, as such, inaugurates an entirely new style of keyboard writing. All the problems that beset Symbolist writers and painters - how to achieve unity of form and meaning, action and contemplation, movement and stillness - are handled with seemingly effortless command. The influence of Liszt is paramount, especially Les jeux d’eaux a la Villa d’Este and Au bord d’une source; although Ravel tells us that the work is constructed out of two themes, like a sonata-movement, he has learned from Liszt how to produce a work of contemplation rather than argument, where the material is not developed but repeated with minute variations of decoration, harmony and texture, an accumulation of musical gestures which constantly re-iterate and reinforce the essential inner theme of the piece. Technically, he was able to extend the ideas of Liszt by harnessing the greatly enhanced resonant properties of the modern grand piano to new sound concepts he had encountered at Paris Exhibitions, the sounds of oriental ethnic instruments with their precise attacks, indefinite ends, and added resonances. His friend and pupil, the composer Maurice Delage has put his finger on the fundamental difference from Liszt when he refers to the ’éblouissement a-sentimental’ of jeux d’eau, something emphasised by the epigram by Henri de Régnier, disciple of Mallarmé, which heads the score: ’Dieu fluvial riant de l’eau qui le chatouille’ (River god laughing at the water as it tickles him). The technical innovations that produced this combination of movement and stasis, of which a fountain is the perfect image, were not lost on Debussy: armed with its example and that of Ravel’s then unpublished Habañera (1895) for two pianos, the score of which he had borrowed, he produced Pagodes and La soirée dans Grénade, the first two pieces of Estampes, his first great work for piano.

© Paul Crossley 1983

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