Alborada del gracioso

by Max Derrickson

Maurice Ravel
(Born in Cibourne, Basses-Pyrénées, France in 1875; died in Paris in 1937)

It seemed for a few decades across the turn of the 20th Century that the only composers writing Classically-styled “Spanish” music were non-Spaniards: there were Glinka and Rimsky-Korsakov of Russia; Lalo, Bizet, Chabrier, Debussy, and Ravel of France; as well as others.  In a world enchanted by the “exotic,” Spanish music did indeed seem intoxicating with its dance rhythms and wailing songs of the flamenco, the dazzling guitar music, the unconquerable summoning of duende (an earthy, sensuous, spirit-filled style of Spanish performance) in its music.  Most of these non-Spanish composers were merely imagining “Spanish” style works, but Ravel had genuine experience, as his mother was Basque, spoke Spanish fluently, had lived many years in Madrid, and had bathed young Maurice in Spanish song and dance from the moment he could hear.  And it gave him no end of pleasure to write in the Spanish style throughout his career, leaving with us so many masterpieces.  Many of these pieces were first written for piano, as indeed were Rapsodie espagnole and Alborada del gracioso.  Then, as the master orchestrator that he was, he transformed each into an orchestral marvel.

Alborada del gracioso

In 1900 Ravel joined a group of avant-garde artists called Les Apaches, meaning “hooligans,” led by his virtuoso pianist friend Ricardo Viñes.  In 1905, he completed a suite of five piano character vignettes, called Miroirs (Mirrors), each dedicated to one of the Apaches and the suite as a whole was premiered in 1906 by none other than the lead hooligan himself, Viñes.

In 1918 Ravel orchestrated two pieces from this suite, Une barque sur L’océan (A boat on the Ocean) and Alborada del graciosoAlborada was dedicated to his fellow Apache, Michel-Dimitri Calvocoressi, a polyglot who wrote music criticism in five languages and was most noteworthy, musically, for helping Serge Diaghilev start his Ballet Russe in Paris (which opened the door to the genius ballets of Stravinsky), and, academically, for his volumes on Mussorgsky.  Ravel’s dedication of Alborada to this particular man, Calvocoressi, was the mother of all “send-ups” – a grand […]

“Alborada” typically means “morning music,” with its earliest use as signals to lovers at daybreak to warn them before being caught in their passions.  “Del gracioso” means “of the buffoon” – in this way casting Calvocoressi as the bumbling, unwanted lover, who hopes that the morning music will […] 

Where Ravel makes everything shine is in the mastery of the orchestral […] Beginning with the guitar-like sounds of pizzicato strings and harp, the music soon gives us a wonderful lilting woodwind theme hinting at the hope of conquest – the bassoon (buffoon) soon troddles into a moment imagining himself as Hero, with mighty brass […] lifting the curtains to peek out at the approaching sunrise, with misty dawn string harmonics, colorful pecks and tinkles in the percussion, and then back to his pining. The moment passes and Ravel begins […]  It is perhaps one of Ravels most colorful and humorous works of all his masterpieces.