1929 to 1931, with some material originating as early as 1911
January 14, 1932; performed by the Orchestre Lamoureux in Paris with pianist Marguerite Long and conducted by Ravel
Ravel began composing his G Major Piano Concerto shortly after returning home from an American conducting tour in 1929. The trip was such a success that Ravel soon began planning another, more ambitious tour to perform a new piano concerto he would compose himself. While work on the concerto as we know it began in earnest that year, much of the music had earlier origins. Ravel’s friend Gustave Samazeuilh recounts:
I remember the excursion [in 1911] which took us by the excellent route of the Col de Lesaca, from Pampelune to Estella and the return by Roncevaux, Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port and Mauléon. Ravel had brought the sketch of a Basque work for piano and orchestra, Saspiak Bat, of which I saw the very advanced sketches and which, to my great regret, he abandoned. He was having much difficulty in finding, in the solitude of the Col de Lesaca, a transition for the middle section—a sort of reverie of singular beauty—that satisfied him. He did, however, use the two pieces already finalized—evocations respectively of a spring morning at Ciboure and a festival at Mauléon —in the corresponding parts of the Concerto in G.1
Shortly after beginning work on the concerto, Ravel was approached by the one-armed pianist Paul Wittgenstein about composing a piece that could be played with only one hand. Ravel accepted the commission even though it meant his two-handed concerto and subsequent tour would have to be delayed. With his two piano concertos underway, Ravel would spend the majority his compositional energy over the next two years completing them. In September 1930 he writes to his friend Leon Leyritz:
… I’ve rushed back to work without respite, or almost: half an hour for each meal; an hour to cover six kilometers at the end of the day; five to six hours’ sleep. I’m finishing the orchestration of the Concerto for Left Hand. I’ve got three months for the one I’m to take through the five continents. Providing I survive!2
Ravel’s health was slowly beginning to decline by this point, and he increasingly suffered from insomnia and fatigue. Friends also began to notice more and more displays of absentmindedness, and they frequently expressed their concerns to Ravel that he was working himself too hard. In 1932, the same year as the concerto’s premiere, Ravel was diagnosed with the rare brain condition known as Pick’s Disease (also known as frontotemporal dementia). Anecdotal evidence from Ravel’s contemporaries seems to corroborate a 2008 New York Times article suggesting that Ravel was already in the early stages of the disease by the late 1920s.3
Ravel struggled with his preparations to perform the concerto, and eventually decided to pass it on to Marguerite Long for a January 1932 premiere. It was a difficult decision for Ravel, but he could not ignore the fact that his memory lapses had also started to manifest themselves in his professional life.4 The plan for a solo tour was also discarded, and Ravel instead opted to join Mme Long as the conductor for a number of performances across Europe. Ravel—who had planned to perform the G Major Concerto throughout North and South America, Europe, and Japan—never gave a single public performance of the work.
In a letter to his friend M. D. Calvocoressi, Ravel discusses his approach to the genre of the piano concerto:
… [It] is a Concerto in the truest sense of the word: I mean that it is written very much in the same spirit as those of Mozart and Saint-Saëns. The music of a Concerto should, in my opinion, be light-hearted and brilliant, and not aim at profundity or dramatic effects. It has been said of certain great classics that their Concertos were written not “for,” but “against” the piano. I heartily agree. I had intended to entitle this Concerto “Divertissement.” Then it occurred to me that there was no need to do so, because the very title “Concerto” should be sufficiently clear.5
Mixed with the “light-hearted and brilliant” qualities is also the clear influence of jazz music, a genre that enjoyed a great deal of popularity in Paris during the 1920s. In fact, Ravel incorporated jazz elements into both of his piano concertos, though he regarded his left-hand concerto as being the more jazz-inspired of the two. Speaking about his G Major Concerto, Ravel points out some of the other genres that influenced him: “Gypsy music has returned to Paris, as well as the whirlings of the waltz, to which I have often paid homage.”6 When questioned by Marguerite Long as to which concerto Ravel himself preferred, he simply replied, “Yours—it is more Ravel!”7
1 Marguerite Long, At The Piano With Ravel, ed. Pierre Laumonier, trans. Olive Senior-Ellis (London: Dent, 1973), 39.
2 Roger Nichols, Ravel (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2011), 313.
3 Sandra Blakeslee, “A Disease That Allowed Torrents of Creativity,” New York Times, April 8, 2008, http://www.nytimes.com/2008/04/08/health/08brai.html (accessed April 17, 2011). See Bolero for more information.
4 In November 1928, while performing his Sonatine in Madrid, Ravel jumped from the exposition of the first movement to the coda of the finale.
5 M. D. Calvocoressi, “Ravel’s Letters to Calvocoressi: With Notes and Comments,” Music Quarterly 27, no. 1 (January 1941), 17.
6 Nichols, Ravel, 315.
7 Long, 55.