Maurice Ravel’s “Tzigane”
Notes by TŌN bassist Rowan Puig Davis
Tzigane starts like a Hungarian czardas dance with a slow improvisatory section which then moves to a faster tempo. However, the slow section of the violin solo is quite long, and takes up half of the length of the piece. The faster section is the accompaniment with piano or orchestra. Tzigane, the title of which is derived from the generic European term for “gypsy,” was composed in a short time in 1924 after Ravel heard a performance of his Duo for Violin and Cello. The violinist performing was Jelly d’Arányi, who was of Hungarian descent. Ravel, being so marveled at her performance, asked if she could play some “gypsy” folk music for him (which at the time referred to a kind of popular musical exoticism), and without hesitation she played two hours without stopping. Such was the impact on Ravel that he immediately composed this piece, finishing just in time for its premiere in April of 1924. Concerning the Hungarian style, Ravel draws many of his ideas from Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsodies and Paganini’s Caprices. During a rehearsal for a performance of Tzigane, d’Aranyi introduced what she called glissando with trills. In light of this Ravel said, “I don’t know what she’s doing, but I like it.”
The piece was originally written for violin and piano with optional luthéal, an attachment that could produce sounds like the Hungarian cimbalom on a piano with parallel strings. Ravel’s interest in the luthéal attachment was to have authenticity to the kind of music style he was trying to present. The luthéal attachment was a fitted mechanism or buffer that would go down on the strings to produce a distinct tone on the piano. The first patent for this mechanism was by its inventor Georges Cloetens in January of 1919. The damper mechanism gave a lute-like or harpsichord quality to the instrument. I encourage the audience to go online to see and listen to how this attachment changes the tone of a piano.