Maurice Ravel: Miroirs, "Oiseaux Tristes"

The Sorrowful Birds, by Maurice Ravel
The Sorrowful Birds, by Maurice Ravel
Maurice Ravel as a young man at the piano.
Maurice Ravel as a young man at the piano. | Source
Artwork by Claude Monet, a famous impressionistic painter.
Artwork by Claude Monet, a famous impressionistic painter. | Source

Maurice Ravel

“The music is there in his head. He can still hear it, but he can’t write it down anymore. It’s just a tradgedy.”

These words describe what became a reality for Maurice Ravel in the last five years of his life. After a distinguished career and a world-renowned orchestrator and musical composer, he began to lose his ability to communicate and to write. With the injuries he sustained in a taxi accident in 1932 accelerating the problem, he sometimes was unable to understand his own music and would wonder why he had spent so much time on such a thing. At other moments, he was able to focus and to work, but never as before. Within five years, he was gone.

Born in 1875 in the small French town of Ciboure. Given great exposure to music through his father and through the Spanish culture of his mother, who was of Basque descent, he developed a talent for it early on in his life. A competent pianist, he soon indicated a personal preference for composition. Studying under the well-recognized composer Gabriel Fauré, Ravel eventually deveoped a friendship with Igor Stravinsky and numerous other prominent musicians and composers of his day, integrating all he learned into his musical work.

Ravel is most often associated with the Impressionist movement in music along with Claude Debussy, towards whom he held a mutually-shared professional jealousy for much of his life. The Impressionist movement in music, like the Impressionist movement in art, moved away from the forceful expressions of emotion so common to the Romantic era that preceeded it. Instead, it clung to an ideal of distanced contemplation, resulting in music that was more about emotional tone and space than melodic development.

Ravel’s work, while certainly influenced by the Impressionism of his time, held on to more melodic direction and development than that of Debussy. Along with folk influences and a great interest in jazz, Ravel created a collection of compositions that still lye close to the heart of music history.

Miroirs

When Ravel was a young man in his twenties, he became a member of a group known as the “Apaches,” meaning “Hooligans” in French. They were a motley group of musicians, artists and writers who met regularly on Saturday mornings to discuss the news of the week and talk about their work.

Ravel knew many people, but he had only few good friends. The five piano pieces in the Miroirs, which happen to be one among most classically Impressionistic works, are dedicated to five of these friends. In his own mind, Ravel imagined each of these people looking into a mirror. He then wrote the music that he heard calling back at them from their reflection.

Of course, the musical impressions we get from the pieces are as much about Ravel himself as they are about those for whom he composed the pieces.

Paul Sordes, the Artist: First man on the left in the third row.
Paul Sordes, the Artist: First man on the left in the third row. | Source

Oiseaux Tristes

Ravel's composition will be treated in three ways here to help the reader develop a sense of the work in preparation for listening to the piece:

  1. A brief summary of the piece is given
  2. The basic structure of the piece is laid to provide a road map of where the piece will go
  3. A short explanatory video is provided to cover the composer's basic musical material using examples directly from the composition

Summary

“The Sorrowful Birds” is an impressionistic journey through a menagerie of birds. Throughout the piece, the listener is surrounded by the voices of calling birds. Sometimes they are quiet and pensive, at other times they rush about the listener in a mad cacophony of fluttering sound. Ravel dedicated the piece to Paul Sordes, an amateur musician, professional artist, and member of the “Apache.”

The Musical Material of Oiseaux Tristes

The Sorrowful Birds
The Sorrowful Birds | Source

Basic Structure

  • A: The piece begins with a very soft introduction of the three primary motives of the piece as the birds enter into a slow conversation reminiscent of the hot and humid afternoon weather in a rainforest.
  • A': With a sudden key change, the slow and mournful melodies of the birds take on more tension. The listener now hears within their calls whispers of something amiss. As the harmonic pressure builds, the tempo begins to accelerate, creating a sense of nervousness at the coming of some impending event.
  • B: With a high and strident call, the music charges out in a burst of fluttering energy, as if a giant flock of birds had suddently taken flight, surrounding the listener in a rush of wind and wings. Just as quickly as it begins, it ends, returning to the slow repeating calls of the birds ringing in yet another quiet space.
  • A’’: The same conversation that started the piece returns again with a shift in tonality and a slightly different rhythmic turn, setting it into a place that is not quite sad but more about thoughtful reflection.
  • B’: Then the rhythm accelerates once again, but this time lightly. Instead of the birds fluttering off in a chaotic rush, they now glide, lifting efforlessly up into the sky, as it somehow seeking to recalim their joy.
  • A’’’: In a final echo of the initial bird’s call that began the piece, the listener hears a ray of hope, but it is a ray that ends with a reminder of their earth-bound life; a reminder that, in the end, they must return to the cold hard ground.

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