Maurice Ravel: Miroirs, "Une Barque sur L'Océan"
"He was something of a dandy, anxious to follow fashion or even to set it. He dressed very carefully and he had a penchant for nice ties, the choice of which was often the subject of endless discussion. This trait, very marked early on, and the constant, meticulous elegance which followed, helped Ravel to create an appearance and to carry the mask he ever used to thwart all invasion of his privacy." 
--(Long, , p.118)
Maurice Ravel, born in Cibourne, France, in 1875 was always known among his friends for his phenomenal gifts for orchestration and composition, for being very particular about his privacy and for being meticulously well dressed at all times, even when ill. While such details about a composer’s life are hardly necessary to enjoy their music, it is always interesting to discover the ways in which the great mind behind the a great work art, was also a regular human being.
In his compositional technique, Ravel is often associated with impressionism. While some of his pieces, like the Miroirs, are highly impressionistic in nature, much of what he wrote did not fall strictly within that style. Every piece, however, spoke in some important way to who he was as a person and an artist.
The Miroirs is a five movement piano piece in which Ravel imaginatively ruminates over the mirrored reflections of a selection of his friends from the “Apache,” a motley groups of writers, artists and musicians with whom he met regularly in the early part of his career. Each movement is dedicated to one of the members of this group and was composed while thinking about that person staring into a mirror and examining his reflection.
Each of these pieces is a tone-poem that examines the character of the different moods of a specific image that Ravel apparently associated with these various men: moths, the sorrowful birds, a boat on the ocean, love song to the beautiful dawn and valley of the bells. The joy of the piece comes from listening to the ingeniuous ways Ravel has of capturing these images within the tones of the piano.
The Structure of Une Barque sur L'Océan
NOTE: Une Barque sur L'Océan will be treated in three ways here to help the reader prepare to listen to the piece:
- A brief summary of the composition
- A map of the basic structure of the piece, helping the reader to anticipate where the music will go
- A short video covering the basic musical material of the work using examples taken directly from the composition
Even without knowing the title of this piece, one can tell immediately that it is a piece about water. Bright and flowing runs of notes ebb and flow and crash and shine throughout this composition that explores the various moods of the sea. From gently pulsing waves to the sway and crash of a storm to the bright reflections of the sun off of a calm and even sea, this piece captures them all and blends them together into an epic journey of self discovery for this lonely boat on the water.
The piece is dedicated to Ricardo Viñes, a renowned concert pianist of the time who premiered many of Ravel’s compositions, including this one. The speed of the notes and the complexity of the interwoven lines are very fitting to the viruosity of a concert pianist and suggest a deeply passionate personality—likely a reflection of both Viñes and even the quiet and reserved Ravel.
Map of the Structure of Une Barque sur L'Océan
- A: Even, flowing notes roll in the left hand, giving the listener an immediate sense of the mesmerizing, never-ceasing pulse of the ocean waves while, above them, a soft repetative figure floats along, reminiscient of a gentle ocean breeze. Then, across the horizon of the sea, the boat appears in a slow-moving melody that sails steadily through the middle of the waves. For a few moments, the boat takes on more prominence, moving into center stage before the ocean waves return to full power.
- B: With a rumbling from deep within the sea, the journey begins as the waves take on more life, rolling and cascading in and around one another while the boat moves with a steady keel, continuing its journey through the moving waters.
- C: The waves take center stage, rolling up and down the piano in flashes of brilliance and color.
- A’: Undaunted, the boat then returns and the listener hears the waves crashing up against the side of the boat as it sails boldly forward, finally reaching calmer seas, as the mdelody of the beginning of the piece returns, now set in the changed emotional landscape of a different musical key.
- D: At last, the listener hears the boat sail off into open waters with the bright and crystalline sound of a high repeated phrase. The bright and tinkling sound paints a picture of the sunlight reflecting off the open water, while occasional forays into the deeper notes of the piano remind the listener of the power of the deep ocean running beneath the beauty of the open waves.
- B’: Then the boat begins its journey home, and, with a flourish in the rush of the water, the listener hears the boat move once again across the crashing ocean waves.
- A’’: With the return of bright trills in the right hand, the water slowly calms, once again returning to the gentle and even flow of the beginning of the piece after a glimpse into the depths and power of the sea. By a slow and steady sail it moves, at last, to port.
LONG, Marguerite. Au piano avec Maurice Ravel. Paris, 1971. [English trans.: At the piano with Ravel; ed. by Pierre Laumonier; trans. by Olive Senior-Ellis. London, Dent, 1973.] Quoted in "Maurice Ravel frontispice." John Spiers. www.maurice-ravel.net. [http://www.maurice-ravel.net/style.htm]