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Flamboyant Peacocks and Rowdy Guinea Fowls – Exploring Ravel’s Histoires naturelles.

French composer, Maurice Ravel, is known for his unique musical language and meticulous craftsmanship, especially when it comes to orchestration (of which he was considered a master). Although he mostly stayed within the traditional tonal and harmonic conventions of the time, his unique approach and manipulation of the traditional musical idiom made his compositional language unmistakable. His works also show a level of precision that requires performers to be very detail oriented, in order to really showcase his intentions as a composer. In our next performance, Scenes of Nature, baritone Camilo Lopez will perform one of Ravel’s most iconic, imaginative, and controversial song cycles, Histoires naturelles.

A portrait of composer Maurice Ravel sitting at a piano.

The composer, Maurice Ravel.

Histoires naturelles (Natural Stories) is a set of five pieces based on poetry by Jules Renard. A true representation of the great French era of post-impressionism, Renard’s poems present a variety of characters including humans, animals and even vegetables, all with distinctive qualities and their own unique story. These stories are quite descriptive and hold strong similarities to everyday life situations, although in some cases, the line is a little blurry as to whether or not the characters were a literal representation of their form or rather an impersonation of a human.

Ravel chose five poems: The Peacock (Le paon), The Cricket (Le grillon), The Swan (Le cygne), The Kingfisher (Le martin-pecheaur) and Guinea-Fowl (La pintade). Ravel jumps between beautiful legato lines to almost spoken lines that imitate speech, adding a level of rhythmic complexity not common in French songs. To imitate speech, Ravel muted the final e syllables known as schwas, which are not ordinarily pronounced in modern French. This was a complete change to the tradition of French melodies and the cause of quite some controversy, which was inflamed by his choice of harmony and the similarity to “café concerts” of the time. In fact, many of the audience left at the interval of the first performance, and even his own composition teacher, Gabrielle Fauré rolled his eyes at the work.

Today however, the song cycle is regarded as a masterpiece of the genre, performed in recital halls across the world and noted as an important step in Ravel's evolution as a composer.

A performance of Histoires naturelles by Simon Keenlyside.

Exploring the Five Movements.

Le paon (The Peacock) A flamboyant male peacock performs his daily ceremony, showing off his feathers and chanting in a particular way, in an attempt to attract a female partner that never arrives. Ravel’s piano accompaniment represents the grandiosity of such a ridiculous ritual.

​Le grillon (The Cricket) This is the story of a cricket performing housekeeping chores, from cutting the grass to carefully closing his front door. Once finished, the cricket disappears and can’t be seen or heard anywhere. Ravel’s almost clock ticking accompaniment represents both the small size and precision of such a creature.

​Le cygne (The Swan) A spectator watches a beautiful swan glide through the water, as represented in the watery sounding music. The swan tries in vain to eat the clouds as reflected on the water, however, the narrator realizes at the end that the creature is just eating worms and fattening up like a goose.

​Le martin-pecheaur (The Kingfisher) A human character, who has not caught anything while fishing, is captivated by the arrival of a kingfisher who lands on his fishing rod and poses, resembling a blue flower. Ravel’s accompaniment represents the stillness and almost breath-stopping moment that the human is experiencing.

​La pintade (The Guinea Fowl) A hysterical guinea fowl is convinced she is being mocked by the other birds around her due to her different appearance. In retribution, she disturbs the other birds around her by cackling and pecking at them, however it is revealed that she is the true bully in this story.

You can hear Voxalis’ Co-Founder, Camilo Lopez (baritone) perform this magnificent and quirky song cycle by Ravel in our next concert, Scenes of Nature, on Saturday 28th May, 7pm - Studio 1 of The Old Museum Building. Be sure to book your tickets now!


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