Ravel + Debussy: Colors of Spain

Program Notes

SAT APR 27, 8 pm | SUN APR 28, 8 pm


RAVEL (1875–1937)

Alborada del gracioso


Un despertar ("An Awakening") for Violoncello and Orchestra


DEBUSSY (1862–1918)


  • Gigues
  • Ibéria 1: Par les rues et par les chemins  (“Through the Streets and Lanes”)
  • Ibéria 2: Les parfums de la nuit (“The Frangrances of the Night”)
  • Ibéria 3: Le matin d’un jour de fête (“Morning of a Feast-Day”)
  • Rondes de printemps

THE CSO HAS A LONG AND IMPRESSIVE TRADITION for inviting composers to conduct their own music—from R. Strauss to Elgar, from Saint-Saëns to Stravinsky, the list is quite extensive. It is a great joy to welcome back Matthias Pintscher to the podium for a mix of French repertoire as well as his own Un despertar, performed by the concerto’s dedicatee, Alisa Weilerstein, former CSO Artist-in-Residence. The rich palette of orchestral color in this composition, which we also find in his conducting, adds to the immediate affinity and deep chemistry between Pintscher and the musicians of the orchestra. Rounding out this program are Ravel’s Alborado del gracioso and Debussy’s Images, both exemplifying French Impressionism with a Spanish accent.


Maurice Ravel

Born: March 7, 1875, Ciboure, Basses Pyrénées, France
Died: December 28, 1937, Paris

Known for:

  • Bolero (1928)
  • Daphnis et Chloé (1912)
  • 1922 arrangement of Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition

Associated with Impressionism

Alborada del gracioso

  • Work composed: 1905; orchestrated in 1918
  • Premiere: May 17, 1919, Paris, Rhené-Baton conducting the Pasdeloup Orchestra
  • Instrumentation: 3 flutes (incl. piccolo), 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, bass drum, castanets, crotale, crash cymbals, snare drum, suspended cymbals, tambour de basque, triangle, xylophone, 2 harps, strings
  • CSO notable performances: 11 previous subscription weekends | Premiere: March 1930 (Emery Auditorium), Fritz Reiner conducting | Most recent: November 2012, Peter Oundjian conducting | The CSO recorded this work for its 1995 CD of music by Ravel, Jesús López Cobos conducting.
  • Duration: approx. 7 minutes

Ravel was a member of a bohemian group of artists known as Le Club des Apaches. The Apaches, formed in 1902, saw themselves as outside the artistic mainstream. The name these promoters of the avant garde chose for their club is a French slang term for “rowdy young men.” They disliked the operas of Wagner, which were enormously popular in Paris. They admired instead Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande.

The Apaches held weekly meetings and attended concerts together. Because they wanted to be able to play music far into the night, composer Maurice Delage rented a garden cottage far from any house whose occupants might be disturbed. At their meetings the club members performed and discussed new music, read poetry and argued their viewpoints until late hours. Ravel often stayed on after meetings, sleeping on a cot.

Poet Léon-Paul Fargue wrote the following description of Ravel during his early years in the Apaches:

He joined us in our cafés and in our wanderings through Paris, and he shared our enthusiasms and crazes of the moment. Like us, he was determined to go to every performance of Pelléas to the last.… It seemed that everything was still to be done, to be invented, and everyone knew that, and that was in the air. We were happy, cultivated and aggressive, especially at concerts where we never hesitated to demonstrate, red in the face and chin in the air like a drawbridge, the burning and spontaneous justice of our point of view.

It was in this passionate atmosphere of conflicting ideas and sensations, during these crowded hours where everything was worth its weight in richness and dignity, that the works of Ravel took shape, silently, in his patient and heroic soul. Here there was no question of failure or mediocrity, of favor-seeking or jobbery, of music for drawing rooms or bars, or of music of the type which panders to fashionable sentimentality. Only of works, in the purest sense of the term.… This man, who was profoundly intelligent, versatile, precise and as learned as it was possible to be, and who did everything with a facility that was proverbial, had the character and qualities of an artisan—and there was nothing he liked better than to be compared to one. He liked doing things, and doing things well; everything that issued from his brain, whatever reservations the critics may have had about his inspiration, bears the stamp of perfection, a certain perfection. He knew that a thing—a poem, novel, picture, garden, love affair or ceremony—all such events or dramas can have what is called “finish,” to employ a term used in the workshop. And it was his passion to offer the public works which were “finished” and polished to the last degree.

KEYNOTE. In 1905 Ravel wrote a set of five piano pieces, known as Miroirs (“Mirrors”), each of which is dedicated to a different member of the Apaches. The fourth piece, Alborada del gracioso, was for M.D. Calvocoressi, the critic who was largely responsible for the group’s interest in Russian music. Pianist Ricardo Viñes, another Apache, played the first performance in 1906. Years later, after the Apaches had disbanded, Ravel orchestrated just the one movement.

The title can be translated “Morning Serenade of the Jester.” A gracioso is a jester in Spanish comedy, analogous to the fool in Shakespeare’s plays. Such a jester assisted musicians in performing an alborada, a serenade by a lover to his still-sleeping sweetheart.

—Jonathan Kramer


Photo of Mattias Pintscher for Program Notes

Matthias Pintscher

Born: January 29, 1971, Marl, Germany

Notable facts:

  • Artist-in-Association with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra
  • Music Director of the Ensemble Intercontemporain
  • Professor of Composition at the Julliard School

Un despertar (“An Awakening”)

  • Work composed: 2017, co-commissioned by the Boston Symphony Orchestra and Danish Radio Symphony
  • Premiere: March 23, 2017, Boston, François-Xavier Roth conducting the Boston Symphony Orchestra; Alisa Weilerstein, cello
  • Instrumentation: solo cello, 3 flutes (incl. 2 piccolos, bass flute), 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets (incl. bass clarinet), contrabass clarinet, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, bass drum, 5 bongo drums, chimes, glockenspiel, gong, guiro, log drum, marimba, plate bells, sandpaper blocks, 3 suspended cymbals, tam-tam, tambour de basque, thunder sheet, tubular bells, vibraphone, vibraslap, harp, piano, strings
  • CSO notable performances: These are the first CSO performances of the concerto
  • Duration: approx. 25 minutes

At 48, Matthias Pintscher is one of the most prominent composers on the international scene. Also in high demand as a conductor, he is the music director of the Ensemble Intercontemporain, the famous new-music ensemble in Paris founded by Pierre Boulez; he also serves as the music director of the Lucerne Festival Academy. His compositions—stage works, orchestral, chamber and vocal music—have been performed all over the world. He possesses a unique musical imagination and a virtually boundless ability to create new sounds. Those sounds, one hastens to add, are never mere “sound effects” but are endowed with dramatic meaning both in an of themselves and through the contexts in which they are placed. Pintscher often approaches musical composition as a kind of “imaginary theater,” where musical gestures and their interrelationships are treated like characters and situations in a drama. Pintscher took over this notion from Hans Werner Henze, from whom he received valuable advice at the beginning of his career. Yet his language is less traditional than Henze’s; his unconventional use of the orchestral instruments owes a great deal to another German composer, Helmut Lachenmann, whose aesthetic is very far removed from Henze’s (their public debate became famous in Germany). Pintscher has thus created a synthesis between various trends of German music that were previously considered antithetical. His output shows that uncompromising modernity in the means is not incompatible with expression and dramatic meaning.

The cello concerto Un despertar (“An Awakening”) takes its title from Mexican poet Octavio Paz (1914–98), who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1990. Pintscher said about the poem:

How this old man stands at the window and looks out into his snow-covered life, in the silence of the fine snow, analyzing his whole life, that’s an emotional state which inspired me … a state of awakening and self-knowledge.

KEYNOTE. Accordingly, the concerto is a deeply meditative work, with the volume often on the soft side. Marked “very slow and evocative,” the opening emerges from the mysterious sounds of brushes circling on drum membranes, before the solo cello enters with some cadenza-like, fleeting passagework. Jumping from the lowest register to the highest, the cello part becomes more insistent and more passionate, as the orchestration, too, fills out more and more. A new, more “vehement and agitated” section begins with some powerful orchestral accents, further energizing the solo part as well. The music gradually “awakens” with ever more vigorous rhythms, finally erupting in a violent tutti eliciting an equally powerful response from the cello. Yet immediately afterwards, the orchestra drops out and the soloist finishes the work alone, with a fast run spanning the entire range of the cello, and fading out on a series of eerie harmonics some hushed, toneless bowing on the bridge of the instrument.

—Peter Laki

Photo of Debussy for Program Notes

Claude Debussy

Born: August 22, 1862, Saint-Germain-en-Laye, a suburb of Paris
Died: March 25, 1918, Paris

Major composer of the late 19th and early 20th centuries

Known for:

  • Clair de Lune (1890)
  • Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune (1894)
  • Nocturnes (1897–1899)


  • Work composed: 1905–1912
  • Premiere: 1910–1913 (details below)
  • Instrumentation: 3 flutes, 2 piccolos (one doubling), 2 oboes, English horn, oboe d’amore, 3 clarinets, bass clarinet, 3 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 4 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, castanets, chimes, crash cymbals, snare drum, tambour de basque, tambourin provençal, triangle, xylophone, 2 harps, celeste, strings
  • CSO notable performances (complete Images): 2 previous subscription weekends | Premiere: November 1981, Bernard Rubenstein conducting | Most recent: February 1988, Michael Gielen conducting
  • Duration: approx. 36 minutes

The composition of the three orchestral Images occupied Claude Debussy from 1905 to 1912. Ibéria and Rondes de printemps were each begun around 1905 (originally planned as works for two pianos); Ibéria was completed late in 1908 and Rondes in the following year. Ibéria was premiered on February 20, 1910, with Gabriel Pierné conducting, and Rondes a few days later, on March 2, under the direction of the composer. Gigues, begun in 1909, was finished, with some assistance in the orchestration by André Caplet, in 1912. It was first perfomed on January 26, 1913, under Caplet.

The association of music and images is one of the most fundamental characteristics of Debussy’s art. In addition to the many specific images on which he based compositions (from La Mer to the two books of piano preludes), the word Images as a title appears in an early set of piano pieces (1894) and in two better-known sets for piano (1905–08), before the set of orchestral Images (completed in 1912). It is significant that each of these sets contains three movements, while the second orchestral image, Ibéria, which Debussy placed between Gigues and Rondes de printemps, itself having a three-part structure.

It was natural for Debussy to think in musical “images.” He was a great lover of art and counted many painters among his friends. But the artistic inspiration never meant a mere musical representation of a subject treated in a painting. The relationship is less direct; these are “images,” seen or dreamed by the mind’s eye, and then realized in sound rather than in color.

In the case of the orchestral Images, the visions are primarily about motion, and combine the senses of sight, hearing, and even smell, as in the middle section of Ibéria. As Charles Baudelaire, one of Debussy’s favorite poets, put it: Les parfums, les couleurs et les sons se répondent... (“The fragrances, the colors, and the sounds answer one another...”)


Debussy originally planned to call the first piece of the triptych Gigues tristes (“Sad gigues”), according to a letter to his publisher Durand written in 1905. No doubt, the idea of turning a cheerful dance-tune into a melancholy melody was already present in his mind years before the composition was actually written.

The melody itself is derived from an English country dance or jig, related to but different from the Baroque gigue. Debussy had visited England on numerous occasions; it may be that he came across this melody on one of his trips, or he may have borrowed it from the song “Dansons la gigue” (“Let’s dance the jig”) by his contemporary Charles Bordes (1863–1909).

After a brief introduction that sets the tone by a typically Debussyan combination of harp, celesta and woodwinds, the jig melody is played by the unaccompanied oboe d’amore (a double-reed instrument whose range of pitch lies between those of the oboe and the English horn). The other woodwinds and the horns play a faster rhythmic variant of this tune while the oboe d’amore keeps repeating its own, more soulful version of it. The music gets more and more agitated as the rhythmic pattern of the faster-moving material is developed in a powerful orchestral crescendo that suddenly breaks off. The sad jig tune returns; the tempo gradually slows down, the music gets ever softer, and finally fades into silence.

André Caplet, who helped Debussy orchestrate Gigues, wrote about the work in 1923:

“Gigues”...Sad Gigues...tragic Gigues...The portrait of a soul....a soul in pain, uttering its slow, lingering lamentation on the reed of an oboe d’amore. A wounded soul, so reticent that it dreads and shuns all lyrical effusion, and quickly hides its sobs behind the mask and the angular gestures of a grotesque marionette. Again, it suddenly wraps itself in a mantle of the most phlegmatic indifference. The ever-changing moods, the rapidity with which they merge, clash, and separate to unite once more, make the interpretation of the work very difficult....Underneath the convulsive shudderings, the sudden efforts at restraint, the pitiful grimaces, which serve as a kind of disguise, we recognize the very soul of our dear, great Claude Debussy. We find there the spirit of sadness, infinite sadness, lying stretched as in the bed of a river whose flow, constantly augmented from new sources, increases inevitably, mercilessly.


French musicians had often been inspired by the rhythms of Spanish music at least since Bizet’s Carmen (1875). Two composers from the generation preceding Debussy in particular owed their fame to their “Spanish” compositions: Edouard Lalo’s Symphonie espagnole (1875) and Emmanuel Chabrier’s España (1883) must have been familiar to the young Debussy, who himself wrote the piano piece “La soirée dans Grenade” (“Evening in Grenada”) in 1903 (No. 2 of Estampes).

It is interesting that, aside from one short trip across the border, Debussy never visited Spain. He knew, however, the music of some of his Spanish colleagues such as Manuel de Falla and Isaac Albéniz. (The latter had used the title “Iberia” in a magnificent suite for piano published in four volumes between 1906 and 1908.) Falla had warm words of praise for Debussy’s Ibéria, which he claimed had “a considerable and decisive influence on young Spanish composers.”

The first section of Ibéria, titled “Par les rues et par les chemins” (“In the Streets and Byways”) immediately creates a Spanish atmosphere with the sound of the castanets. The whole town is out in the streets on a warm summer evening. People are walking, talking, singing, and dancing. The clarinets play a dance tune marked by the composer as “elegant and rhythmic” and harmonized with parallel chords, one of Debussy’s recurrent techniques. Later an equally cheerful second theme is heard on the horns and clarinets, soon combined with a third melody which, in contrast, is more lyrical and expressive in character.

The first theme with the castanet accompaniment finally returns (now played by the oboes instead of the clarinets). At last, the noisy parade is over; the people go home and the section ends pianissimo.

The second section is called “Les parfums de la nuit” (“The Fragrances of the Night”). Falla perceived here “the intoxicating spell of Andalusian nights,” and he must have known since he was born in that province of Spain. There are several factors that contribute to the magic of this movement: first of all, a virtuosic orchestration that makes a sophisticated use of divided strings (at one point, the first violins are split into seven different groups, all playing with special techniques such as glissandos and harmonics). The celesta part is every bit as “celestial” as the instrument’s name. The chords are again “parallel,” with every part moving by the same interval regardless of keys; as a result, we get the so-called “whole-tone scale” (C, D, E, F-sharp, G-sharp, A-sharp) in which each of the six steps is a whole step higher than the preceding one (no half-steps). This scale is incompatible with the traditional major-minor system because its degrees are equidistant, they are all equally important, and any note may serve as a temporary or permanent resting-point. This is why the music seems to be hovering in the air, never touching the ground or reaching a clear closure.

The third movement of Ibéria, “Le matin d’un jour de fête” (“The Morning of a Festival Day”) follows upon the night without interruption. As the day begins to break, we hear the distant sound of a drum with some soft string pizzicatos. The night music returns for a moment in the form of a three-measure flute solo. The violins and violas imitate the sound of guitars; Debussy instructs half the players to hold their instruments like guitars. The clarinets play their solo “very cheerfully, exaggerating the accents.” The violin solo, full of double stops, must be “free and whimsical” (libre et fantasque); the oboe and English horn parts are marked “merry and whimsical” (gai et fantasque).

According to his correspondence with his publisher, Debussy had some difficulty choosing from three different ways of ending the piece. “Shall I toss up between them,” he wrote, “or try to find a fourth solution?” He finally opted for a big crescendo, “brisk and vigorous” (vif et nerveux); the last word belongs to the trombones, which cap the piece with a stupendous three-part glissando.

Rondes de printemps (“Spring Rounds”)

This is one of the rare instances Debussy quoted a French folk song in one of his works. He seems to have had a special fondness for “Nous n’irons plus au bois” [“We won’t go to the woods any more”], a melody to which he had also alluded in his piano piece “Jardins sous la pluie” [“Gardens in the Rain”], from the cycle Estampes. In “Rondes de printemps” this melodic fragment is transformed in various ways, some derived from the Baroque contrapuntal techniques known as “stretto” and “augmentation.”

Although the work is based on a French folksong, Debussy quoted from an Italian traditional song, “La Maggiolata,” or “Welcoming the month of May,” on the first page. The lines, which appear in French translation, read: Vive le Mai, bienvenu soit le Mai avec son gonfalon sauvage (“Long live May, May be welcome with its wild banner”). This is also the only movement of Images to bear a dedication, to Debussy’s second wife Emma.

The French folksong is preceded by an introduction that evokes the spring by airy woodwind passages accompanied by harp glissandos. This melody itself is presented in an asymmetrical meter of five beats (written as 15/8 as each beat is subdivided in three). The general atmosphere is one of warmth and serenity, though at the 1910 premiere, according to Debussy biographer Léon Vallas, “the very high pitch of the violins, the sudden gusts of thirds in the wind instruments, the rough sonorities of certain passages, suggested to some people icy blasts rather than the gentle breezes of spring.” After undergoing various rhythmic transformations, the folksong is played in long and strongly accented notes by the clarinets and the English horn, only to crumble away to tiny motifs, suddenly cut short by a powerful harp-celesta glissando that brings the piece to a close.

The following is from the program notes to the premiere of Rondes de printemps (1910), by Charles Malherbe, possibly based on a consultation with Debussy:

These are real pictures in which the composer has endeavored to convey, aurally, impressions received by the eye. He attempts to blend the two forms of sensation, in order to intensify them. The melody, with its infinitely varied rhythms, corresponds to the multiplicity of lines in a drawing; the orchestra represents a huge palette where each instrument supplies its own color. Just as the painter delights in contrasts of tone, in the play of light and shade, so the musician takes pleasure in the shock of unexpected dissonances and the fusion of unusual timbres; he wants us to visualize what he makes us hear, and the pen he holds between his fingers becomes a brush. This is musical impressionism of a very special kind and of a very rare quality.

—Peter Laki