Maurice Ravel’s Introduction et allegro is really a little harp concerto commissioned by the Érard instrument company in response to a competitor, Pleyel, commissioning Claude Debussy’s similar Danse sacrée et danse profane (1904). The two companies were engaged in harp war, each championing a different technology. Érard made traditional double-action harps, which have eight strings per octave, each pitch adjustable (flat, natural, or sharp) by pedals to make a scale in any key. Pleyel, on the other hand, made a fully chromatic harp, which had 12 strings per octave, similar to a piano keyboard. The playing techniques were quite different, so the manufactures had to win performers over to their side. Commissioning works from leading composers was a way to make their case.
Ravel rushed to finish Introduction et allegro because he was scheduled to leave on a two-month boat cruise with friends shortly after receiving the commission. “Eight days of solid work and three sleepless nights allowed me to finish it, for better or worse!” he reported. Perhaps the bland title hints at his hurry, as if he had to send it off before thinking of something more evocative.
But once you turn the title page, the music is a wonderful discovery. Scored for a tiny orchestra of flute, clarinet, and string quartet, it opens with the winds shadowing each other in thirds, answered by the strings. The solo harp enters with a sweeping arpeggio (immediately showing off something Érard’s instrument did better than Pleyel’s). The cello pushes forward with a new theme, and finally we arrive at the Allegro, where the harp leads with a melody for the first time, proving it’s not just a decorative instrument. Ravel finds an incredible range of colors and textures with limited forces. Near the climax, the viola and cello join in the strumming, launching the harp into a spine-tingling cadenza.
If you look at any orchestral harp today, you’ll see that Érard’s pedal system won out—mostly on its own merits for ease of playing, but no doubt with a little help from Ravel.