Between 1929 and 1932, Maurice Ravel worked on two piano concertos: the first in D major for left hand alone, commissioned by Paul Wittgenstein, a pianist who had lost his right arm in the First World War. (He was the brother of philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, and the commissioner of several left-hand concertos, including one by Korngold.) Next, Ravel completed the Piano Concerto in G major, which is arguably the lighter of the two pieces, despite being written for twice the number of fingers.
The outer movements are quick, zany, jazz-inspired. But they frame a slow movement of profound lyricism and radical simplicity: a middle that almost seems at odds with what comes before and after. The startling contrast is part of what gives this unique concerto its brilliance and wonder.
A Parisian in America
Jazz was popular in Paris in the 1920s. Just after the end of the war, Black American artists were welcomed into France’s cafés, concert halls, and nightclubs. Some performers, like Josephine Baker, moved permanently, finding freedom in a country without segregation or systematic racial discrimination. Meanwhile, writers like F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway split their time between Paris and the Riviera, taking advantage of a favorable exchange rate and enjoying eccentric artistic company.
Ravel, however, was not in the midst of the Jazz-Age scene, having moved from Paris to the countryside commune of Montfort-l’Amaury in 1921, seeking peace and quiet. But in 1927 he found himself creatively blocked while trying to write a violin sonata. Long past deadline and depressed, he took inspiration from the blues, which soothed his own “blues,” allowing him to complete the violin sonata.
At that point, Ravel’s knowledge of American music was entirely through import, but the following year, he embarked on a trip to America, his initial reluctance assuaged by guarantees of $10,000 and a reliable supply of Gauloises Caporal cigarettes while underway. And so he crisscrossed the country from January through April of 1928, playing concerts and visiting everywhere from New York to the Grand Canyon.
In March, Ravel celebrated his 53rd birthday in New York with a party attended by George Gershwin, a meeting dramatized in the 1945 film Rhapsody in Blue with the quip:
GERSHWIN Monsieur Ravel, how much I’d like to study with you. RAVEL If you study with me, you will only write second-rate Ravel instead of first-rate Gershwin.
But the influence went both ways—Ravel treads close to the line in the outer movements of the Concerto in G, sometimes seeming to gloss on bits lifted from Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue.
Vibrancy and Solitude
The first movement starts at the crack of a whip with a mechanical, toy-like tune in the flute and piccolo. The piano’s grand entry (after “warming up” with arpeggios and glissandi) arrives with the sultry second theme. These two ideas make up much of the movement, recurring between jazzier episodes, lighthearted and exuberant.
The Adagio assai finds the piano unfurling a seemingly endless, lonesome melody against a constant waltz pulse in the left hand. The piano is alone for over one quarter of the movement, before growing unease blooms into an orchestral texture. The middle is troubled, with ascending lines in the orchestra set sharply against descending patterns in the piano. This reaches a climax, and then the English horn enters with the original melody, while the piano decorates on a warm bed of strings. The soloist is taken back into the fold, now in company and no longer alone.
The finale snaps back to the spirit of the first movement—it’s a brilliant romp, with misplaced accents and nimble athletics.
Ravel began writing the concerto back in Europe the year after his successful American tour, perhaps with the idea of making a return trip with it. But ultimately the 1932 premiere went to the French pianist Marguerite Long, with Ravel conducting the Orchestre Lamoureux in Paris. They toured Europe with the concerto to great acclaim, and in the end Ravel never returned to America.