Orchestrated by Ravel
Analysed by Robert Walton
If ever there was a musical composition that captures a perfect moment of ecstasy, it just has to be Debussy’s Tarantelle Styrienne, but you’ve got to be quick. Blink and you might miss it! It gives a whole new meaning to the so-called excitable state. And if it hadn’t been for Ravel’s brilliant 1923 arrangement we might have never heard it. It was originally an early Debussy piano piece written in 1890 while at the Paris Conservatory. He was hoping to capitalize on the French love of the exotic, but rarely gets a mention in any books about his piano works. At the time, Debussy was having difficulty putting food on the table so there was some urgency about it. We owe everything to Ravel for drawing it to our attention and indeed bringing it to life. Well, that’s not quite true. We must thank the publisher Jobert for his suggestion to get it orchestrated.
There is no evidence that Debussy had either been to the province of Styria, in the south east of Austria or heard any music from there. As far as we know he simply borrowed the rhythm from the Italian tarantella and moved it, musically speaking, lock stock and barrel to Austria. Having said that, it’s not far from the Italian border. Vienna might be the home of the popular waltz but we are treated to a typical Neapolitan dance in 6/8 time, effectively a fast waltz. So if you haven’t already heard it, prepare yourself for one of the most amazing experiences you’re ever likely to encounter, albeit briefly.
Right at the outset I had better warn you not to expect too much in the transports of delight department. Ravel’s economic scoring is one thing but any ecstatic outburst is usually brief as in real life, and beautifully reflected in TarantelleStyrienne. In fact there are only two moments in the whole piece when the orchestra really takes off - shortly after the start and near the end.
A French horn opens up this exciting dance movement but you have to wait another 40 seconds before the strings come into their own with the first glorious 10 second outburst of pure joy. At that point one feels it could have been developed into a more complete melody. However, if any piece produces the feel-good factor then this is it - more the feel-fantastic factor. I briefly go into a sort of trance, accompanied by a rush of adrenalin with the biggest smile on my face. It’s almost as if I have been given a glimpse of the meaning of life or the secret of the universe. This pentatonic-type tune (black notes of the piano) owes much to the Scottish and Irish song style. Could this be the first of the rousing themes heard in Hollywood westerns in embryo? Perhaps it’s an early form of The Big Country by Jerome Moross or the orchestral impression Canadian Caravan by Robert Farnon. Anyway, food for thought as we eagerly await the final appearance of another fleeting moment of exhilaration.
So while we’re waiting, let’s examine what master musician Maurice has in store for us. Firstly there’s never a dull moment with an exquisite Ravel orchestration. His ability to mix and match the strings, woodwind, brass and percussion are legendary. With Debussy providing the groundwork, Ravel breathes new life into the original piano score. It’s a moving strict tempo kaleidoscope of orchestral colour with ever changing textures of light and shade. So it’s never boring but always building up to the next climax. When the brass plays, the by now famous short radiant tune, it hasn’t got anything like the impact of the string passage, so it’s back to the ‘wild’ waltz for some more gorgeous highs and lows. We are so mesmerized by the oboe that the rhythm seems to have disappeared. That might be the impression given, but the subtle fiery dance continues unabated. Gradually we become aware of this extremely successful exercise in the merging of two great musical minds. And all the while the music is working up to a final frenzied state, generating all that energy in just a few bars. As Count Basie would say: “One more time!”
After a distinct pause, stand by for your very last chance to wallow in what must be one of the shortest and most thrilling string phrases in all music.
One of the best versions ofTarantelle Styrienne is by the Philharmonia Orchestra conducted by Geoffrey Simon on Cala (CACD 1002).
On Google, the orchestral version is conducted by Alessandro Crudele, but if you want to hear the original Debussy piano piece you can follow the music as Zoltan Kocsis plays it.
This piece is of a more serious cast than what we are normally dealing with on this site - with it, we are quite outside the realm of light music, but I will still make the same points that I habitually make - that each of us have our own way of listening to a piece of music, and as usual, I must emphasize that there is no right or wrong in any of this, only that for each if us that describes honestly our own individual perspective.
That said, I will simply say that I personally have always had trouble thinking of any work by Debussy as ecstatically happy, even in such movements as Jardins de la Pluie (at least the closing portion), l'Isle Joyeuse, or even a piece that distantly resembles the one under consideration - Les Collines d'Anacapri. Even Fetes, from Trois Nocturnes, sounds to me anything but Festive.
It is for me a matter of simply absorbing the notes, without searching for any meaning, not even one provided by the composer, and allowing the work to settle in without much thought, with any images to be generated by the mind in a totally subliminal manner. I simply cannot be preoccupied with factors outside the sphere of the actual musical composition, the very notes, the form, the tonal movement (very important for me) and take my subconscious cues from those. I do not attempt to ascertain any outside origin of what I'm listening to, nor 'ethnicize" the work in any manner.
This is not to imply that other listeners are incorrect in their manner of approach to apiece such as the one under discussion, but simply that what I read in this article, well put together as it is, happens not to be my own individual approach, and this stance that I always held was instilled even deeper within me by a mentor or mine whom I had occasion to mention previously.
I would say the same about the orchestration of this piece. I tend to judge it by the total effect, the totality of the sound, and not how instruments answer one another (violin answering oboe, with a countermelody in the cello or the clarinet, followed by a horn fanfare, etc.). Moreover, the same selection might be realized orchestrally in numerous ways, depending on how the orchestrator individually views the piece. For my part, I would say that the idea of an orchestral rendering of this piece is perfectly feasible, but the manner in which it was done here to my ears sounds somewhat to harsh or strident at times.
This piece I know under the title "Danse" with a subtitle "Tarantelle Styrienne" which I feel should be accepted or rejected entirely according to how one views or hears the music. It has a degree of currency in the repertoire of Debussy's piano music, and I wouldn't say for certain that it was dependent on Ravel's orchestration to acquire any degree of familiarity or even popularity. Ravel similarly orchestrated another piano piece by Debussy; the middle Sarabande movement from his suite "Pour le Piano" which has not in this case been the vehicle for this movement to acquire a degree of popularity. And as for the orchestration itself one should feel free to once again accept or reject the result as representing the last word - in both cases it is purely a matter of interpretation.
I will say that despite the fact that Debussy has become historically known as one of the great innovators in music, adopting many novel techniques that advanced his impressionistic approach, this piece is nevertheless one of many composed during his early period that could be singled out as absolute gems - one could point to the two Arabesques, the Suite Bergamasque, the Petite Suite, the Ballade, the cantata L'Enfant Prodigue, and many others. There are also a few works from this period such as Printemps and the Fantasie for Piano and Orchestra that exhibit a more romantic manner, but nothing in any of them that goes off the beaten track. All of these pieces that I mention I would describe as thoroughly recommendable and worth cultivating. On the other hand, many works composed in his last period could by comparison be described as stillborn and not successful, but that is a purely subjective opinion.
I will sum this whole thing up by saying that everyone's approach to a work, whether by listening actively or contemplating silently, is individually different. What I'm simply trying to say here is that though Robert has given a very engaging personal impression of this piece as he perceives it, a perfectly honest appraisal; nevertheless, it happens to not be my own manner of perception and appraisal.
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