Ravel's 'Tzigane' (1924) + Paris

June 5, 2017, 12:47 PM · Ravel's "Tzigane" is definitely a favorite in the violin world - for me, it combines my favorite composer and my favorite instrument! It's a wonderful piece and it's fun to noodle through a few passage of it myself (playing for a bit today inspired me to write this). Below are a few recordings of the piece:

David Oistrakh

Joshua Bell

Maxim Vengerov


A neat anecdote from a 1922 private music concert in London shows Ravel's initial idea for the piece. Hungarian violinist Jelly d'Aranyi was playing Ravel's Sonata for Violin and Cello, and later in the evening, Ravel asked her to play some gypsy melodies. He kept asking for more melodies, and they continued until close to 5am. This evening sparked the initial inspiration for the piece.

Curiously, Ravel himself doesn't mention this piece in great detail like some of his other works in his letters (examples from A Ravel Reader by Arbie Orenstein). On March 13, 1924, he wrote a letter to the famous violinist Jelly d'Aranyi (whom he dedicated this piece to) asking her to come to Paris to play virtuosic passages from the piece to test playability. (The premiere was given in London.)

There are a lot of really cool tidbits about this piece. For starters, the accompaniment part was for the piano luthéal, a special attachment to the piano that did not age well; however, Ravel was interested in colour, proved by his beautiful orchestrations, and was attracted by an instrument that didn't sound so distinct and obvious as the piano. (Ravel's opera L'enfant et les Sortilèges was one of the last works to use the instrument.) Also, there are only three instruments left today!

A video on the instrument

Here's another video (the YouTube queue should have the other "Performer's Perspective") as well by the Philharmonia of a performer's perspective on the piece. I think it's very enlightening when she tells the stories she comes up with that come out of it, and how that helps her approach it.
Performer's Perspective (1)

Ravel also orchestrated the piano part, and of course had some wonderful effects, such as the solo violin melodies being passed to the concertmaster solo in the orchestra.

To me this piece is a wonderful gypsy dance that's certainly outside of most of Ravel's other works because it's a gypsy piece, yet still has a distinct Ravel/French taste to it. It begins with two pages of just solo violin. The entire first page is solely sul Sol (all on the G string). This gives it a very rich, velvety colour, going all the way up to the G two octaves higher than the open string. (When I picked out my violin last year, I really loved how well the instrument reacted to the G string in general, and so going all the way up there (can be) a treat for me on my instrument.) The second page contains lots of double stops (a repeat of the opening in octaves), left hand pizzicatos, and finally ends with a tremelando on a C major triad, when the piano (or orchestra - the harp!) finally comes in.

After lots of diminished arpeggios in the piano, and a chromatic climb in the violin, we arrive at the main melody of the piece (Theme A) - instantly catches our ear and will be something we can hum easily to. The piano plays the second half (I'm going to call it Theme B) of the melody, which makes use of the augmented second - an interval I've been obsessed with since this desert string orchestra piece I wrote back in 2011. After, the violin reveals this is basically a theme and variations, as the melody returns (A), embedded in tricky harmonics in the violin. The violin continues with the second half (B) and the piano now has sixteenth notes. Then, after an extended violin arpeggio line and large chromatic sweep, it starts again for the third repeat (A), this time in the piano with the violin pizzicato an octave higher when it can - this is a really tough spot as both hands need to help pluck the strings to make the effect of sixteenth-note pizzicato. Instead of the second half, the piano plays what I'm going to call Theme C.

Theme A returns, but this time, the violin is playing it using natural harmonics, which creates a very ethereal sound that is (probably, I don't know) simply dazzling with the luthréal. The beautiful moment then crashes down (literally) to open strings, right to the lower range of the violin, and Theme A then gets shattered in the arpeggios. Then, the violin states it again with trills - something Ravel also continued to try on the piano with his G Major Piano Concerto.

We then get Theme D, the romping, disjointed melody with the grace notes and the major/minor switch. After the violin passes it on to the piano, the violin gets a new theme, E, and this begins the slow accelerando to the very end of the piece (the spot that she was talking about in the Philharmonia video). Harmonics are thrown in, double-stops, and everyone comes to join this melody and this dance, including birds. It's basically a bunch of variations on Theme E for a while, getting faster and faster, with the violin's sixteenth notes pretty much constant. At the very end, we finally get Theme A again, although this time it's completely embedded in sixteenth notes and the bouncy feel of it is gone. It continues into the finale, the violin slowly rising chromatically through its running line with the piano, sequencing little fragments, getting faster and faster... very much like La Valse, until finally the dance crashes and everyone falls down on a couple of final pizzicato chords to end off the piece.

This is such a fun piece to listen to, and would certainly be something I might work on practicing sometime in the future. It's difficult, but the effect is wonderful and Ravel pushes the violin strings to their limits with all of his crazy harmonics. I just thought it would be fun to share this piece with you, and even with how different it sounds than other works, it still contains plenty of characteristics that make it pure Ravel. It's a wonderful work, and I can't wait to continue to hear it performed.

Postlude: For this blog's posterity, I suppose more for myself, I just wanted to mention I am very soon going to be traveling to Paris for a 5-week community learning trip for college! I am very excited for the trip and when it's over I will do a large post about my musical and academic experiences. The Philharmonia's "City of Light" videos I had in this post have been a great start to my excitement of going to this city, and this analysis of this piece of course as well - I hope to at least see some of the places Ravel has liven in/been to (and of course he mentions the city in his letters, even about this piece) throughout Paris! I cannot wait to share my trip with you, so check back sometime in the second half of July for my post! Thank you!

My review of the new Wonder Woman score (Rupert Gregson-Williams - 2017). Also I apologize for the copied entries for this month's posts here!


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