Maurice Ravel – Chansons madécasses



1)    “Nahan­dove, ô belle Nahandove!”

2)   “Aoua!”

3)   “Il est doux…”

The Chan­sons madé­casses were com­mis­sioned by the Amer­i­can patroness  Eliz­a­beth Sprague Coolidge (to whom they are ded­i­cated) who also com­mis­sioned music by Bartók, Hin­demith, Prokofiev, Schoen­berg, Stravinksy and Brit­ten, among oth­ers. She left the choice of text up to Ravel but did sug­gest “if pos­si­ble” adding flute and cello to the piano accompaniment.

Ravel chose to set three poems by Evariste-Désiré de Parny, whose Chan­sons madé­casses, traduites en françois appeared in 1787. In his music, Ravel dives head­long into the unabashed emo­tional realm the poet cre­ates. In each of the three songs, Ravel so totally depicts a new world that is it hard to believe he uses only voice, piano, flute and cello.  “It is a sort of quar­tet in which the singing voice plays the role of prin­ci­pal instru­ment,” Ravel wrote of the cycle. “Sim­plic­ity reigns,  [as does] the inde­pen­dence of the voices.”

The first song, “Nahan­dove, ô belle Nahan­dove!” is the longest of the cycle. The intensely erotic mood of the song begins with a descend­ing phrase in the cello, to which Ravel adds only the voice for the first two verses. It is only as the lover hears Nahan­dove approach­ing that Ravel quick­ens the tempo and adds piano and flute.  Through­out, the song jux­ta­poses erotic lan­guor with fevered antic­i­pa­tion and love­mak­ing, end­ing, as it began, with the cello alone.

Ravel took the warn­ing cry “Aoua!” from Parny’s poem “Méfiez-vous des Blancs” and used it as the title of his sec­ond song, a harsh, angry denun­ci­a­tion of the white man. Even the quiet sec­tions of the song have a night­mar­ish, dis­turb­ing qual­ity, per­fectly in keep­ing with the poet’s anguished words.

In the last song, “Il est doux…,” Ravel con­jures a lan­guid, heat-drenched world in which even the talk of danc­ing evokes a lazy, sen­sual rhythm. When the singer calls for sup­per to be pre­pared, Ravel stops the music abruptly, and the exotic worlds he so deftly cre­ated sim­ply vanish.

The Chan­sons madé­casses were pre­miered  at the Amer­i­can Acad­emy in Rome on May 8, 1926 by singer Jane Bathori, with Alfredo Casella, piano; Louis Fleury, flute; and Hans Kindler, cello.  The com­poser him­self later tran­scribed them for voice and piano alone.

This arti­cle appeared orig­i­nally in the pro­gram book of the San Fran­cisco Sym­phony and is used here by per­mis­sion.