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.