Shéhérazade: ouverture de féerie

While still at the Conservatoire, Ravel was contemplating writing an opera based on Les Mille et unes nuits. "C'est de cette époque que date mon opéra inédit et inachevé de Shéhérazade, assez fortement dominé par l'influence de la musique russe." (Ravel [1938]). The only music that emerged from this was the "fairy overture" Shéhérazade, which now stands as Ravel's first orchestral work.

It appears to have been completed in November 1898, and was first performed on 27 May 1899, at a concert of the Société Nationale, in the Salle du Nouveau Théâtre, presenting works by a range of French composers, both established and new. Ravel's overture was the first item on the programme, and he himself was conducting it, in front of an audience that included both Fauré and Debussy. Its reception was heated, with both hisses - "on a sifflé ferme Shéhérazade" (Ravel to Florent Schmitt, in Orenstein [1989]) - and cheers, led by Ricardo Viñes - "Je me suis affronté tout seul à toute la salle, criant bravo, bravo, et applaudissant à tout rompre..." (Viñes [1980]).

The work received some harsh comment from critics, notably Pierre Lalo and Henri Gauthier-Villars: "un gauche démarquage de l'école russe, du Rimsky tripatouillé par un debussyste jaloux d'égaler Erik Satie..." ('Willy' in L'Ouvreuse du cirque d'été, juin 1899). Ravel himself admitted that it was "badly constructed and crammed with whole-tone scales. There were so many of them in it, in fact, that I had enough of them for life." (quoted in Roland-Manuel [1947] p.28). The overture was not published or performed again in the composer's lifetime (it was only published in 1975), and Ravel seems to have suppressed it, even re-using the title for his song cycle Shéhérazade in 1903.

A programme note for the first performance was probably written by Ravel himself: "Construite d'après le plan classique de l'ouverture, cette pièce est précédée d'une introduction, dans laquelle le thème de Schéhérazade, proposé par un hautbois, est repris par les cors et les trompettes. Vient ensuite l'ouverture proprement dite, ainsi composée:
1re partie: Motif initial en si mineur; développements - Thème épisodique (trompettes bouchées amenant le 2e motif (en fa dièse majeur), inspiré d'une mélodie persane - Conclusion de la 1re partie.
2e partie: développment des quatre thèmes. - Pédale basée sur le motif initial élargi.
3e partie: Retour du 1er et du 2e motif entendus simultanément. - Retour de l'introduction servant de coda." (Reported by Pierre Lalo in Le Temps, 13 juin 1899, quoted in Marnat [1986], p.92).

Lalo made a sceptical critique of this description.

Commentators have been divided on whether there are any musical links between the overture and the song cycle:

Roland-Manuel: "... he used some of the material for a second Schéhérazade, a setting of poems by Tristan Klingsor. Part of it, in particular, provided the first theme for Asie." (Roland-Manuel [1947], p.28).

Orenstein: "... there are many similarities, and particular, the opening theme of Asie appears to have been derived to some extent from part of the initial theme of the overture." (Orenstein [1991], p.148).

Marnat: "Aucun rapport avec la Schéhérazade de 1903." (Marnat [1986], p.730).

Nichols: "Contrary to what has sometimes been stated, [Shéhérazade the song-cycle has] no thematic identity with the Overture of five years earlier (merely a kinship of atmosphere)." (Nichols [2011] p.54).

What is clear is that Ravel had an ongoing fascination with an orientalism that was often filtered through the work of other artists, including Rimsky-Korsakov.

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