Maurice Ravel


M. 17 • “Ouverture de féerie”

About this work

Ravel's early "fairy overture" Shéhérazade (1898) was long assumed to be lost for good; it was only in the mid-'70s, in fact, that the work came to light again and became available for study and performance. Shéhérazade is the earliest of Ravel's works for orchestra; while it by no means displays the mastery of the medium evident in works like Daphnis and Chloé (1909-1912) and Alborada del gracioso (1918), the young Ravel is already clearly charting his compositional course. Ravel famously returned to the subject of Shéhérazade in the 1903 song cycle of the same name; despite the absence of obvious thematic or structural connections, it is not difficult to imagine that the overture served Ravel as a sort of study for the later work.

Shéhérazade takes shape as a sonata-allegro skeleton upon which Ravel overlays music of such remarkable flexibility that many contemporary audiences and critics found themselves lost within what is really a very clear formal design. Ravel treats the "oriental" subject matter in a manner consistent with other turn-of-the-century European works -- that is, a sort of fanciful, evocative inauthenticity that relies upon features like arabesque melodies and whole-tone scales. Occasionally, and quite understandably, Ravel's work summons forth the sounds of Rimsky-Korsakov's earlier, better-known tone poem Sheherazade (1888).

A 24-measure Modèré introduction provides ample evidence of Ravel's early infatuation with constantly changing meter. With the arrival of the exposition, however, the meter snaps into 4/4 regularity, an active timpani helping to drive the exotic rhythms and chromatic melody forward. After an episodic development that makes thorough use of both the main melody and its many subsidiaries, Ravel forges a thrilling climax. During the recapitulation, both the main theme of the Allegro and that of the introduction are combined into a single utterance, and the initial introductory material is refashioned into an introspective coda. Shéhérazade also exists in a version for piano, four hands, which may well predate the orchestral version, possibly serving as a kind of short score for the composer.