About this work
During the first few years of the twentieth century Maurice Ravel's position as a student at the Paris Conservatoire was by no means a particularly comfortable one. His repeated failure to secure any of the school's academic prizes -- including, on five different occasions, the coveted Prix de Rome -- made it more and more difficult to remain an official student in Fauré's class, and he was eventually dismissed from the school in 1903. During these same years, however, Ravel completed several of his best-known works -- works that were, even at that time, widely considered to be masterpieces. The String Quartet (1902-1903) remains a repertory staple, as does the song cycle Shéhérazade (1903); in terms of sheer impact and immediate musical influence, though, perhaps the most striking work of all is the piano piece Jeux d'eau (1901).
Jeux d'eau, which translates as "Play of Water" or "Fountains," draws heavily on the technically brilliant pianistic style of Franz Liszt, one of Ravel's heroes; indeed, many think that Ravel's work is something of an homage to Liszt's similarly scintillating Les jeux d'eau à la Villa d'Este (1870). Still, Jeux d'eau is something almost totally new, incorporating a kind of pianism unlike any that had ever been dreamed of. With this work Ravel opened the gates for both his own later piano pieces (particularly Miroirs and Gaspard de la nuit) and those of other Parisian composers of the day. Debussy was particularly quick to capitalize on the innovations of his young colleague; during the first few years of the decade, as the two composers mutually influenced each other, there was in fact some confusion as to who, in fact, was the real creator of the new style.
Jeux d'eau is thoroughly saturated with the rich sonorities of major seventh chords -- a feature found even in Ravel's earliest music, here taken to a new level. Added to this is the nearly bitonal juxtaposition of two harmonies (C major and F sharp major -- a tritone removed!), which have been collectively dubbed the "Jeu d'eau chord." The ebb and flow of harmonic color is as near to a liquid state as music could ever achieve.
The atmosphere of great exuberance reflected in the quotation at the front of the score ("The river god laughs as the water tickles him"), combined with the continuous arpeggiations and chromatic flourishes, is positively electric in effect. The glistening texture never lets up, and with the approach of the final, pianissimo expanse in E major Ravel allows the pianist an opportunity to let loose with a dramatic, très rapide cadenza.
The kind of shimmering pianissimo textures that characterize so much of the composer's later music are already well developed in this work; his reluctance to rely on the same mock-archaic, highly sectional formal designs that hold his earlier piano pieces together indicates a growing appreciation of his own ability to successfully produce extended, self-defined textural essays. While there are clearly two recognizable themes in Jeux d'eau, they are by no means worked out in the Classical manner; to describe the piece as a sonata-allegro form, as indeed some have done, is out of the question. Even if the vague outlines of such a form can be excavated by musical archaeologists, the term has little meaning in regard to this most original of Ravel's keyboard works.