The impetus for composing the piece came in 1904, when Ravel heard a second-hand account of something Debussy had said. According to Alexis Roland-Manuel, Ravel’s friend and biographer, Debussy had told the pianist Ricardo Viñes that when writing his experimental piece, “D’un cahier d’esquisses,” he had been “dreaming of a kind of music whose form was so free that it would sound improvised, of works which would seem to have been torn out of a sketchbook.” Viñes recounted Debussy’s statement at a meeting of “Les Apaches,” a group of radical writers, artists and musicians, of which Ravel was a member. Ravel responded by saying that he was ready to put Debussy’s dream into action. He drew his inspiration from an experience he had one morning in the forest at Fontainbleau. Ravel’s friend and former music school classmate Émile Vuillermoz remembered:
He was staying with friends and one morning he heard a blackbird whistling a tune and was enchanted by its elegant, melancholy arabesque. He had merely to transcribe this tune accurately, without changing a note, to produce the limpid, poetic piece which spiritualises the nostalgic call of this French brother of the Forest Bird in Siegfried.
After the meeting, Ravel set to work on the E-Flat Minor “Oiseaux tristes,” which he dedicated to Viñes and included in his five-piece suite, Miroirs. “Oiseaux tristes is the most typical of my way of thinking,” Ravel wrote in his 1928 autobiographical sketch. “It evokes birds lost in the oppressiveness of a very dark forest during the hottest hours of summer.”
Ravel recorded “Oiseaux tristes” and four other pieces in London on June 30, 1922, using a Duo-Art reproducing piano. Unlike the Welte-Mignon machine used by Debussy in 1913 (Ravel also made a pair of recordings on the Welte-Mignon at about the same time as Debussy) the Duo-Art system did not automatically record the dynamics of the performance. So when Ravel played “Oiseaux tristes” at the studio in London, there was an engineer seated next to him at a console, turning dials to capture the dynamic modulations in his playing. Afterward, Ravel listened to a playback on a pianola and, satisfied with the results, signed his name on the original roll.
When the Bolsheviks seized the aristocratic Rachmaninoff’s estate shortly after the October Revolution of 1917, he and his family fled to Scandinavia and then to America, where they arrived in November of 1918. To make money, the cash-strapped émigré put aside composing and embarked on a grueling performance schedule, and in March of 1919 he agreed to make a series of piano-roll recordings for the American Piano Company, or “Ampico.”
It was a time of transition for musical entertainment in America. Most families who were not poor owned a piano, in keeping with the tradition that home entertainment was a do-it-yourself affair. But as technology advanced, people became more accustomed to the idea of hearing the music of a world-famous virtuoso in their own living room. Player pianos, or pianolas, sounded better than early phonographs and could still serve the function of a regular piano, so for awhile there was a booming business in the perforated paper rolls that kept them playing.
Rachmaninoff was interested in tapping into the piano roll market, but was skeptical at first about the quality of the recordings. When he made his first recording at the Ampico studio in New York, he was stunned when he heard the playback. “Gentlemen,” he reportedly said, “I, Sergei Rachmaninoff, have just heard myself play.” He would eventually record 35 pieces for Ampico between 1919 and 1929, twelve of which were his own compositions. In the video above, we hear three of his best-known piano-roll recordings:
* Rachmaninoff plays his famous Prelude in C Sharp Minor, Op. 3, No. 2 , from the 1892 suite, Morceaux de fantaisie (“Fantasy Pieces”), recorded on March 17, 1919.
* Rachmaninoff plays his own piano transcription of his popular 1902 song “Lilacs,” from 12 Romances (also known as 12 Songs), Op. 21, recorded on April 6, 1922.
* Rachmaninoff plays a famous short piece written by another Russian composer: Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s 1903 “Flight of the Bumblebee,” recorded on February 1, 1929.
A century ago, the great French composer Claude Debussy sat down at a contraption called a Welte-Mignon reproducing piano and recorded a series of performances for posterity. The machine was designed to encode the nuances of a pianist’s playing, including pedaling and dynamics, onto piano rolls for later reproduction, like the one above.
Debussy recorded 14 pieces onto six rolls in Paris on or before November 1, 1913. According to Debussy enthusiast Steve Bryson’s Web site, the composer was delighted with the reproduction quality, saying in a letter to Edwin Welte: “It is impossible to attain a greater perfection of reproduction than that of the Welte apparatus. I am happy to assure you in these lines of my astonishment and admiration of what I heard. I am, Dear Sir, Yours Faithfully, Claude Debussy.”
The selection above is “La soirée dans Grenade” (“Grenada in the evening”), from Debussy’s 1903 trio of compositions titled Estampes, or “Prints.” Debussy was inspired by the Symbolist poets and Impressionist painters who strove to go beyond the surface of a subject to evoke the feeling it gave off. “La soirée dans Grenade” is described by Christine Stevenson at Notes From a Pianist as a “sound picture” of Moorish Spain:
Debussy’s first-hand experience of Spain was negligible at that time, but he immediately conjures up the country by using the persuasive Habenera dance rhythm to open the piece–softly and subtly. It insinuates itself into our consciousness with its quiet insistence on a repeated C sharp in different registers; around it circles a languid, Moorish arabesque, with nasal augmented 2nds, and a nagging semitone pulling against the tonal centre, occasionally interrupted by muttering semiquavers [16th notes] and a whole-tone based passage. Debussy writes Commencer lentement dans un rythme nonchalamment gracieux [Begin slowly in a casually graceful rhythm] at the beginning, but later Tres rythmé [Very rythmic] in a brightly lit A major as the dance comes out of the shadows, ff [Fortissimo--loudly], with the click of castanets and the stamping of feet.
Debussy was 52-years-old and suffering from cancer when he made his piano roll recordings. He died less than five years later, on March 25, 1918. Since then his beautiful and evocative music has secured a place for him as one of the most influential and popular composers of the 20th century. As Roger Hecht writes at Classical Net, “Debussy was a dreamer whose music dreamed with him.”
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