Author Topic: Ravel’s Chansons madécasses  (Read 1599 times)

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Offline Mirror Image

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Ravel’s Chansons madécasses
« on: February 25, 2019, 09:35:33 PM »


Some background on the work:

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.

[Taken from a San Francisco Symphony Orchestra program]

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During the final phase of Maurice Ravel's career, he experienced hampered creativity and a confused emotional state -- which in the years that followed evolved into a preoccupation with economy of means and ensemble combinations. For example, the Chansons madécasses (Madagascar Songs), with their unique chamber ensemble, was, as Ravel indicated, "a kind of quartet in which the voice plays the part of the main instrument." The vocal line is uncharacteristic of Ravel's detached and objective style; instead the song sensuously and frightfully declares its message. The texts, taken from the eighteenth century Creole poet Evariste-Desire de Parny, are a cry for liberation from colonialism, exploitation, and slavery as they occurred in Madagascar. "Nahandove" depicts the erotic seduction of a native woman, in which Ravel uses the cello in counterpoint to the flute and piano. "Aoua!" is the frightful warning of the deceiving and dangerous white men; it opens with shrieks of the song's title, made on descending minor thirds. The vocal line is supported by dissonant piano crunches, while a tam-tam effect is made by the resonances of the piano and low notes of the flute. "Aoua!" was probably the most discussed of the three songs. When it was sung by Jane Bathori in 1925, at a concert in the Paris Salle Majestic, it was well received, except by a few members of the audience, who found the song's message especially disturbing because fighting was occurring in Morocco. The song comes to a bitter ending where the singer again proclaims "mefiez-vous des blancs" ("Don't trust the whites"). "Il est doux," featuring exotic timbres, returns to the earlier sexual lure. The first complete performance of the three songs was in 1926. Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge, an American patroness of chamber music, made only one suggestion when she commissioned the songs, in regards to the instrumentation of the accompaniment; the choice of text reveals Ravel's interest in the exotic.

Ravel stated that he viewed the years shortly before and during which the Chansons madécasses were written as a turning point in his career. In that time he turned from harmonic techniques to "the spirit of melody." The composer revealed in a late interview that these three songs were his favorites.

[Article taken from All Music Guide]

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Since there’s a thread on Shéhérazade, I figured Chansons madécasses would be a great one to discuss. It’s one of my favorites from Ravel along with Trois poèmes de Mallarmé. I do love Shéhérazade, but the exoticism in the afore mentioned song cycles never fails to enchant and hypnotize me. I believe Chansons madécasses is as close to the Second Viennese School as Ravel got (in particular, the Aoua! movement, but also the eeriness of the introduction in the first movement, Nahandove).
« Last Edit: February 25, 2019, 10:14:09 PM by Mirror Image »
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Offline Tsaraslondon

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Re: Ravel’s Chansons madécasses
« Reply #1 on: February 26, 2019, 04:51:26 AM »
No love for this song cycle?

I have two recordings, Janet Baker with the Melos Ensemble and Jessye Norman with Dalton Baldwin, Michel Debost and Renaud Fontanarosa. I heard Norman sing them live once, and felt, as I often do with her, that her singing was gorgeous but generalised. I get much the same impression from her recording. Baker is altogether more specific. I know others feel differently, though.
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Offline ritter

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Re: Ravel’s Chansons madécasses
« Reply #2 on: February 26, 2019, 05:21:30 AM »
No love for this song cycle?.
Oh, yes!  :) It’s not my favourite by the composer (that honour goes to the Mallarmé settings), but still it’s an admirable composition.

As Tsaraslondon points out, Jessye Norman’s recording on EMI is perhaps a bit generalised. OTOH, her (IIRC later) effort on Columbia/Sony under Pierre Boulez is superb, and tops my list of recordings of this music:


Here she’s gorgeous and highly expressive, and at the peak of her considerable powers. The soloists from Boulez’s EIC (including pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard) are excellent.

I’ve posted this disc before (in the Shéhérazade thread), but it is (all of it) an outstanding collection of Ravel vocal works.

Another, more off-the-beaten-track recommendation is Irma Kolassi’s:


Altogether more subdued and “elegant”, but with a great voice and excellent diction.

I don’t recall being too impressed by any male singer in the Chansons madécasses...
« Last Edit: February 26, 2019, 05:24:54 AM by ritter »
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Offline Mirror Image

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Re: Ravel’s Chansons madécasses
« Reply #3 on: February 26, 2019, 07:01:45 AM »
Great stuff, Rafael.

I have several favorite performances of Chansons madécasses:

Both Jessye Norman performances -



And this one:

« Last Edit: February 26, 2019, 07:08:34 AM by Mirror Image »
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Offline XB-70 Valkyrie

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Re: Ravel’s Chansons madécasses
« Reply #4 on: March 22, 2019, 09:22:01 PM »
JENNIE TOUREL, my absolute favorite singer of all time, and her performance of these is one of my favorite LPs--a 10" on Columbia (early 50s) with a very charming cover illustration. Sadly, cannot find a photo online now. 



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Online Mandryka

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Re: Ravel’s Chansons madécasses
« Reply #5 on: March 23, 2019, 11:55:39 PM »
There's one of these which I'd like to hear because I've heard it's  very good, but I've never got hold of it. The singer is Jean-Christophe Benoît, in this anthology  -- can anyone upload itfor me?



While waiting, I'm listening to this one with Jacques Herbillon



« Last Edit: March 24, 2019, 12:33:56 AM by Mandryka »
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Offline Mirror Image

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Re: Ravel’s Chansons madécasses
« Reply #6 on: March 24, 2019, 08:43:25 PM »
There's one of these which I'd like to hear because I've heard it's  very good, but I've never got hold of it. The singer is Jean-Christophe Benoît, in this anthology  -- can anyone upload it for me?



While waiting, I'm listening to this one with Jacques Herbillon



I don’t believe I’ve even heard that Jean-Christophe Benoît recording. The cover looks familiar --- I’ll have to search my collection, but I’m pretty sure it’s not there. If I find it, I’ll upload it for you and send it to you via email. As for the other recording (the one you were listening to), I’ve never even seen that one.
“Works of art make rules; rules do not make works of art.” - Claude Debussy