Orchestrated by Ravel
Analysed by Robert Walton
If ever there was a musical composition that captures a perfect moment of ecstasy, it just has to be Debussy’s Tarantelle Styrienne, but you’ve got to be quick. Blink and you might miss it! It gives a whole new meaning to the so-called excitable state. And if it hadn’t been for Ravel’s brilliant 1923 arrangement we might have never heard it. It was originally an early Debussy piano piece written in 1890 while at the Paris Conservatory. He was hoping to capitalize on the French love of the exotic, but rarely gets a mention in any books about his piano works. At the time, Debussy was having difficulty putting food on the table so there was some urgency about it. We owe everything to Ravel for drawing it to our attention and indeed bringing it to life. Well, that’s not quite true. We must thank the publisher Jobert for his suggestion to get it orchestrated.
There is no evidence that Debussy had either been to the province of Styria, in the south east of Austria or heard any music from there. As far as we know he simply borrowed the rhythm from the Italian tarantella and moved it, musically speaking, lock stock and barrel to Austria. Having said that, it’s not far from the Italian border. Vienna might be the home of the popular waltz but we are treated to a typical Neapolitan dance in 6/8 time, effectively a fast waltz. So if you haven’t already heard it, prepare yourself for one of the most amazing experiences you’re ever likely to encounter, albeit briefly.
Right at the outset I had better warn you not to expect too much in the transports of delight department. Ravel’s economic scoring is one thing but any ecstatic outburst is usually brief as in real life, and beautifully reflected in TarantelleStyrienne. In fact there are only two moments in the whole piece when the orchestra really takes off - shortly after the start and near the end.
A French horn opens up this exciting dance movement but you have to wait another 40 seconds before the strings come into their own with the first glorious 10 second outburst of pure joy. At that point one feels it could have been developed into a more complete melody. However, if any piece produces the feel-good factor then this is it - more the feel-fantastic factor. I briefly go into a sort of trance, accompanied by a rush of adrenalin with the biggest smile on my face. It’s almost as if I have been given a glimpse of the meaning of life or the secret of the universe. This pentatonic-type tune (black notes of the piano) owes much to the Scottish and Irish song style. Could this be the first of the rousing themes heard in Hollywood westerns in embryo? Perhaps it’s an early form of The Big Country by Jerome Moross or the orchestral impression Canadian Caravan by Robert Farnon. Anyway, food for thought as we eagerly await the final appearance of another fleeting moment of exhilaration.
So while we’re waiting, let’s examine what master musician Maurice has in store for us. Firstly there’s never a dull moment with an exquisite Ravel orchestration. His ability to mix and match the strings, woodwind, brass and percussion are legendary. With Debussy providing the groundwork, Ravel breathes new life into the original piano score. It’s a moving strict tempo kaleidoscope of orchestral colour with ever changing textures of light and shade. So it’s never boring but always building up to the next climax. When the brass plays, the by now famous short radiant tune, it hasn’t got anything like the impact of the string passage, so it’s back to the ‘wild’ waltz for some more gorgeous highs and lows. We are so mesmerized by the oboe that the rhythm seems to have disappeared. That might be the impression given, but the subtle fiery dance continues unabated. Gradually we become aware of this extremely successful exercise in the merging of two great musical minds. And all the while the music is working up to a final frenzied state, generating all that energy in just a few bars. As Count Basie would say: “One more time!”
After a distinct pause, stand by for your very last chance to wallow in what must be one of the shortest and most thrilling string phrases in all music.
One of the best versions ofTarantelle Styrienne is by the Philharmonia Orchestra conducted by Geoffrey Simon on Cala (CACD 1002).
On Google, the orchestral version is conducted by Alessandro Crudele, but if you want to hear the original Debussy piano piece you can follow the music as Zoltan Kocsis plays it.
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