Rimsky and Ravel: Not Such Strange Bedfellows

By Leonard Slatkin
Leonard Slatkin
Leonard Slatkin
February 17, 2017 Updated: February 17, 2017

In 1899, when exoticism was all the rage in Paris, the teenage Maurice Ravel made several trips to attend the Fourth Paris International Exhibition, which took place on the Champ de Mars. Music from America, Spain, Morocco, and Egypt were but a few examples of the sonic variety included in this festival.  

Ravel also heard music from Russia, including works of Glinka and Tchaikovsky, as well as the “mighty five,” which included Rimsky-Korsakov.  Not surprisingly, his 1888 symphonic poem “Scheherazade,” was already popular with the European public.  Ravel knew this work as a young man; he borrowed the title and created his first true orchestral work, an overture based on the Thousand and One Nights.

Rimsky-Korsakov had already made a huge impression on Ravel’s early work from 1868, as he wrote a piece based on the Arabian myth of Antar.  He originally designated this as his Second Symphony, but by the time he reached his third version of the composition in 1891, the work was called a Symphonic Suite.  At the time, it rivaled “Scheherazade” in popularity.  

In 1910, Ravel was working for the Ballet Russes in Paris, working on the score for “Daphnis and Chloe” under the watchful eye of Diaghilev.  Meanwhile, Ravel was asked to write incidental music for a play, based on the Antar story. Ravel had to decline this commission due to the ballet he was working on, but he had another idea.

Ravel proposed to rework the famous Rimsky-Korsakov piece, add a few other works from his Russian colleagues, plus some original compositions of his own.  The play, with incidental music, premiered in Monte Carlo in January of 1910.  Not only was the music from his Symphonic Suite incorporated, there were also extracts from “Mlada,” two other songs by Rimsky-Korsakov, and portions of Felicien David’s symphonic ode, “Le Desert.” Interestingly, Mata Hari herself appeared in the dance scenes.

In 2010, I became music director of the Orchestre Nationale de Lyon.  The artistic administrator, Francois Dru, told me about this “lost” Ravel score and I sent him on a mission.  He came up with the score and parts, but it was apparent that the music for “Antar” could not be played without giving context to the story.  We decided that keeping the order of the music was critical to understanding Ravel’s arrangement, and we commissioned a narration that would tell the story as the music progressed.

The Arab-French poet Amin Maalouf wrote a beautiful text and we premiered the work in its current form in Lyon in 2013.

It is not by accident that for our Carnegie Hall appearance, we are also performing Ravel’s “Scheherazade” song cycle as well as the Second Suite from “Daphnis and Chloe.” One more tale is told in Guillaume Connasson’s “Céléphaïs,” an American premiere based on yet another story of the mystical, this time inspired by H.P Lovecraft.  Fantasy and imagination are on display and I hope that many of you will join us for this adventure.

The Orchestre National de Lyon is performing at Carnegie Hall on Feb. 20.

Leonard Slatkin is the music director of the Orchestre National de Lyon and an internationally acclaimed conductor.