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Storm in the English Channel | by Dog Company
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Storm in the English Channel

For those of you who know Maurice Ravel's Une Barque sur l'ocean, I thought you might find this interesting, especially the depiction of the storm.


Une barque sur l’ocean is simply a musical depiction of a small boat’s journey on the sea. The boat travels through calm waters, over waves and swells, is nearly engulfed by a storm, and finally returns to calm waters. In the original version, Ravel creates washes of sound on the piano by directing the performer to hold down the sustaining pedal for long periods, which causes all of the notes played to blur together. To create these same watery sounds with the orchestra, Ravel employs the flutes, harp, celesta, timpani, and strings playing harmonics (very high, thin sounding notes). Against this shimmering backdrop, Ravel tosses melodic fragments throughout the orchestra, as if they were skipping atop the ocean waves.

Disheartened by the negative response from the audience and the press, Ravel immediately withdrew the piece in spite of objections by some of his closest friends. His reaction, while perhaps somewhat rash, was probably also due to the tumultuous events of the previous few years. By 1906, Ravel was a composer on the cusp of international fame, with the piano piece Jeux d’eau (Dancing Waters, 1901) and the String Quartet (1902–03) receiving high praise from critics and musicians including Claude Debussy and Gabriel Fauré. At the same time, a few critics were beginning to make unfavorable comparisons between Ravel and Debussy, in effect calling Ravel an imitator. The subject matter of “Une barque sur l’ocean” could not have helped, given that Debussy’s La mer (The Sea) had been enthusiastically received just a year before (1905). Add to this that Ravel had the dubious distinction of being rejected for the Prix de Rome a fifth time in 1905 – and he was eliminated in the preliminary round! Ravel’s early dismissal from the competition, and the fact that all of the finalists were students of the same teacher (who was also on the jury), created a public scandal that eventually led to the resignation of the director of the Paris Conservatoire.

In 1918, Ravel returned to Miroirs and orchestrated the fourth movement, “Alborado del gracioso” (Morningsong of the Jester). Perhaps because of the success of “Alborado,” Ravel returned to the orchestration of “Une barque sur l’ocean,” and after some revisions, the piece was performed again in Paris in 1926. Unfortunately, it still failed to receive its just success and publication of the work did not occur until after Ravel’s death.

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Taken on January 23, 2007