Back and forth, back and forth, back and forth – gently the boat rocks and rolls in the bay, pushed by a light sea breeze, swayed by the rippling waves. While I did not intend to blog during my summer vacation1, a picture I shot a few days ago in Brittany reminded me of Maurice Ravel’s piano piece “Une barque sur l’océan” (A boat on the ocean). A beautiful piece Ravel wrote in two versions: one for the piano (1904/05) and a fully orchestrated one. The first one has been recorded by Pierre-Laurent Aimard the second one by the London Symphony Orchestra, two amazing productions.
Impressionism as an aesthetic ideal
I had, once more, to dive into the aesthetic world of French Impressionism to fully grasp the beauty of this piece. Painters like Claude Monet and Camille Pissarro tried to capture fleeting impressions in their paintings; they had to paint outdoors and rather quickly not to miss the ephemerous nature of their subject. Light, colours and shadows would change, and the painter had to work fast. Composers like Ravel and Claude Debussy tried something similar in music. They wanted to capture specific, ephemerous experiences and express it in notes, phrases, melodies…
If Franz Schubert had, without knowing, partly achieved the Impressionist ideal in his songs “Auf dem Wasser zu singen” and “Die Forelle”, Ravel’s “Une barque sur l’océan” is a real masterwork in this sense. The piano perfectly renders the reflection of light on the waves, the playful swell, the gentle rolling of the boat… back and forth, back and forth, back and forth. Ravel composed this piece as part of the piano cycle “Miroirs” (Mirrors) with five distinct movements: Noctuelles, Oiseaux tristes, Une barque sur l’océan, Alborada del gracioso, La vallée des cloches.
The Apaches – avant-garde artists
Each movement is dedicated to a fellow member of the French avant-garde artist group “Les Apaches” that Ravel joined at the turn of the century, together with the pianist Ricardo Vines, who first performed “Les Miroirs”, and the composers Claude Debussy, Igor Stravinsky and Manuel de Falla. Ravel associated a visual image and a specific temperament with each artist and intended to describe this with sounds. “Une barque sur l’océan” is dedicated to the painter Paul Sordes. Each movement is highly demanding from a technical point of view, but on the suggested recording the French pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard shows his amazing talent and his deep understanding of the sound world of the beginning of the 20th century.
Back and forth, back and forth, back and forth – the piece truly has some hypnotic potential. It expresses the calmness and detachedness of a Buddhist monk, the comfort and intimacy of a devoted prayer, a moment of peace in turbulent times, a meditation in a world turned upside down.
© Charles Thibo
1 Most texts on this blog are planned and written several weeks ahead of their publication to guarantee a continuous reading experience. 😃
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