Ravel or How the French Heard Spain

In Don Giovanni, when Leporello is trying to convince Donna Elvira that the eponymous gentleman is not worth it, Leporello pulls out a catalog of Don Giovanni’s conquests: “Madamina, il catalogo è questo.” The conquests include 640 in Italy, 231 in Germany, 100 in France, 91 in Turkey, but in Spain, 1,003.

This never fails to provoke audience laughter. But when it comes to eroticizing—and exoticizing—Spain, this quote is part of a much larger picture. Western art, and especially 19th century art, is riddled with portrayals of Spain as romantic, sensual, lascivious and colorful. The “Spanish” paintings and prints by Manet, for instance, depict singers, guitar-players, dancers, bullfighters, bandits, Gypsies; an assortment of “types” that is much like the cast of characters in Bizet’s Carmen. But these are just a drop in the ocean of works that formed the image of Spain as the exotic “other,” an image that is much indebted to Spain’s Islamic heritage. Muslim presence there lasted nearly 800 years and resulted in rich and complex cultural output, but in Western art the Muslims of Al-Andalus were depicted as epic, romantic and erotic, even if savage. To get a sense of this, just think of the opening of Shakespeare’s Othello, where Ophelia is imagined in the “gross clasps of a lascivious Moor.”

As recently as 1987 Philosopher Allan Bloom was claiming that Ravel’s Boléro, which is an example of superb writing in the category of 19th century flirtation with Spanish otherness, is known and liked by young people because it has “the beat of sexual intercourse.” This comment is uncannily similar to the 18th century view of the Spanish dance fandango (which has a similar meter to the bolero) as so lascivious that it should be banned from ballrooms.

The morality of ballroom crowds notwithstanding, European audiences wanted more, and composers obliged. Ravel, for instance, had a lifelong fascination with Spanish folk music, an interest initiated by his Basque mother, who would sing folk songs to her son in his childhood. This early education proved to be a well of inspiration: Ravel composed quite a few “Spanish” pieces, among which the Rhapsodie espagnole, which utilizes dance rhythms just like the Boléro, certainly stands out. And while it may be ironic that many of our most vivid soundscapes of Spain are the compositions of Frenchmen, one can hardly deny that they are incredibly evocative. In music especially the image of Spain created by 19th century Western composers has been pervasive. And when I listen to any of the plethora of “Spanish” music from the 19th and early 20th centuries I cannot help but think, rather inaccurately, of warm nights and colorful flamenco skirts.

Both works by Ravel will be presented at Ravinia on August 7 on a Chicago Symphony Orchestra concert. In the first, more Western-academic half of the program, Carlos Miguel Prieto will conduct works by Mendelssohn and Vaughan Williams. The second half of the program, however, is distinctly folk: the two Ravel pieces will be accompanied by Ginastera’s Suite from the ballet Estancia, a country-girl-meets-city-boy tale that dwells on Gauchesco culture, considered the soul of Argentina. The ballet is part of Ginastera’s self-titled “Subjective Nationalism” period, which makes it an interesting complement to Ravel’s depiction of Spain. All three are portrayals of national identities that are (or at least were at the time of composition) in the cultural periphery of the dominant powers in classical music; two are a depiction from the dominant center, the third is a depiction from the periphery; all are incredibly evocative and sensual. Seems the perfect repertoire for a warm summer evening, even sans flamenco skirts, whether real or imaginary.

Elena Guobyte
Multimedia Production Associate