Maurice Ravel
Born March 7, 1875, in Ciboure, France
Died December 28, 1937, in Paris, France
3 flutes, 3 oboes, 3 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani, percussion, harp, keyboard, strings
Performance time
7 minutes
Last Performed by the TSO
TSO Premiere is April 12, 2024

As a tribute to his fellow members of Les Apaches, a group of avantgarde artists, Maurice Ravel wrote his five-movement Miroirs (1904–1905) originally for solo piano. The third and longest of the five, Une barque sur l’océan (A Ship on the Ocean) was dedicated to painter Paul Sordes whose home was often the meeting place for Les Apaches. It was orchestrated by the composer a year later.

Throughout Une barque sur l’océan, Ravel uses woodwinds, strings, harp, and celeste to play rapid arpeggios from low to high and back down. The speed of these arpeggios varies from moment to moment depending on the mood he is setting—from moderate undulating creating the sense of calm seas to tempestuous storm currents. The piece is written in arch form with the most dramatic section reserved for the middle of the piece. The first section begins quietly with flute melody over string arpeggios giving the listener the sense of a smooth journey at the outset. Soon after, Ravel creates unsteadiness by varying the sense of rhythm and meter, speed and dynamic of arpeggios, and opening the orchestra with added brass and percussion. As if to reassure a passenger, Ravel soon reiterates the calm undulating melody of the flutes, though another moment of unsteadiness puts the listener again on edge. At the midpoint he uses a steady duple meter, and divided strings playing harmonics convey an enhanced tranquility, though the English horn’s few dissonant notes signal the impending storm. When the sea churns, swells in brass soar, and percussion punctuates points above vigorous string and wind flourishes. The return of calm waves is not immediate though, as Ravel recalls the unsteadiness from before the storm. Finally, the opening serenity is now played by violins rather than flute, leaving the listener soothed but not unchanged.

Sean Bresemann