Ravel's lively Greek songs

October 6, 2016
Ray Heigemeir
Oinousses main settlement

Tout Gai!, original manuscript by Maurice Ravel (1875-1937); traditional Greek text from the island of Chios, French translation by Michel-Dimitri Calvocoressi; No. 5 of Cinq Mélodies populaires grecques.
Memorial Library of Music, MLM 864
[download images of this work]

Guest blogger: Kirstin Haag

Maurice Ravel was known as France’s premier living composer in the 1920s and ‘30s, but his early career was not without challenges. By 1900, Ravel had flunked out of his courses at the Conservatoire de Paris not once, but twice. By 1905, he had failed to win the Prix de Rome no less than five times. However, in the wake of these career hardships, Ravel orchestrated several Greek songs that would become some of his most beloved recital pieces.

Puerto de Isla de Chios. Grecia. Chios Island port. Greece

Ravel had met Michel-Dimitri Calvocoressi (a Greek-French music critic) while studying at the Paris Conservatoire, and both would become known for their interest in exotic musical influences. The two were also part of a revolutionary group known as Les Apaches, a Parisian group of artists and critics who believed that native folk songs were an important source of artistic inspiration. Margeurite Babaian, a favorite singer of Ravel’s, would later remark on his Greek tunes, “Who could do it better than Maurice Ravel?” It was in 1905 that Calvocoressi identified several folk songs from the island of Chios that he wished to use in a demonstration of popular Greek music. He had been working with a group of musicians and musicologists at the School of Art in Paris’ École des Hautes Études-Sociales, where scholars and students had become increasingly interested in popular and folk music. Ravel was immediately chosen to harmonize the melodies, and he did so with gusto, at least according to Mme Babaian’s description. The rest was a whirlwind: after their premiere at Calvocoressi’s lecture, they were sent to the publishing house just weeks later in 1906. By their second publication in 1909, the cycle of five songs had become a well-known crowd pleaser at recitals around Europe.

The last of the five songs is Tout Gai!, a lively dance tune, and its manuscript is housed in the Memorial Library of Music at Stanford. Its hasty genesis is evident in Ravel’s scrawl and in the performance edits presumably added for its presentation at Calvocoressi’s demonstration. The Stanford Music Library also offers printed scores of the entire cycle, Cinq Mélodies populaires grecques, which includes Tout Gai!. Both the Music Library and Stanford’s Archive of Recorded Sound hold a variety of sound recordings, in vinyl disc, CD, and digital formats, from as early as 1960.

In fact, Tout Gai! is one of eight Greek folk songs harmonized by Ravel. Five were originally completed several years earlier for a similar lecture by Pierre Aubry in 1904. It was at Calvocoressi’s request that Ravel wrote three more, including Tout Gai!. Three of the earlier songs were discarded and eventually lost, while the remaining five were published as the Cinq Mélodies populaires grecques.

Maurice Ravel

Ravel infused his music with an exotic sound for much of his career; some examples of Ravel’s best-known works include the Iberian inspired ballet Boléro, his orchestration of the Russian composer Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, and the oriental song cycle Shéhérazade. The Stanford Music Library holds a diverse array of recordings of these and other works by Ravel.

Babaian, Marguerite. “Maurice Ravel et les Chansons populaires grecques.” La revue musicale. Vol. 19, no. 187 (1938): 110-111.

With thanks to Astrid Smith, Rare Book and Special Collections Digitization Specialist, and the Digital Production Group for providing downloadable images of this manuscript.

Kirstin HaagGuest blogger Kirstin Haag is a musicology graduate student in the Department of Music, Stanford University.