Tonight I am thinking about the opening movement of Shéhérazade by Ravel. It is music that longs for the exotic, from a time when the exotic was exotic, and from an age that needed escape.
This video is a performance by soprano Elizabeth Parcells (1951-2005), and she also created this helpful animation. Her website is a very powerful testament to her life, her creativity, and to her brave battle with colorectal cancer.
I was drawn immediately to her voice which seemed able to navigate this notoriously low setting. I was also drawn to the warm and homespun markings in the score...simple, strong, and very clear.
After the double reed invocation the singer voices the names of the song three times: "Asie." In a recitative-like setting [0:33] the text take us into the forest; into the world of fantasy told to us in "songs from the nursery."
The music then becomes a barcarole [1:00] in E-flat minor and a short-long fanfare that will echo throughout the movement is first articulated.
Je voudrais m'en aller avec la goëlette (I wish to go away with the boat)
Qui se berce ce soir dans le port (Cradled this evening in the port)
Mystérieuse et solitaire (Mysterious and solitary)
"Voiles violettes" (violet sails) are set against a golden sky are in B-major at [1:47]. And at [2:07] we reach an opposition with the introduction of A major, a tritone away from E-flat minor which was the last tonality in which we heard the words, "Je voudrais m'en aller" (I wish to go away). This new escape is toward an "isle of flowers," and is set as a ringing texture filled with octaves and harp glissandi.
The Persian fantasy is next [2:27]. It is cast in a b-minor world of cymbals and tremolos, and later some juicy augmented seconds scored for oboe.
The first half of this movement begins to cadence with an intimate setting set with solo violin in counterpoint with the voice at [3:08], and a relaxed and expansive texture at [3:37] with closes on A major, this time not seeming like a counterpole to E-flat but more a a dominant preparation fro the next section of the music.
This second half of the song feels more like an alternation of meditative passages [4:23] and later at [6:03] with fantasy passages that invoke China [5:39], and later the world of 1001 nights [6:54].
The movement culminates in a glorious high B-flat [7:34].
E-flat minor returns [7:39] with the fanfare that has led us through these fantasies. After a lengthy interlude, the voice returns [8:44] in a whispery quiet to close the work. The end of this video is not quite the end of the song...the last minute of so is mistakenly attached to part two of the video on YouTube.