Today’s Advent Calendar work is another fascinating miniature oddity. Maurice Ravel composed Frontispice – his shortest work, consisting of just 15 bars – in June 1918. It was commissioned by the writer and poet Ricciotto Canudo, intended to act as a preface to Canudo’s S.P. 503, Le Poème du Vardar, a work exploring experiences of World War I (S.P. 503 was the postal district in the Vardar region where Canudo was stationed). Canudo explained the connection between his words and music:
Concerning my Poème du Vardar, S.P. 503, I would say that I apply the most important of the purely musical forms to the constructions of certain poems […]. And the “Preface” of the poem is a musical frontispiece, an unpublished page of music by Maurice Ravel. Only music has the right to set the atmosphere of a Poem.
Composed for two pianos, Ravel’s response to Canudo’s commission is remarkable due to the obvious fact that it really doesn’t sound like him at all – or anyone else for that matter. The numbers 5 and 3 from Canudo’s title are used as the basis for various aspects of the piece. It lasts 15 bars (5×3), has time signatures of 15/8 (Piano 1) and 5/4 (Piano 2), requiring three performers who articulate five discrete voices (broadly corresponding to descant, soprano, alto, tenor and bass). The voices, each of which operates within a narrow behavioural and registral range, manifest further instances of these numbers: for example, the Piano 1 left hand voice uses a paradox of these numbers, notated as five groups of three quavers but heard as three groups of five quavers, while its right hand voice initially features pitch repetitions in groups of five, later becoming overrun with quintuplets. The fifth, uppermost, voice is akin to a series of bird calls, a repeating pattern of five chirps (3+2).
Furthermore the piece is structured in three sections of five bars each: bars 1-5 introduce the four main voices; bars 6-10 add the fifth voice while the other four voices develop and become more rhythmically dense; bars 11-15 are a contrasting coda, comprising a rising, intensifying series of 5-chord triadic phrases – finally bringing both rhythmic order and harmonic clarity to the piece – followed by a tiny, rather wistful, chime-like resonance.
Ravel introduces the voices one at a time, moving back and forth between the two pianos, a process that accentuates their rhythmic incongruities, each of them appearing to be governed by a different underlying metre from the others. The result sounds like the convoluted output from a fantastical machine, surprisingly similar to the player piano music that Conlon Nancarrow would begin to create three decades later.
Frontispice was included in Canudo’s book in 1923, though not published as a musical score until 1975. Pierre Boulez, no doubt drawn to its strange language of radical rhythmic complexity, created an arrangement of the piece for ensemble in 1987, returning to it 20 years later to create a new arrangement for full orchestra. Rather than seeking to establish as much clarity as possible – such as through timbral voice distinctions, an option not available to the piano – Boulez emphasises the convolution such that, just as in the original, the four voices quickly form a dense contrapuntal network. Hearing the music transformed into an orchestral context (an act that Ravel, himself the consummate orchestral arranger, would surely have approved of) reinforces further just how avant-garde Frontispice is, the product of Ravel at his most mischievous and cerebral. Boulez makes the switch in the coda a beautiful plateau of ever-expanding grandeur, crowned with oblique final chimes.
This performance of Frontispice, the UK première, was given by the BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Oliver Knussen at Maida Vale, London, in June 2012.