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David Salter

Les Amis De Paris

The Beginnings of Contemporary Harmony and Orchestration in the Work of Maurice Ravel
When considering contemporary music, one is forced to consider the origins from
which it sprang. While contemporary art music is usually marked by either a complete lack of,
what most would consider musicality or an integration of traditional folk, modern popular
music and traditional art music. To those who have taken the time to obtain the necessary
education (to be perfectly exact, the aural skills to convert music heard into the abstract
theoretical concepts of harmony, melody, rhythm and orchestration and the intellectual skills
to actually make use of that information) one can easily find parallels in the melody, harmony
rhythm and orchestration (a term which here means the assigning of certain parts to certain
instruments, and the use of voicings and textures for a musical or amusical/Schoenbergian
purpose, not necessarily the use of a traditional symphony orchestra) of today's music and
While he and Debussy were considered among the Impressionists, given the time
period in which he did his most prolific work and the actual meaning of the word, it perhaps
makes more sense to lump Ravel in with the Avant-Garde, as he was in a very real way,
looking forward (not to mention both he and Debussy had nothing but disdain for the label
"impressionist"). When looking at his compositions (specifically, for the purposes of this essay,
Bolero) one sees techniques of melody, harmony, form and orchestration that were both
rooted in the western harmonic tradition and completely fresh (and many of which went on to
influence later composers like Stravinsky, Philip Glass, Duke Ellington, and Miles Davis,
among many others). Specific musical techniques of the Avant Garde he employed in these
pieces were the use of synthetic scales, intervalic harmonic constructions, non-functional
harmony, drastically changing orchestration and irregularly grouped and rubato rhythms).

David Salter
Les Amis De Paris
The Beginnings of Contemporary Harmony and Orchestration in the Work of Maurice Ravel
What began with Ravel went on to influence classical composers, jazz improvisers and
arrangers and orchestrators of all stripes. He was in every sense of the term, Avant Garde.
Before the Impressionists (who are considered by some theorists to be an off-shoot of
the Late Romantic Period, as there were only two of them and neither very much liked the
term) harmony was dominated by intensely functional progressions (with non-functional
harmonies used sparingly and to create tension) predicated on melodic voice leading
techniques dating to Bach, and orchestrations ruled by thick, booming textures (used often to
depict dark, fantastical german myths and the glory of god). As a reaction to (and against) the
music of Berlioz, Wagner and their ilk the Impressionists created a music dominated by
balance. While the chromatic and rhythmic innovations of the Romantic Period were
continued in Impressionism, the ascetic was refocused. The thick, booming textures gave way
to balanced subtly developed orchestrations (in fact, in the music of Ravel orchestration itself
became a kind of development). The harmonic rhythm was slowed, while the Romantics
could modulate four times in four measures, the Impressionists were content to sit on a single
chord for measures at a time, stretching the harmony nearly to its breaking point. While five,
six and seven note chords were employed sparingly by Romantics, the Impressionists were
able to find chords within chords (the beginning of modern chord/scale theory and a concept
that would later be used by composers ranging from Bernstein to Brookmeyer to Michael
Jackson), causing the listener to hear their slowed harmonic progressions in a kind of soft
focus. While the melodic vocabulary of the Romantic period was still being dictated by Bach,
the Impressionists found melodic inspiration in pentatonic scales, and the church modes
(used in Plainchant). Moreover, by the end of his career (and showcased in his Bolero) Ravel

David Salter
Les Amis De Paris
The Beginnings of Contemporary Harmony and Orchestration in the Work of Maurice Ravel
found a new means of melodic development (beyond the established techniques of melodic
embellishment, such as Retrograde, Augmentation, Diminution, Inversion)--Repetition.
Many consider the Avant Garde of 1920's Paris to be a reaction to the machine age.
Many saw the mechanized labor of the Industrial Age and the automated slaughter of World
War One as an ominous sector of the world to come. A kind of uncaring, random,
monotonous, anonymity wherein the beautiful and human was rendered irrelevant, and to
which an appropriate artistic response must be equally callous, random, ugly and inhuman.
Ravel, however had no such hangups about machines. He, having fond memories of a
childhood marked by hearing the juxtaposition of the clattering of mechanism with traditional
spanish music, in 1927, he remarked:

In my childhood I was much interested in mechanisms ... I visited factories often, very often,
as a small boy with my father. It was these machines, their clicking and roaring, which, with
the Spanish folk songs [sung by my mother] ... formed my first instruction in music! (Abbate,

His Bolero (premiered at the Paris Opera in 1928) must have been the culmination of
this influence (though Manuel argues it stemmed more from procrastination). It is one of the
most basic pieces of orchestral music ever written, essentially anchored on a simple folk-like
melody (set squarely in a major scale) and a basic ostinato rhythm, which are developed
through near verbatim repetition and instrument and dynamic changes (which build to an
earth shattering fortissimo tutti section at the end). The striking harmonies and modulations of

David Salter
Les Amis De Paris
The Beginnings of Contemporary Harmony and Orchestration in the Work of Maurice Ravel
the romantic period are gone, but we are not given the complete abandonment of tradition
found in Satie, rather we are given a middle ground. It is as if, as a listener one is given the
ability to see the humanity that created and controlled the inhumanity of the turn of the
twentieth century.
Bolero was received with great success by all accounts, to Ravel and his
contemporary's surprise (Meyers 81). After the last note sounded, he was given a standing
ovation and the theme became (as close as possible) to a pop hit. Manuel remarks:

The triumphant fate of Bolero is well known. On the heels of the great Sunday Concerts
where the work immediately received an immense ovation, large and small orchestras
everywhere appropriated it. It inspired films. Gamaphone and radio repeated it all day long.
The butcher boy whistled it and all the street answered him. So that the composer of the
Valses Nobles et Sentimentales became popular between what he rightly considered to be a
joke on the part of his genius. (99)

Whether a joke on the part or the true manifestation of his genius, Bolero represents a
rarity in that it was a work that was both immensely popular in it's time and helped egg on a
reverberation throughout history; the school of minimalism. The music of the likes of Philip
Glass (see Einstein on the Beach), Terry Riley and Steve Reich (for an example of his style,
The Daniel Variations is quite illuminating) is undoubtably influenced by Bolero (as well as
Moondog and Les Six). They use mostly consonant material (Bolero was based entirely on a
major scale with basic harmonies), but they expand the compositional concept by introducing

David Salter
Les Amis De Paris
The Beginnings of Contemporary Harmony and Orchestration in the Work of Maurice Ravel
a highly contrapuntal element and removing the dynamic and orchestral elements seen in
Bolero (most minimal music takes place at constant volumes at the extremes of the dynamic
spectrum, and much of it is played on synthesizers or relatively plain sounding instruments
with non-orchestral timbres). In addition to the influence on Art music, the use of changing
dynamic levels and orchestration of additional material, rather then the introduction of new
material as a developmental concept is now commonplace in popular music, and this type of
influence is easy to hear in the works of Phil Spector and Count Basie, for example.
Ravel's late works (of which Bolero is the most prominent and influential) and influence on the
Avant Garde however, only tell half the story; as his early and middle compositions contain
considerable influence on modern harmonic practice.
The beginnings of the modern tonal harmonic vocabulary were born in the
Impressionist period. Most notably, the use of diatonic planning--moving chord voicings
around in parallel within a chord/scale (Orenstein 134), the interchangeability of chords and
scales (extending a chord to seven or more notes and thinking of it as an implied pool of
notes to draw on, rather then a mere harmonic puzzle piece), the extended use of nonfunctional harmony, the use of non tertian harmony and the use of church modes. For his
melodic work, Ravel was quite fond of a Dorian scale, a Phyrgian Scale (a minor scale built
on the third of it's relative major scale) and a Dorian Scale with the 2nd omitted (in D, it would
be spelled D, F, G, A, B, C), these three scales being heavily used in Basque music. Ravel
used these pitch collections to write the melodies of his Menuet Antique, D'Anne Jouant de
lEspinette, Daphnis et Chloe, Sonate en Duo, Concerto en sol, Habenera, Rhapsodie
Espagnole and Concerto pour la main Gauche (Manuel 113-114). In addition, most of these

David Salter
Les Amis De Paris
The Beginnings of Contemporary Harmony and Orchestration in the Work of Maurice Ravel
melodies outline a simple i-ii progression (which is a non-functional progression, if it were in a
major or tonic minor mode it would be considered a harmonic retrogression, but in this setting
serve to outline the chord/scale and can be considered an example of diatonic planing) in a
Dorian Mode, (Manuel, 115). This progression would later get lifted to form the basis of Miles
Davis's So What, the first track on the seminal Kind of Blue album (the album that brought
modal harmonies to jazz music).
Ravel's penchant for non-functional harmony does not end with his use of modal chord
progressions. In his Mirroirs and Valses Nobles et Sentimentales he makes extensive use of a
diminished major seventh chord, a diminished triad with a major seventh (Manuel 115). A
diminished triad is typically a dominant functioning chord, with any chord tone leading to a
potential tonic (some theorists go so far as to say diminished chords are simply a respelling of
a rootless dominant seventh flat nine chord). The addition of a major seventh however, throws
a monkey wrench into the works of the harmonic function. Typically, major sevenths are seen
on either tonic quality or pre-dominant quality chords in major and tonic quality chords in
minor. The addition of a major seventh on a dominant quality chord severely weakens its
function, as it adds both an unresolved dissonance and the implication of tonicization
removing a considerable amount of the harmonic gravity from the diminished chord. This
chord would later find use in the deceptive cadences of jazz progressions (one can hear its
use on Chet Baker's iteration of I Should Care, off of the album Chet Baker with Strings).
This chord would also later be explored functionally in the music of Count Basie and Sammy
Nestico, with the major seventh functioning as a melody note and the diminished triad below it
resolved functionally, upwards by uniform half steps (Wright, 16).

David Salter
Les Amis De Paris
The Beginnings of Contemporary Harmony and Orchestration in the Work of Maurice Ravel
From even this cursory glance at his works, it can be seen that the seeds of
contemporary music were sown in Ravel. While others in the Avant-Garde were busy
throwing away tradition and aspiring to sensation over substance, Ravel was quietly inventing
the Tonal Harmonic and Melodic language that would come to dominate Twentieth-Century
Tonal Music, with the quiet logic and beauty of Ravel's music serving as a constant reminder
that even in an age of machines humanity is not lost. Ravel's use of planning, protominimalism (repetition as development), non-functional harmony and modal material laid a
groundwork that others continue to build on to this day. It was in this way that Ravel was in
every sense of the word Avant Garde (literally, marching before the guard).

David Salter
Les Amis De Paris
The Beginnings of Contemporary Harmony and Orchestration in the Work of Maurice Ravel
Works Cited
Abbate, Carolyn. "Outside Ravel's Tomb." Journal of the American Musicological
Society, 3rd ser. 52 (1999): 465-350. JSTOR. Web. 28 Oct. 2013.
Luce, Jim. "Jazz Profiles from NPR: Miles Davis: Kind of Blue." Npr's Jazz Profiles:
Miles Davis Kind of Blue. NPR, 2013. Web. 31 Oct. 2013.
Manuel, Roland. Maurice Ravel. New York: Dover, 1972. Print.
Myers, Rollo H. Ravel, Life and Works, by Rollo H. Myers. London: G. Duckworth, 1
960. Print.
Orenstein, Arbie. Ravel: Man and Musician. New York: Columbia UP, 1975. Print.
Shaw, Patricia. "Ravel's Bolero Factory: The Orchestration of the Machine Age."
University of Melbourne Faculty of Music (2008): 5-23. Proquest. Web. 31 Oct.
Wright, Rayburn, Sammy Nestico, Thad Jones, and Bob Brookmeyer. Inside the Score:
A Detailed Analysis of 8 Classic Jazz Ensemble Charts by Sammy Nestico,
Thad Jones and Bob Brookmeyer. Delevan, NY: Kendor Music,