Ravel’s Chansons madécasses: Voices of Strong Women

I wanted to write a bit about the Ravel piece we will be performing on March 16.  It was the piece we used as the jumping off point for our whole program.

Parny's Chansons madécasses
A 1920 edition of Parny’s Chansons madécasses

What is Chansons madécasses and why is it so fascinating?

We chose to centre our concert around this piece for several reasons:

  • It is not heard that often because its instrumentation is unusual and it’s fairly challenging to put together – just the things we love as an ensemble!
  • It is exotic and creates a compelling atmosphere
  • It features strong female protagonists and addresses the issue of the suffering caused by colonialism

It’s a wonderful piece and a great showcase for our star mezzo, Beste Kalender.  I wanted to share some of its background and influences so you can see why I’m so obsessed with it!

How it came to be

Évariste des Forges de Parny did not speak Madagascan nor did he ever visit the country, but the specific provenance of the poetry is less important than its message.  Parny was himself an outsider, born on Reunion Island (off the eastern coast of Madagascar) to aristocratic French parents.  He served as a functionary to the Governor General of India, where he began work on the Chansons madécasses (Malagasy Songs – 1787) which are among the first prose poems to be written in French.  Though he was a white Frenchman, his work demonstrates a sympathy and understanding of other cultures not typical of his time.

Ravel was fascinated by Parny’s poetry and when Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge — an amazing figure in 20th-century music history — telegraphed to commission a new composition, Ravel turned to this early example of French exoticism for inspiration.  The composer was himself something of an outsider through the heritage of his mother, who was a Basque descendant of fish-sellers, illegitimate, and uneducated.  Nonetheless, she was a constant, loving presence in Ravel’s life until her death in 1917 and provided him with a very strongly positive female role model.  The women in Chansons madécasses may well have reminded Ravel of his mother.

What it is

Ravel set three of Parny’s poems for voice, flute, cello, and piano, an instrumentation requested by Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge.  Though nearly always performed by a high mezzo, the text seems to be spoken by a male narrator.  This character is, however, simply a mouthpiece for the things he observes in the three songs, which are as follows:

Nahandove – The narrator awaits the beautiful Nahandove for an erotic evening.  There are multiple layers of identity here: Nahandove is described with loving, punctilious detail while her lover remains a mystery (other than his desire for her).

Aoua deals with colonialism and cultural identity.  It is a very honest portrait of the fruits of colonialism – slavery, religion, death and fear.  Peter Kaminsky points out that the song is bitonal, illustrating the inability of the two cultures, the colonizer and colonized, to live together.

Le repos celebrates the power of song and dance to evoke memory and emotion; the women who sing and dance and prepare the meals are central to the story, while the narrator giving the commands (presumably male) is a cipher with no real character of his own.

Ravel’s fascination with “exotic” music – of Asia (Shéhérazade), Spain (Rapsodie espagnole, Alborada del gracioso), the Basque country (Piano Trio in A minor), gypsy music (Tzigane), and Greece (Cinq mélodies populaires grecques) – continues here and uses modal scales, bitonality, and extended instrumental techniques to create a fascinating aural landscape.  Though some research has been published that suggests that Ravel’s music has commonalities with that of Madagascar, there is no solid evidence to suggest that Ravel was actually familiar with Malagasy music.  Instead he creates his own imaginary exotic culture, much as Parny had done in his poems.

In the end, I believe, the cycle is best performed in a woman’s voice, because the text and music paint a clear picture, not of an individual woman, but of something akin to Goethe’s Eternal Feminine.  Ravel’s and Parny’s Woman is a representative of the “other” – everything not male, white, or European.

Come hear us perform this amazing piece!  Tickets are available online.

-Erika Reiman