A work for Pianola?

The pianolist Rex Lawson has argued that Frontispice was probably written as part of a series of works for pianola which were being commissioned by the firm Aeolian in 1917-1918, and which included pieces by Stravinsky, Malipiero and Alfredo Casella. Letters from Casella to the critic Edwin Evans indicate that Ravel was approached and appeared willing to participate, though by February 1918 the two men were anxious about his lack of progress, and it may be that what he produced was insufficient to fulfil the commission.

Rex Lawson points out that "the musical staves are allocated in such a way that the first piano handles all the treble and the second piano all the bass." The second piano never plays above the first. "Multiple staves in descending order of pitch is the standard way of writing music for the pianola." He also notes that "a simple start in one part leads to a greatly increasing complexity in five parts, and at the end a series of five chords is repeated with ever greater octave doublings. Such features are often to be found in pianola compositions; in Hindemith's Toccata for Welte-Mignon and Arnold Bax's Scherzo for Pianola amongst others".

For full references, see Lawson, Rex. "Maurice Ravel: Frontispice for Pianola", in The Pianola Journal, no.2, 1989 (West Wickham, Kent: The Pianola Institute).

Performed with two pianos and five hands, Frontispice is 15 bars long and lasts for less than two minutes. The manuscript is signed and dated "St. Cloud, juin 1918". Apart from the orchestration of Alborada del gracioso, from Miroirs, it was the only work that Ravel completed in 1918; he was still depressed by the death of his mother in the previous year, and he was in poor health (perhaps with the early symptoms of tuberculosis).

The work was presented as a frontispiece for Ricciotto Canudo's S.P.503: le poème du Vardar, a collection of poems based on the author's experience as a soldier in the Vardar (north of the Aegean). The same work also included a portrait of the author by Picasso.

[Canudo (1877-1923) was an Italian, living in Paris since 1901, and a poet, dramatist, and contributor to Mercure musicale. Incidentally, it was he who coined the phrase "la septième art" to signify the developing importance of the cinema as an art form [in an article entitled "L'art cérébriste" in Le Figaro, 9 fév. 1914]. He went on to found an early film journal, La Gazette des sept arts, and in 1920/21 established the first ciné-club, which became known as C.A.S.A., the "Club des amis du septième art"; its prominent membership from the Parisian avant-garde included Honegger, Roland-Manuel - and Ravel. (See Richard Abel, French cinema: the first wave, 1915-1929. Princeton U.P., 1984. pp.244-245,252.)]

It is not clear whether Frontispice received any public performance at the time of writing, and it was long ignored thereafter; it was revived in a concert organised by Pierre Boulez on 24 March 1954. The score only became fully available in 1975.

Marcel Marnat describes the piece as follows: "... trois lignes mélodiques indépendantes superposées, bientôt bafouées par l'intervention des accords incléments qu'y introduit la cinquième main. La basse seule reste stable, répétant sinistrement la même note. Le langage est ici aussi nouveau que possible, étonamment libéré de tout le reste de la création ravélienne." (Marnat, [1986], p.438).

"... that visionary little essay in surrealism", (Larner, [1996], p.165).