Piano roll recordings

Ravel made two groups of recordings of his own piano music using a piano-roll system, in 1913 and in 1922.

The 1913 recordings were made in the autumn of that year in Paris for the German firm Welte. Two works were performed, using the Welte-Mignon recording process:

Sonatine (1st and 2nd movements only) [C2887]
Valse nobles et sentimentales [C2888]

The 1922 recordings took place on 30 June in London, and were made for the English subsidiary of the firm Aeolian, using the Duo-Art system. Five pieces were recorded:

Oiseaux tristes, from Miroirs [O82]
La vallée des cloches, from Miroirs [7275 in the Duo-Art piano roll catalog]
Pavane pour une infante défunte [O84]
Toccata, from Le tombeau de Couperin [O86]
Le gibet, from Gaspard de la nuit [O219]

According to Ravel's contract with Aeolian, he was supposed to do ten recordings in all; if the other five were ever made, they were not issued and do not appear to have survived. (Orenstein [1989], p.398-399).

Performances made from the 1913 Welte piano rolls were issued on records in 1950 (Valses nobles et sentimentales, e.g. Columbia [US] ML 4291) and in 1964 (Sonatine, e.g. Telefunken [Germany] HT 34), and subsequently.

Recordings of the 1922 Duo-Art piano rolls were issued on record in 1965 (e.g. Turnabout [US] TV 4256), and in 1984. These recordings have subsequently appeared on CD (e.g. Laserlight [US] 14201), but unfortunately lack of documentation in the accompanying notes makes it difficult to trace their exact provenance.

In 2003 a new digital recording of all the Ravel piano rolls was made, using a Yamaha concert grand piano which produces a more resonant sound than previous versions. The recording has been issued on CD by Dal Segno (DSPRCD004) as part of their series Masters of the piano roll. This disk also includes some pieces by Ravel recorded on piano roll by other pianists (Damrosch, Schmitz, Bacon and Ganz).

These are the only recordings which show Ravel as a performer of his own works. The fidelity of the performances which one can now hear depends in part on the quality of the piano playback system as well as on the judgment of its technician, and significant variation has been demonstrated in matters of tempo and dynamics in different versions which have been issued on LP or CD.

Each of the Duo-Art piano rolls (1922) is signed by Ravel as guarantee of their authenticity. There is however some suggestion that Ravel was not actually the performer on two of the items, Toccata and Le gibet, and that because of their technical difficulties Robert Casadesus played them on the composer's behalf. In March 1922, Ravel mentioned in a letter that he was looking for a better pianist than himself, "un plus pianiste que moi", to help with the forthcoming recordings. In another letter in June, he says that Robert Casadesus will be accompanying him to London for the recordings. (Orenstein [1989], letters 191 and 201). Casadesus subsequently spoke to friends about these recordings; and his widow Gaby confirmed the account, explaining that Ravel did not have large enough hands to cover the notes in those two pieces. The other items from the 1922 session were all included in Ravel's live recital programmes at one time or another, but there is no indication that he ever gave public performances of the Toccata or Le gibet. The exact truth must probably remain a matter of speculation. (But see Orenstein [1989], p.408-410 and p.595-596).

There is one further reference to a group of 1928 recordings. During Ravel's visit to America in 1928, he is reported to have made a group of piano-roll recordings for the Aeolian Company in New York using their Duo-Art system. The three pieces which he played were La vallée des cloches (again) from Miroirs, the Rigaudon from Le tombeau de Couperin, and Menuet antique. (See "New Ravel recordings for Duo-Art", in Musical courier, 19 April 1928, p.65; reprinted in Dunfee, [1980] p.20.)

There is however no evidence that these recordings ever appeared in the Duo-Art series of releases for which they were intended, and they do not feature in the archival catalogue of Duo-Art piano roll recordings which was prepared in 1998 under the editorship of Albert M. Petrak.

Brochure for Réunion du Comité Français pour la Diffusion des Études Musicales par le

Ravel's connection with the Aeolian Company and Duo-Art was further demonstrated by his membership of the Comité Français pour la Diffusion des Études Musicales par le "Duo-Art". (There were similar committees in England, Spain, Belgium, and the USA.) The illustration on the left, from a brochure for a meeting of the group, lists the full membership of the French committee in 1926.

Footnote: The Bibliothèque Nationale Française holds a photograph, which it dates to 1934, described as "Maurice Ravel à un jury au Conservatoire américain de Fontainebleau, avec à sa gauche : Gérard Hekking, et à sa droite : Emile Vuillermoz, Charles-Marie Widor, Isidore Philipp, Georges Hüe, Henri Rabaud, Alfred Bruneau, Jean Chantavoine, Gabriel Pierné" [notice no. FRBNF39620306]. This seems to be the same picture which is reproduced by Orenstein in "A Ravel Reader" (1990) (plate 3, following p.366), where it is dated c.1930; in addition to the list above, three unidentified men to the left of Ravel in the photo are here designated only by "X".

Rex Lawson offers identification for these three figures as G.W.F. Reed, the deputy managing director of Aeolian in London, Henri Dubois, artistic director of the Aeolian Company in Paris, and (possibly) Léon Coupleux, one of three brothers from Lille, whose business bought a sizeable interest in Aeolian Paris, and helped run it during the 1920s. The presence of so many people linked to Aeolian suggests that the photograph may actually have been taken at the Committee reunion on 29 June 1926, or slightly later during the four years of the committee's operation.

It was Henri Dubois who asked Ravel to provide an autobiographical note to accompany the piano roll recordings of 1928. With the assistance of Roland-Manuel, this later became the basis of "Une esquisse autobiographique" (Ravel [1938]).