In Maurice Ravel’s carefully balanced scores, virtuosity – however necessary to execution – rarely reaches escape velocity. Tzigane, however, is an exceptional case. It is a virtuoso violin piece, even to the extent that the piano part, in addition to being absent for a fair amount of time, is overtly compromised: Tzigane is marked ‘pour Violon et Piano (ou Lutheal)’ — the lutheal being a piano attachment which made the instrument sound something like a cimbalom. (The lutheal is probably more known for its precipitous descent into obsolescence than for any sound it ever made.)
Several conditions in 1923 seem to have brought this uncharacteristic type of piece out of Ravel. First: he needed to write a piece for violin and piano to replace his Violin Sonata, which was not working out well. So the relative simplicity of virtuoso style seems to have brought him the opportunity both to write a quick replacement piece, and to break himself out of an awful rut (he hadn’t finished a single piece that year). Second: the appearance of a violinist named Jelly D’aranyi, who was supposed to play the premier of Ravel’s Violin Sonata in the spring of 1924, sowed compositional seeds for the piece with an evening of gypsy tunes at a small party.
Characterizations of the gypsy-ness of Tzigane must be somewhat qualified. One might get the impression, reading about Tzigane and Jelly D’aranyi, that she streaked out of the Carpathians onto the concert stage, bearing preternatural gifts, etc, and that Ravel was so blown away by it all that he could not keep himself from writing for her. However, while Ms. D’aranyi was in fact a brilliant (and native) performer of gypsy music, she was also the great-niece of Joseph Joachim (who was one of the most famous violinists of the19th century and close friend to Brahms), and she had been working closely with Bela Bartok in the early twenties. This is no mean lineage for a fiddler. Similarly, while Ravel’s Tzigane is truly invested in folk style (especially as given by Jelly D’aranyi), and honestly virtuosic, it is anything but naÃ¯ve. One critic wrote of Tzigane: ‘It is the most artificial thing he ever wrote.’ For such criticisms (which came at him often, and for more pieces than Tzigane), Ravel had a curt defense: ‘Doesn’t it ever occur to these people that I can be ‘artificial’ by nature?’ “Artificial by nature” could certainly be applied to Tzigane, which lives on as a stylistic anomaly in Ravel’s works, and as a staple in the violin repertoire.