RAVEL Maurice, Chanson Madécasses

Nahandove, O belle nahandove! 
Aoua! Aoua! Mefiez-vous des blancs! 
Il est doux de se coucher 

The Chansons madécasses, scored for voice, flute, cello and piano, were commissioned by the American patron Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge and composed in 1925–6. The texts by Évariste de Parny (1753–1814) are among the earliest prose poems in French, published in 1787. Equally striking are the strong anti-colonialist sentiments of these poems written by a French aristocrat who had been born on what is now the island of Réunion, east of Madagascar. Ravel himself wrote that the songs included ‘a new element, dramatic, even erotic, as a result of the subject matter of Parny’s poems’, and there is no doubting the sensuous erotic charge in ‘Nahandove’. But there is drama of a different kind in the powerfully anti-slavery themes of the second song, ‘Aoua!’, beginning with the warning ‘Méfiez-vous des blancs’ (‘Do not trust the white men’), its words lamenting the violence of the settlers who dispossessed and then enslaved the indigenous population. Ravel creates a harsh and terrifying musical counterpart for the poem, with unflinching dissonance, piercing high notes and motoric rhythms. This is Ravel at his most experimental, and also at his most provocative. The third song comes as a relief, somehow serving to ease the impact of ‘Aoua!’ And yet for all the stillness and simplicity of ‘Il est doux de se coucher’, there is no easy serenity.  


© Nigel Simeone


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