Rabbit or Duck? Rhythmic Dissonance in Ravel’s Miroirs
by Sophia Zervas
Ravel’s Miroirs (“Mirrors”) is a set of five pieces for solo piano. It was written between 1904-1905, during one of his most stylistically fruitful periods of compositional writing. Each movement is a portrait of its dedicatee, all different members of a group of musicians, artists, and writers that Ravel was part of. This group called themselves Les Apaches, which came from the name of the Native American tribe, but in French has the added meaning of “hooligans.” I will discuss the three inner movements of Miroirs—Oiseaux tristes (“Sad birds”), Une barque sur l’océan (“A boat on the ocean”), and Alborada del gracioso (“The jester’s morning song”). Serendipitously, these three movements were composed first, and the outer two were completed later. In addition to their recognizably coloristic writing, these pieces are characterized by metric and rhythmic complexity and ambiguity. Of particular interest to me is Ravel’s use of hemiola and rhythmic dissonance to create different layers of rhythmic groupings. However, far beyond simple hemiola, Ravel’s sophisticated layering gives rise to interesting performance questions.
Many of us have encountered this optical illusion before.
Is it a rabbit, a duck, or both simultaneously? This image can be a helpful way of understanding how Ravel deals with rhythmic grouping and subdivision in Miroirs. The opening of Alborada provides the most lucid example of this idea. Written in an overtly Spanish style, this piece is rhythmically driven and opens in 6/8.
Ravel uses a grouping of 3+3, made clear by the accents. In mm. 7 and 9, he uses basic hemiola and throws in a 2+2+2 group. However, a closer look at the first six measures shows that they may have another layer of rhythmic complexity. The alternation of the hands in mm. 1 and 3 gives the illusion of hemiola or grouping of 2+2+2, though variation in mm. 2 and 4 occludes a long-term sense of it. Further, if you play the left hand alone, there is a clear sense of 3/4.
Another way of understanding this passage is by assigning letters to the various groupings in a 6/8 meter. Typically, 6/8 breaks down into two groups of three: ABC ABC. When a composer uses hemiola, as in mm. 7 and 9, the grouping changes: AB AB AB. However, I am suggesting that in the opening of Alborada, it is possible to group it both ways simultaneously: ABC ABC andAB AB AB
For the performer, this raises the question of which grouping to favor more heavily. Although Ravel’s written accents align with the natural 6/8 grouping, the alternation of hands suggest 3/4—the rabbit and the duck. The question is, is it possible to achieve both in performance?
The middle piece of the set, Une barque sur l’océan, does not have the rhythmic drive or encoded stylistic clues of Alborada. Instead, it evokes in a hypnotic way a boat being carried about by a mounting storm on the open water. However, Ravel still plays with ideas of shifting meters and subdivisions.
The opening of the piece has an interesting metrical indication—2/4 and 6/8, suggesting subdivisions of both two and three. Although the last right hand duplet is tied to the first triplet, masking an overt sense of the shift, you can hear both subdivisions present in the opening theme. Later, in mm. 11-12, and then for a longer period in m. 29, Ravel shifts to 3/4, and the metrical division is clearly in three. However, whenever the original theme returns (three times over the course of the piece—coincidence?), the successive meters are always present.
The idea of simultaneous meters in Une barque is an appropriate segue into Oiseaux tristes, where this idea shows up even more frequently. In an autobiographical sketch, the composer describes Oiseaux tristes as evoking “birds lost in the torpor of a very dark forest during the hottest hours of summer” (Abramovitch 13). While the rhythmic juxtaposition in the piece is intricate, in this piece it has a more gestural and rhapsodic effect rather than being metronomically precise and driven as in Alborada. I would like to highlight two sections of rhythmic interest, starting with mm. 11-14.
Measure 11 is straightforward rhythmically, written in 12/8 and with the hands playing eighth notes in unison. In m. 12, Ravel shifts the right hand’s pattern by one 16th note, creating what is formally known as displacement dissonance. In the inner voice, the two-note bird call pierces through the texture.
In mm. 13-14, however, the level of rhythmic complexity increases, creating a kind of nesting effect. The 12/8 is suggested by Ravel’s beaming, with four groups of three triplet eighth notes. Each triplet eighth is further broken down into three groups of subdivisions, which alternate between triplets and duplets. While this rhythmic nesting is interesting in and of itself, it also creates another type of possible grouping. Because Ravel alternates between triplets and duplets, this creates a switchback scheme. The switchback scheme is also strongly suggested by the alternating C-sharp–D-sharp groupings in the left hand. In other words, in addition to the four groups of three, Ravel has created six groups of two. If we assign letters to the individual motives, with A representing a triplet, and B a duplet, these are the two possible patterns in m. 13:
As beamed: ABA BAB ABA BAB
According to the switchback scheme: AB AB AB AB AB AB
For the performer, this again raises the question of which interpretation to favor when playing these measures. To my ear, it is easier to latch onto the switchback pattern and hear it in groups of two. However, Ravel beams the lowest voice according to the meter, suggesting that the performer should hear the alternating major second in groups of three. In order to show this connectivity in the left hand lower voice, the performer may opt to disconnect certain notes to show the grouping more explicitly. While the difference is subtle, it is a point of consideration brought to light by this grouping dissonance.
The final example of rhythmic dissonance that I would like to discuss appears near the opening of Oiseaux tristes, in mm. 4-6.
Up to this point in the piece, the texture has been homophonic and consists of a single-voiced statement of the bird call. In m. 4, however, the texture thickens to four distinct voices. In the lower staff, which is notated in 12/8 meter, Ravel creates the texture of the forest by writing four groups of three triplet eighth notes. In the bass, the open fifth appears, clarifying the key of E-flat minor, which has been ambiguous up to this point. The tenor voice is the densest, but Ravel weakens the continuous triplets by always tying the first note of each group, thus de-emphasizing the beats. In the alto voice, which remains in 4/4, Ravel introduces a slow-moving falling major third that shapes our perception of meter. Finally, the crystalline bird call continues in the soprano voice. Further, the falling third and bird call always occur on the beat, which fills in the gaps left by the tied triplets.
Ravel writes in 12/8, but the three lower voices are the key to understanding what he’s actually doing metrically. If we trace the movement of the alto, tenor, and bass voices, we see that the first two repetitions of the pattern occur over three beats. The next four repetitions are a rhythmic diminution, and in the left hand, the pattern is reduced to two beats. Thus, bar lines notwithstanding, the pattern in terms of beat lengths is as follows: 123 123 12 12 12. The bass and tenor voices also reflect this grouping of 3+3 then 2+2+2. Harmonically, the change from E-flat minor to B minor occurs on the shift from 3 to 2. This raises the question of why Ravel used 12/8, thereby obscuring the pattern. In the long run, 12/8 is a multiple of 2 and 3 and may be the simplest way to notate this section, as opposed to using 9/8 for two measures and 6/8 for three.
In Oiseaux tristes, while the techniques of metrical dissonance are similar to those in Une barque and Alborada, they are worked out in different ways. However, the more important point is, that through all these examples, rhythmic dissonances and groupings shape our perception of meter, and the meter we see on the page may differ from the one we are hearing. In this case, what appears as simple hemiola or rhythmic dissonance gives rise to larger performance questions, especially when numerically compatible layers are stacked or arranged in a switchback scheme. Ultimately, the performer must evaluate each section and decide whether to highlight the rabbit or the duck—or both.
Abramovitch, Ruti. “Maurice Ravel’s Miroirs for Piano: Historical Background and Some Performance Related Aspects.” Indiana University, 2012.
Korevaar, David. “Ravel’s Mirrors.” The Juilliard School, 2000.