Ironically, in view of Maurice Ravel’s reputation as a brilliant orchestrator, he conceived only Rapsodie espagnole as a purely orchestral display piece from the beginning, and that only in part. He either wrote his other orchestral works for the stage or transcribed them from piano pieces. In fact, the “Habanera” in Rapsodie espagnole was written originally for two pianos.
Ravel shared the enthusiasm of many French composers for Spanish music. In his case, he absorbed an understanding of both French and Spanish culture as a child. Son of a Swiss father and Basque mother, he grew up in the Basque region. In a review of Rapsodie espagnole, Spanish composer Manuel de Falla wrote:
“It surprises me by its genuinely Spanish character. In absolute agreement with my own intentions this “Hispanization” is not achieved merely by drawing upon popular or “folk” sources (except the Jota in “Feria”), but rather through the free use of modal rhythms and melodies and ornamental figures of our “popular” music, none of which has altered in any way the natural style of the composer.”
The first movement, “Prélude à la nuit” (Prelude to the night), never gets louder than mezzo-forte. Ravel achieved the veiled sound in part by spacing muted violins and violas two octaves apart. Two dance movements follow, “Malagueña” and “Habanera.” In the final movement, “Feria” (The fair), several instruments exchange the solo lines. The opening dancelike material gives way to a quiet middle section before returning to bring the piece to a rousing close.