La vallée des cloches, from Miroirs  Maurice Ravel

In 1905, Maurice Ravel, near the exact midpoint of his life, wrote Miroirs. In that music, he looked back to youthful and lasting piano successes, but looked ahead to the brilliant Impressionist works that make his music riveting. Miroirs preceded any of Debussy's epochal piano works, and claim attention for Ravel as pioneer, innovator and even magician. He wrote at the time that these pieces "…mark a rather considerable change in my harmonic evolution." He could also have mentioned the new complexity of his rhythms and the extraordinary subtlety of the virtuosic music he had written.

Looking forward and backward is an image apt for Ravel. Miroirs is a classical piece, a gloss on the austerity of the 18th century, yet its expanded tonality colors the music with exotic shades, and the virtuosity it demands sharply limits the number of pianists able to explore it. In other works, he found inspiration in older music, yet he was early identified as a flaming modernist.

The five sections of Miroirs describe imagined scenes. The finale, La vallée des cloches ("Valley of the Bells") evokes a number of bells tolling in their own tempos, pitches and weights, sometimes near, sometimes afar. In this music, Ravel swiftly does away with traditional tonality without crossing into the troubled paths of atonalism. He finds his own poetic path amid sparkling and shimmering colors.  This section was dedicated to Maurice Delage, a French composer and pianist.

Oiseaux Tristes, Maurice Ravel

The impetus for composing the piece came in 1904, when Ravel heard a second-hand account of something Debussy had said. According to Alexis Roland-Manuel, Ravel’s friend and biographer, Debussy had told the pianist Ricardo Viñes that when writing his experimental piece, “D’un cahier d’esquisses,” he had been “dreaming of a kind of music whose form was so free that it would sound improvised, of works which would seem to have been torn out of a sketchbook.” Viñes recounted Debussy’s statement at a meeting of “Les Apaches,” a group of radical writers, artists and musicians, of which Ravel was a member. Ravel responded by saying that he was ready to put Debussy’s dream into action. He drew his inspiration from an experience he had one morning in the forest at Fontainbleau. Ravel’s friend and former music school classmate Émile Vuillermoz remembered:

He was staying with friends and one morning he heard a blackbird whistling a tune and was enchanted by its elegant, melancholy arabesque. He had merely to transcribe this tune accurately, without changing a note, to produce the limpid, poetic piece which spiritualises the nostalgic call of this French brother of the Forest Bird in Siegfried.

After the meeting, Ravel set to work on the E Flat Minor “Oiseaux tristes,” which he dedicated to Viñes and included in his five-piece suite, Miroirs. “Oiseaux tristes is the most typical of my way of thinking,” Ravel wrote in his 1928 autobiographical sketch. “It evokes birds lost in the oppressiveness of a very dark forest during the hottest hours of summer.”