While a student at the Paris Conservatoire under the spell of Russian music by The Five, Ravel contemplated writing an opera based on the Arabian folk tales One Thousand and One Nights. Although the project never came to fruition, he completed an ouverture de féerie entitled Shéhérazade in 1898 – Ravel’s first orchestral work. Despite abandoning plans for the opera, Ravel remained fascinated with the exotic subject matter, and in 1903 met the poet Tristan Klingsor who had just published a collection of Arabian-inspired prose poems under the title Shéhérazade in homage to Rimsky-Korsakov’s symphonic suite of the same name, a work that Ravel also greatly admired. Klingsor (whose real name was Léon Leclère) immediately joined Les Apaches, Ravel’s group of young musicians and intellectuals who shared mutual enthusiasms for The Russian Five, as well as Debussy. At the same time, Ravel began setting three of Klingsor’s poems for voice and piano. The result was the song cycle Shéhérazade, which was first performed in its orchestral version on 17 May 1904 at the Salle du Nouveau- Théâtre, Paris.
Attracted to the oriental lure of Klingsor’s poetry due to its vivid pictorial imagery and rhythmic flexibility, Ravel produced a setting that owes much to Debussy in its luxuriant orchestral colourism as well as in its syllabic approach to the vocal line. Together with the String Quartet, also completed in 1903, the song cycle Shéhérazade established Ravel’s position as a major composer of his generation. His success made his continued failure at the Prix de Rome all the more surprising – a scandal that came to a head in 1905 with the notorious ‘Affaire Ravel’ that rocked the French musical establishment. Ravel’s magically evocative setting of Klingsor’s texts brims with mystery and desire. All three songs are tranquil and reflective, opening and closing in a veiled piano, while the sensuous orchestral sound combines with a rich harmonic palette, in which added seconds, sevenths and ninths abound, to create a sense of yearning and nostalgia. Centred in the dark key of E flat minor, the first and longest song ‘Asie’ is a panorama of oriental fantasy evoking Arabia, India and, at a dramatic climax, China. Through the incessantly repeated ‘je voudrais voir’, the protagonist seeks escape from mundane existence through imagining a host of exotic enticements.
Much shorter than ‘Asie’, the following songs contemplate love and yearning. In ‘La flûte enchantée’, a slave girl hears her lover play the flute outside her window, the flute melody becoming a symbol of love and longing for the expected assignation. Infused with the regret of unrequited love, ‘L’indifférent’ describes an androgynous boy, not unlike that in Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice, who is oblivious to the yearning desire of the onlooker. The major key (E major) expresses resignation. The oscillating string motifs of the song recall those in Debussy’s Nocturnes. While Ravel may have originally conceived the cycle with ‘Asie’ at the end, its now conventional sequence of movements gradually decrease in intensity moving from rich voluptuousness and gentle lyricism to languid sensuousness.