Maurice Ravel hailed from the French Pyrenees, and he was born merely a couple of miles from the Spanish border. Growing up in Madrid, he had a natural fascination with Spain and one of his earliest pieces, written after he left the Paris Conservatory in 1895, was a habanera for two pianos. It was the first composition of Ravel’s to be performed publically, and Debussy asked to borrow the score. When he issued his La soirée dans Grenade (Night in Grenada) five years later, it was similar enough for Ravel to take offense. In the event, much of Ravel’s Spanish music was written before he spent much time in that country. And in 1907, he set out to write his first opera and his first orchestral score.
Not surprisingly, both works carried Spanish flavors. The opera L’heure espagnole would take over two years to finish, but most of the Rapsodie espagnole was written quickly as a set of four Spanish sketches. And predictably, the 1895 habanera blazed in full orchestral glory as the third movement. The premiere performance on 15 March 1908 turned out to be a mixed bag. The audience sitting in the expensive seats on the main floor reacted rather indifferently to the score, while Ravel’s students and friends sitting in the gallery were ecstatic. Amongst much applause and accolades, they were calling for an encore of the second “Malagueña” movement. That request was greeted by resounding booing from the main floor prompting the young composer Florent Schmitt to call out in a loud voice, “Just once more, for the gentlemen below who haven’t been able to understand it the first time.” Rather predictably, this contentious concert-hall encounter added, rather than subtracted from Ravel’s reputation.