I’m preparing one of my favorite pieces, Ravel’s "Une barque sur l’océan” from Miroirs, for a recital in Florence. The work evokes a small boat on the ocean being swept by waves and currents. It is a source of endless beauty and joy to perform, as well as a pianistic challenge. But this masterpiece might have never been composed without a pioneering work Liszt, an earlier composer, composed at the Villa d’Este in the hills near Rome a few decades before. I visited the villa on my way to Florence and discovered a chain of inspiration that led from a 2nd century emperor looking for respite from the oppressive heat and politics of Rome, to a renaissance cardinal with grand ambitions, to Liszt seeking sanctuary, and then to Ravel’s quest for a new musical language.
Ravel is famous for works that evoke water, which in addition to “Une barque sur l’océan” includes the “Ondine” movement of Gaspard de la Nuit, which I also play, and Jeux d’eau, which I’m learning. Liszt’s pioneering Les Jeux d’eau à la Villa d’Este paved the way for these compositions, which in turn further developed this impressionistic style. In Liszt’s piece, cascading arpeggios call to mind the sound of water spouting up and running down the hundreds of fountains in the villa’s garden. I can see how Liszt would have a breakthrough here, because I also was overcome by the visual and auditory stimulation the countless forms of waterworks brought on.
Liszt came to the villa as a guest of a prominent Cardinal during one of his periods of deep depression, unable to marry the woman he loved. He intended to stay only a short while, but would come back year after year to take in the breathtaking views of the hills, now overgrown gardens, and of course the fountains. The grandiose Villa was built by the renaissance Cardinal Ippolito II d’Este, who built a palace and gardens on the scale of his ambition—he hoped to become Pope. He found material for his project, both spiritual and physical, in the ruins of the opulent villa that Roman Emperor Hadrian built in what is now Tivoli. Hadrian also used water, from pools of water surrounded by sculptures to a moat around a small set of rooms he used to create some separation from his duties of ruling an empire. Through Liszt’s work and the Villa d’Este, the emperor’s waterworks helped bring us wonderful music from Ravel and Debussy 1,700 years later.
Experiencing the fountains with all the senses brought me even closer to music I’ve worked with for nearly 10 years. I began to connect individual channels and fountains with figures and passages in the music. But their variety also made me realize that there is no one right way of playing this music. There are so many ways to render the water effects, so I feel more freedom to phrase the music to correspond with a certain flow or jet of water.