Là, tout n’est qu’ordre et beauté,
Luxe, calme et volupté!
These famous lines of Baudelaire from his poem L’invitation au Voyage were a source of inspiration for many artists. Duparc set them to music and Matisse entitled one of his celebrated paintings Luxe, calme et volupté. The Matisse painting dates from 1904 and it, in turn, inspired Ravel’s Introduction et Allegro. This work was his first major commission. It had come from Albert Blondel, director of the instrument manufacturer Erard. He was eager to promote his company’s double-action pedal harp in competition with Pleyel’s chromatic harp, for which Debussy had recently written his Danse sacrée et danse profane. Ravel claimed to have written this work in eight days, a work of seemingly effortless spontaneity, all luxe, calme et volupté, a musical equivalent of Matisse’s painting.
It was most effectively written for its immediate purpose, for it brilliantly demonstrates what poetry the pedal harp is capable of and how well it can blend with woodwind and strings. It is cast in the form of a concerto movement with a slow introduction and a harp cadenza near the end, the whole perfectly proportioned with delicious melodies, seductive harmony and alluring colours.
He wrote the work just before setting off on a yachting trip with some artist friends. Ravel was well-known as a dandy and had to visit the tailor before embarking in order to be appropriately costumed for the voyage. This last-minute sartorial activity caused him not only to miss the boat but also, in his excitement over an unforgettable yachting cap, he left the score of his new work on the shop counter. Luckily the chemisier was a music-lover and saved the manuscript for posterity.