Reflections: Chase’s Rest by the Wayside and Ravel’s “Oiseaux Tristes”
What happens to us when we are alone? Being alone can trigger satisfaction when seeking refuge from a noisy world, but it can also spark an onslaught of discombobulated consciousness. In one split second we can shift from a subdued, peaceful state of mind to bursting through our mental cages in a relentless paranoid fit of terror. It is only in our minds that we experience the human condition at its most scared, the most serene, or the most aware; letting the world swirl around us and focusing on our innermost feelings.
It is this sort of inner conflict that I see in the 1902 painting, Rest by the Wayside by William Merritt Chase; the psyche of a weary traveler transposed about him onto the beautiful landscape of Long Island’s Shinnecock Hills. While some vibrant oils appear, the bright green, orange, coral, and yellow in this impressionist work are simply highlights in a much more subdued atmosphere. The surprising colors come from a seemingly fluid spectrum of the deepest purples to the most fragile and gentle aqua, the saturation of which pushes the colors in the foreground to the edge of possibility. Things here seem to be just approaching autumn; the vibrancy has faded and all that is left of summer is but a faint smell in the air. The short, wispy yet thick-textured brushstrokes, which are typical of impressionist paintings, seem to merely hint at the presence of under-grown patches of vegetation that have survived countless tramplings and grazings throughout the warmer months. The traveler is depicted very simply, carrying just a small sack of his belongings. As we follow along the road, our viewpoint accentuates that he has a long journey ahead of him, and his rest implies that just getting here was daunting for his fragile bones. I’m very interested in his story, and why Chase would have surrounded him with such a cool, melancholy landscape. While Chase left us this snapshot of one moment in time to observe this traveler, I’ve chosen to bring his story to life a bit more by synergizing this work with a portrait painted with a different sort of brush by Frenchman Maurice Ravel.
Ravel completed the five movement impressionist solo piano piece Miroirs in 1905. He dedicated each movement to a special friend, and each serves as a reflection on that individual. He dedicated the second movement, “Oiseaux Tristes” (meaning “Sad Birds”), to Ricardo Viñes, a Spanish pianist who knew Ravel well and often performed his works. Viñes performed this one in 1906. He was a favorite performer amongst many of the most important impressionist composers, including Claude Debussy. Debussy’s pursuit of an improvisatory, free nature in his composing was an idea relayed to Ravel through Viñes, and this idea ultimately inspired the composition of “Oiseaux Tristes.” Like visual impressionism, the musical gestures in this piece are subtle and flowing.
“Oiseaux Tristes”, meaning “Sad Birds”, exhibits a type of freedom that seems almost improvisatory, an interesting sound from someone who composed as meticulously as Ravel did (Calvocoressi, 787). The movement is marked tres lent, meaning sad and slow. Part of what makes this movement feel so free and spontaneous is the wandering feeling achieved from the juxtaposition of triple and duple rhythms. At the start of the movement, a single bird calls out. An accompaniment figure joins his lonely song, and then there is a gradual build as other birds begin to respond. The calls seem natural and uninterrupted by musical time or tonality. The accompaniment ascends from the lower register of the piano as more and more birds cry out. The midsection of the piece reaches its climax, with sounds resembling the forest roaring at daybreak. At this point we cannot distinguish any birds from the others, as if the initial subject has been swept into the morning’s excitement when everyone awakes and begins the hunt for food. As the commotion dies down, Ravel transitions into one of many key changes in the movement and with the new key comes some new harmonies. The minor qualities diminish and the free singing of the bird begins to feel increasingly deliberate and downtrodden; but then things seem to look up at the sounding of ascending consonant arpeggiations—a relief from the obscured tonality and dissonance. This event, however, is short lived. The pitch quickly plunges downward, and the mood returns to its original downcast state. There is a sense of return as the original undulating accompaniment comes back, and some final calls of solitude from the bird once more purvey a sense of isolation until all sound fades into nothingness.
Neither the painting nor the music contains particularly sharp imagery, but they also aren’t the most indefinite impressionist pieces ever created. The objects are clearly defined, but we know very little about their true appearance. The array of colors on the landscape matches nicely with the harmonic colors Ravel used in “Oiseaux Tristes.” The prominent foreground is full of blues and purples; in fact, the green fails to even register as an important color to me until my eyes drift past the lonesome traveler into the deep space. The greens and corals appear more significant as I continue looking higher and higher on the panel painting, and then eventually we reach the horizon and a sky whose bright blues have only just begun fading to black. The mix of colors in Ravel’s low, flowing accompaniment also seems to imply soft blues and purples, with just a few brighter shades peeking out now and then in the upper register of the piano, mainly in the louder section and the section with free time. We also hear two very bright, accented calls from birds when the action begins to rise in the midsection, these could be interpreted as our rare corals and bright greens. I believe the sky provides a fitting accompaniment to the rest of the painting, as the absence of bright light in the sky correlates directly to what we view on the ground. The accompaniment in the Ravel does the same thing, creating and affecting the perception of the harmonic light (though the musical accompaniment does so from under the subject instead of over). Further evidence that the sky serves a supporting role can be found when examining the composition of the painting, as it only takes up about one-fifth of the panel. Many of Chase’s works have much more active, detailed skies.
The sky is probably the last thing on the mind of our traveler. His legs are achy, and he is probably thinking of where he has been, why he has left, and where he is going. The subdued color in the foreground suggests that he is leaving a lot of things behind, perhaps he had a family and a job before his beard lengthened and his possessions were reduced to the contents of a sack on a stick. The contemplative, soft colors in the foreground of the painting and in the beginning of the music are the most prominent sections, in size and length, in their respective works; they are also the most emotionally heavy sections. It is as if the weight of lonely consciousness rests on the shoulders of the man. Both works of art convey this sense of isolation explicitly, in the vast empty path ahead of our traveler and the cries of solitude from the bird reverberating through the trees.
The man’s loneliness soon transforms into reflection on himself. Not only about what led him to the side of this barren, sandy path, but virtually all of his past mistakes. What if? Those two vile words; the stem of all fruitful madness. The creation of this alternate universe of what-ifs and hypotheticals makes it all the more painful when reality sets in, extinguishing the burning desperation for time travel and second chances. His heart races with despair and paranoia as if trying to burst through his long-since washed skin and stained coat, his mind fills with fear, hatred, and longing.
This is the loudest noise the man has ever heard, but it exists not on the hills of Shinnecock or in Ravel’s European forests. It comes from his mind’s own chambers, bouncing off of the walls in a cognitive fury. Just thinking of this one idea, this one feeling of loneliness escalates and develops into ricocheting visions until his thoughts lose all meaning. It is sheer chaos; however, each of these culminations of scattered feelings and thoughts eventually gives way to relief. The wild, aggressive, deranged feelings become more faint by the minute. The traveler breathes deeply. Breath after breath his heart rate lowers. His body relaxes and his mind follows suit until he stares forward blankly—nearly thoughtless and emotionless.
Finally, a bit of peace. He notices that his legs feel a little better now. It will soon be time to move; he will need shelter to guard against the seasonal air and the winds of the coast as the sun sinks and night approaches. It is now that he looks the other way, towards coral and green and consonance, vibrant and new. He still sits for just another moment, caught in between two chapters of his life, caught between darkness and light, between old and new. And in this moment, just before he stands up to complete his journey, he finds subtle shades of optimism that lift some weight from his weary eyes. Promising colors lie ahead.
Calvocoressi, M.-D. “Maurice Ravel.” The Musical Times 54, no. 850 (1913): 785-7
Roof, Katherine M. The Life and Art of William Merritt Chase. New York: Charle Scribner’s Sons, 1917.
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