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Maurice Ravel

The Spanish Hour

Ravel - L Heure Espagnole
Glyndebourne Festival
London Philarmonic Orchestra
directed by Sian Edwards

L'heure espagnole is a 1911 one-act opera, described as a comédie musicale, with music by Maurice Ravel (1875-1937) to a French libretto by Franc-Nohain, based on Franc-Nohain's 1904 play ('comédie-bouffe') of the same name. The opera, set in Spain in the 18th century, is about a clockmaker whose unfaithful wife attempts to make love to several different men while he is away, leading to them hiding in, and eventually getting stuck in, her husband's clocks. The title can be translated literally as "The Spanish Hour", but the word "heure" more importantly means "time" – "Spanish Time", with the connotation "How They Keep Time in Spain".

The original play had first been performed at the Théâtre de l'Odéon on 28 October 1904. Ravel began working on the music as early as 1907, and the opera was first performed at the Opéra-Comique on 19 May 1911.

Maurice Ravel was just about as French a composer as any composer who ever lived. Yet he was bom in the Pyrenees, his mother apparently was a Basque, and he liked to write about Spain—sometimes even with a Spanish accent in his music. UHeure espagnole is, of course, about Spain. Its title means, quite literally, “The Spanish Hour,” but the word “hour” does not really mean a sixty-minute hour. The word is used, perhaps, as Longfellow used it, in the title of his famous poem The Children’s Hour. That poem says, in effect, "Now is the time to pay some attention to the children.” And the title of the opera suggests: “Let's talk about the Spaniards . . . and what they do with time.” The libretto—a very French one—comes from a one-act play written by a Frenchman named Maurice Legrand. He further Frenchified it by using a nom de plume—Franc-Nohain.




( The Spanish Hour)

Opera in one act by Maurice Ravel
with libretto in French by “Franc-Nohain” (Maurice Legrand)
based on his own play of die same name

Torquemada, a clockmaket
Concepcion, his wife
Gonzalve, a poet
Ramiro, a muleteer
Don Inigo Gomez, a banker

Time: 18th century

Place: Toledo, Spain

First performance at Paris, May 19, 1911

Tenor. A clockmaker, married to Concepción. While he is out each week setting the town's clocks, she is visited by her lovers. He pretends not to know what is going on and sells the clocks to the various men he finds hiding within them (they are hiding from him). Created ( 1911 ) by Mons. Cazeneuve.


Soprano. Wife of the clockmaker Torquemada. While her husband is out of the house she is visited by her lovers. To keep them from him, she suggests they hide in large clocks and when he finds them she passes them off as customers. Created (1911) by Geneviève Vix.


Tenor. A poet in love with Concepción, wife of Torquemada the clockmaker. When he comes to see her while her husband is away, she is being visited by an old banker and a young customer. He hides in a clock and, when her husband returns, pretends he is a customer and buys the clock. Created (1911) by Fernand Francell.


Baritone. A muleteer. Comes to the shop of the clockmaker Torquemada and interrupts assignations between Torquemada's wife Concepción and her lovers. She keeps him occupied carrying clocks up and down the stairs, and is impressed with his strength. Created (1911) by Jean Périer. 

Don Inigo Gomez:


Bass. A banker who comes to visit Concepción, wife of the clockmaker. To keep him hidden from her other lover she suggests he climb into a clock. Being rather fat, he gets stuck and is unable to climb out to be with her. Created (1911) by Hector Dufranne.



The opera, first produced in 19x1, still seems young and modem—partly, perhaps, because it is so very sophisticated— but its story goes back to eighteenth-century Toledo. It concerns a middle-aged clockmaker, Torquemada, and his young, pretty, and very sexy wife, Concepcion. One hears the tick-tocks of Torquemada’s clocks in the score almost from the beginning. Anyway, Torquemada, working in his shop one morning, gets a new customer—a big, handsome, muscular, good-natured, simple-minded muleteer named Ramiro. Keep your eye on Ramiro. Concepcion gets rid of her husband by reminding him that it is time to go and regulate the town clocks. That’s part of his job. Her reason for wanting to be rid of Torquemada is that she has a rendezvous with one Gonzalve, a romantic poet.

The story (which is as complicated as a French bedroom farce) has to do with Concepcion keeping her men separated. She rids herself of Ramiro, the muleteer, by getting him to cany a grandfather’s clock up to her bedroom. But that’s only temporary. Gonzalve is more interested in singing and reciting his verses than in making love, so Ramiro returns inconveniently. Concepcion then gets him to carry up another clock, and pretty soon she even gets him to carry up one of the clocks with her lover secretly inside it.

Then—further complications. Another lover—Inigo, the fat banker—appears. Between the two lovers hiding in clocks and Ramiro carrying them up and downstairs within those clocks and Concepcion’s growing admiration for Ramiro’s strength and good nature—well, there's plenty of comedy. Finally, Concepcion invites Ramiro upstairs without any clock. While they are away, the poet finds the fat banker stuck inside a clock, unable* to get out. In addition, Torquemada returns from his chores. No one is especially upset by all this, and Ramiro, always the good-natured strong man, pulls the poor banker out to safety.

And so they all join in a jolly quintet saying nothing of any importance at all. For in “the Spanish hour,” so to speak, nothing seems to matter but a bit of flirtation.


The opera takes place in 21 scenes, with an introduction.


Torquemada is at work in his shop when the muleteer Ramiro stops by to have his watch fixed, so that he can fulfill his duties at collecting the town's post. It is Thursday, the day that Torquemada goes out to tend the municipal clocks, so Ramiro must wait. Torquemada's wife, Concepción, enters to complain that her husband hasn't yet moved a clock into her bedroom. After Torquemada has left, she takes advantage of his absence to plan assignations with gentleman friends. However, the presence of Ramiro is initially a hindrance. So she asks him to move a grandfather clock to her bedroom, which he agrees to do.

Meanwhile, she waits for Gonzalve, a poet. He arrives, and is inspired to poetry, but not to lovemaking, where Concepción would prefer the latter. When Ramiro is about to return, she sends him back saying that she chose the wrong clock. She then has the idea of having Gonzalve hide in one clock so that Ramiro can carry him upstairs. After Gonzalve is concealed, Don Iñigo, a banker and another of Concepción's gentleman friends, arrives. When Ramiro returns, she persuades him to carry up the clock with Gonzalve concealed in it, and she accompanies him.

On his own, Don Iñigo conceals himself in another clock. Ramiro enters, asked to watch the shop, and musing on how little he understands of women. Concepción then summons him back upstairs, saying that the clock's hands are running backwards. She and Don Iñigo try to communicate, but Ramiro arrives back with the other clock. Don Iñigo has hidden himself again, and Ramiro now carries up the clock with Don Iñigo upstairs.

With Gonzalve now downstairs, Concepción tries to turn him away from poetry towards her, but Gonzalve is too absorbed to follow her lead. Ramiro returns, and Gonzalve must conceal himself again. He offers to take the second clock up again. Impressed by how easily Ramiro carries the clocks (and their load) upstairs, Concepción begins to be physically attracted to him.

With Gonzalve and Don Iñigo now each stuck in clocks, Torquemada returns from his municipal duties. Both Gonzalve and Don Inigo eventually escape their respective clock enclosures, the latter with more difficulty. To save face, they each have to purchase a clock. Concepción is now left without a clock, but she muses that she can wait for the muleteer to appear regularly with his watch repaired.

The opera ends with a quintet finale, as the singers step out of character to intone the moral of the tale, paraphrasing Boccaccio:


"Entre tous les amants, seul amant efficace,
Il arrive un moment, dans les déduits d'amour,
Où le muletier a son tour!"
"Among all lovers, only the efficient succeed,
The moment arrives, in the pursuit of love,
When the muleteer has his turn!"



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