by Roger Nichols

Yale, 420 pp., $40

In April 1928 Maurice Ravel received a request from the dancer Ida Rubinstein to orchestrate several piano pieces from Albéniz’s Iberia for a new ballet she wished to present at the Paris Opéra. Parisian audiences were entranced by jazz and Spanish music, and Ravel, in addition to being a brilliant orchestrator, had employed both idioms in his own works. He was the ideal choice for the commission, and the timing was perfect, since he was in need of additional income for the ongoing renovations of Le Belvédère, his new home outside Paris. When permission problems thwarted the Iberia plan, Ravel decided instead to compose something of his own, an original work that would combine the swing of cabaret music with the form of the Spanish fandango, a Baroque dance featuring (as one early writer put it) “the most indecent gesticulations that can be conceived.”

From these circumstances sprang Ravel’s best-known and most controversial work, Boléro. At the premiere the following November, the Opéra audience was treated to seeing Rubinstein, cast as a Spanish gypsy in a dingy tavern in Madrid, perform a writhing, sensuous dance on a large table before an enraptured group of drinking men. According to one witness, her gestures grew wilder and wilder with the hypnotic repetitions and growing crescendo of Ravel’s score. The men drew closer, beating on the table and eventually mounting it to take part in the frenzied conclusion. Choreographed by Bronislava Nijinska of the Ballets Russes, the dance was both riveting and shocking, and the audience wasn’t sure what to make of it. But one thing was certain: Ravel’s music was a scandal, and an instant hit.

Edward Robinson declared Boléro

the most insolent monstrosity ever perpetrated in the history of music. From the beginning to the end of its 339 measures, it is simply the incredible repetition of the same rhythm .  .  . and above it the blatant recurrence of an overwhelmingly vulgar cabaret tune that is little removed, in every essential of character, from the wail of an obstreperous back-alley cat.

Hollywood, by contrast, loved it, and in 1934 released the full-length film Bolero, which told the story of Raoul De Baere (George Raft), an ambitious dancer from New York who exploits two assistants (played by Carole Lombard and the famed exotic dancer Sally Rand) in an attempt to revive his career after serving in World War I (“His dancing partners were but stepping stones to fame!” proclaimed the poster). In the film’s climax, De Baere overexerts himself dancing to Boléro in an effort to win over his audience. He collapses afterward in his dressing room, and expires.

The sociologist Serge Gut perceived a deeper meaning to Boléro. To him, it represented “the repetitive obsession that opens .  .  . notions of death, madness, destruction, and annihilation, as if the composer had had an apocalyptic vision of the end of the world.” Ravel himself was less metaphysical: To an elderly woman who yelled “Rubbish!” at the premiere, he famously responded, “She got the message.” To fellow composer Arthur Honegger he confided, “I’ve written only one masterpiece—Boléro. Unfortunately, there’s no music in it.”

What is one to make of Boléro and its composer? Is the piece a great work, or a practical joke? Was Ravel France’s greatest 20th-century composer (as Prokofiev once claimed) or was he the creator of meticulously crafted exotic oddities whose beauties resemble “markings on snakes and lizards” (as the Times of London once stated)? How is one to sort this out? As a perplexed Boston reviewer once asked: “Who can unravel Ravel?”

A brave attempt is made in this encompassing new biography by Roger Nichols, a Ravel scholar of long standing and lecturer at the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama. Expanding on his much shorter study, released for the Ravel centennial in 1975, Nichols returns to the composer’s life story, this time drawing on the letters, writings, and interviews recently edited by Arbie Orenstein. These documents provide intimate insights into Ravel’s day-to-day activities and compositional projects. In a series of neatly parceled chapters, Nichols walks through Ravel’s life year-by-year, event-by-event, weighing the developments with a precision and detachment that mirrors the composer’s own personality.

Ravel was born in 1875 in the Basque village of Ciboure, the first child of Pierre Joseph Ravel, a Swiss engineer, and his Basque wife Marie Delouart. Although the Ravels soon moved to Paris, Maurice retained much of his mother’s love for Basque language and culture, and things exotic. Ravel showed early signs of musical talent and entered the Paris Conservatoire as a piano student, at age 14, in 1889. There he made notable progress, winning his first medal when he was 16 and eventually gaining the opportunity to study composition with Gabriel Fauré and counterpoint with André Gedalge, two of the institution’s most venerable instructors. A series of increasingly brilliant works followed in rapid succession: the Shéhérazade overture in 1898, Pavane pour une infante défunte in 1899, and finally, in 1901, the remarkable Jeux d’eau, the piano piece that marked Ravel as cofounder, with Claude Debussy, of musical impressionism.

But as Nichols underscores, the Conservatoire’s top prize, the coveted Prix de Rome, remained elusive. Ravel won second place in 1901 but his other attempts—there were four more—were unsuccessful. In the final try of 1905 Ravel was eliminated in the preliminaries, and when a subsequent investigation revealed that the six finalists were all pupils of a jury-panel member, the head of the Conservatoire, Théodore Dubois, was forced to resign. Ravel stayed above the fray and quickly moved on to new works. But “L’affaire Ravel,” as the event came to be known, marked the young composer as a figure outside the establishment.

A central premise of Nichols’s account is that Ravel remained an outsider, despite the success of his compositions. He simply didn’t fit in. A dapper dresser, he practiced the life of a cultivated dandy, immaculately attired and meticulous about his appearance. Ravel was known for his cold, emotionless greetings and his clinical manner of playing and conducting. He had a wide circle of friends but no intimate attachments other than his strong tie to his mother. He lived at home with her until her death, moving into a house of his own only at age 45. And Le Belvédère was well distanced from Paris, lying 30 miles to the southwest in the small village of Montfort l’Amaury.

Ravel never married, and he seemed most comfortable in the company of male companions such as the Catalan pianist Ricardo Viñes (who premiered many of the piano works) and the sculptor Léon Leyritz (who accompanied Ravel on trips late in life). He was very happy to help the governess of Ida and Cipa Godebski look after their children, or play water war as a 50-year-old with a young Charles Harding (“Jeux d’eau,” he explained to Harding’s parents). Nicholas concludes that Ravel was not gay but sexually neutral, a creative artist who retained many of the childlike qualities that he portrayed in his music.

Also contributing to Ravel’s youthful image was his physique: He was thin and somewhat frail (he was judged underweight for normal military service in World War I and enlisted as an ambulance driver) and only five-foot-three. (“I was told to expect a grand master,” quipped the proprietor of the Salle Pleyel in Paris after meeting Ravel, “but I could only see 50 centimeters!”) And professionally, Ravel was a maverick, forming the Société musicale indépendante in 1909 to oppose the staid Société nationale de musique, and declining the Légion d’honneur when it was offered to him in 1920.

A great strength of Ravel is its vivid portrayal of musical life in turn-of-the-century Paris. Just as Vienna had been the indisputable center of European musical life in the 19th century, Paris emerged in the 20th as its worthy successor, hosting a vast array of composers, both native and foreign. Music was performed, discussed, and written about to an unprecedented degree. Even Ravel, normally reticent to engage in public discussion, served for a time as a music critic for the Cahiers d’aujourd’hui. Audiences flocked to hundreds of theater, dance, and opera productions, concerts, and cabaret performances. At its peak, Paris featured more than 200 café concerts alone. This feverish focus on the arts survived the Great War and the Great Depression, losing its strength only in the 1930s when the cinema began to replace live art as the favored entertainment. Nichols tracks Ravel’s schedule and shows the extraordinary extent to which he and other musicians attended and participated in convention-breaking events on an almost weekly basis. (Ravel’s innovative opera Daphnis et Chloé made little impression on its opening night because Debussy’s L’après-midi d’un faune, with Nijinsky’s risqué choreography, had premiered just 10 days earlier.)

The number of gifted composers working in Paris was dizzying, ranging from impressionists such as Debussy, Gabriel Fauré, and Ravel to traditionalists such as Camille Saint-Saëns, Gabriel Pierné, and Jacques Ibert to iconoclasts such as Erik Satie, Igor Stravinsky, and Les Six (Germaine Tailleferre, Darius Milhaud, Arthur Honegger, Francis Poulenc, Georges Auric, and Louis Durey), who ultimately rejected the renegade Ravel as being too conservative. So deep was the pool of talent that when the St. Sulpice organist Marcel Dupré improvised a symphony on the grand organ of the Trocadéro in 1925, he could turn to Honegger, Charles-Marie Widor, Paul Dukas, Pierné, Henri Rabaud, and Ravel for themes. There were equally brilliant dancers, choreographers, set designers, and painters standing ready to collaborate as well: When Stravinsky needed sets for the Paris premiere of Pulcinella in 1920, Pablo Picasso stepped forward.

As Jennifer Homans shows in her recent history of ballet, Apollo’s Angels, the Ballets Russes was the catalyst of many progressive pairings. For Ravel, Daphnis et Chloé, the completion of Modest Mussorgsky’s Khovanshchina, and the orchestration of Emmanuel Chabrier’s Menuet pompeux stemmed from Ballets Russes commissions. Sergei Diaghilev, the guiding force of the Ballets Russes, was fond of saying “Astound me!” to his creative team; Parisian audiences seemed to echo this celebrated mantra with “Astound us!”

Ravel navigated the often-turbulent waters through his Société musicale indépendante (SMI), which emerged as a leading forum for new works “free from rules and regulation.” The first concert of SMI featured Ma mère l’oye, Ravel’s poke at the solemn pedagogy of the Conservatoire and the “solid qualities of incoherence and boredom.” Ravel also became a member of Les Apaches (The Hooligans), a salon that convened regularly to consider the ties among literature, art, and music. It was at the sessions of Les Apaches that Ravel heard the merits of Stéphane Mallarmé, Paul Verlaine, Jules Renard, and other writers whose texts he set in his highly picturesque songs. Unlike most of his French colleagues, Ravel never taught at the Conservatoire. Indeed, he did not have any regular students, nor was he willing to join other French composers after the war to oppose the growing influence of Richard Wagner, Arnold Schoenberg, Sergei Prokofiev, and other foreign composers. He remained aloof.

As Nichols shows, Ravel seemed to find security in past forms. Many of his works appear as modern reminiscences of bygone times, much like Proust. Pieces such as Menuet antique, Pavane pour une infant défunte, and Le Tombeau de Couperin draw on 17th- and 18th-century dance models, updated with enriched harmonies and complex textures. The five movements of Miroirs represent modern versions of Felix Mendelssohn and Robert Schumann’s 19th-century character pieces. Other works show a child-like naiveté: Ma mère l’oye (Mother Goose) originated as a four-hand duet for the Godebski children, whom Ravel wanted to premiere the work; it was played instead by two well-trained young girls. Ravel recycled these and other piano pieces as orchestral works or orchestrated ballets, which allowed him to enhance the scores with plush instrumental colorings and at the same time to generate additional income. Although he claimed that orchestration was a mechanical process, Ravel seemed to derive inspiration from enlarging the music’s palate of colors: It was as if the piano versions served as preliminary drawings for later painted canvases.

In other piano works he made extraordinary technical demands while exhibiting craftsmanlike precision of detail: Jeux d’eau, Gaspard de la nuit, and the two late pieces for piano and orchestra, the Concerto in D Major for Left Hand (for the injured pianist Paul Wittgenstein) and the Concerto in G Major. And exoticism, too, played a vital role in the Violin Sonata (with its well-known “Blues” movement), Deux mélodies hébraïques (which includes the Kaddish), and the Spanish compositions such as Rapsodie espagnole, Tzigane, and the opera L’heure espagnole. The last concerns clocks and clock mechanisms—a fascination that crops up elsewhere in Ravel’s music. In a final chapter, Nichols makes the case that Ravel focused on creating very concentrated, intricate musical jewels, in which raw emotionalism is kept in check by a remarkable control of form and content. The surface beauty of Ravel’s pieces represented an alternative to the neoclassicism of Stravinsky and the twelve-tone idiom of Schoenberg. Yet all three composers pursued a similar goal: supreme clarity and organization of the musical elements. For Ravel, this was achieved through exacting attention to detail.

Among the Spanish compositions, Boléro emerged as the most exotic, the most appealing, the most mesmerizing work of all. It was wildly successful and quickly became Ravel’s cash cow. (As Nichols points out, the piano version alone brought in 50,000 francs during Ravel’s lifetime.) Whatever Ravel’s personal view of its merits, he conducted it often, even as his health began to fail. He suffered from insomnia after his war service, and in 1932 was involved in a taxi accident. Even though his injuries were slight, his mental capacity declined steadily after the collision. Diagnosed with ataxia and aphasia he grew unable to compose, and on bad days, incapable even of writing his name. Though no tumor was detected, he underwent brain surgery in December 1937 and died eleven days later.

His works are favorites among professional musicians, but to the general public he is the composer of Boléro. Like Edward Elgar and Pomp and Circumstance, and Jean Sibelius and Finlandia, Maurice Ravel remains linked with one immensely popular composition, the late work he once described as “a piece for orchestra without music.”

George B. Stauffer is dean of the Mason Gross School of the Arts and professor of music history at Rutgers.

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