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A Moderne Master

‘Who can unravel Ravel?’

Jul 18, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 41 • By GEORGE B. STAUFFER
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Claude Bessy and Georges Skibine in ‘Daphnis et Chloé,’ 1959

Claude Bessy and Georges Skibine in ‘Daphnis et Chloé,’ 1959

Roger Viollet / Getty Images

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.

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