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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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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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