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The Nostalgic Kingdom of Maurice Ravel

In the century since the birth of Maurice Ravel two or three Promethean composers have transformed the very identifying features of Western music. Ravel’s influence was of a different and lesser order. Unlike Schoenberg, the creator of Ma Mère l’Oye and the Trois poèmes de Stéphane Mallarmé was not only of his time but wholly circumscribed by it, playing only a minor role in shaping the future. This is not an adverse judgment of him, especially in view of what that future has become, but it provides a perspective on his achievements, unnecessary as that may seem in the case of music at once so unproblematic and so enduringly popular. Yet the core of Ravel’s personality is an enigma, reflected throughout his work in certain limitations of development, in the narrowness as well as the perfection of his expression, and in the disparity between the most and least successful in the comparatively small body of his music.

The centenary observances in New York have consisted of a concert of little known or unknown minor pieces (at Queens College), a rash of orchestral and recital performances much like those of last year or next, and an exhibition, by the Dance Collection of the Library of Performing Arts, of several important manuscripts, as well as letters, programs, photographs, and set and costume designs. In mid-May, however, the New York City Ballet will present three programs (three times each) containing a total of thirteen works by Ravel and two by Debussy-Ravel. Only Daphnis et Chloé, La Valse, and Boléro were composed as ballets, but with Ravel’s collaboration three more were made of Ma Mère l’Oye, Valses nobles et sentimentales, and Le Tombeau de Couperin.

Since L’Enfant et les sortilèges, here classified as a choreographic work, will also be performed, the observation must be made that the rhythms and forms of the bulk of Ravel’s music are those of the dance. This in itself justifies a dance festival devoted to a composer whose work is rarely experienced outside of the concert hall. Furthermore, a demonstration of the choreographic viability of Ravel’s music is an homage that New York is uniquely able to render him. It is only regrettable that his most successful theatrical work, L’Heure espagnole, will not be given concurrently on one of the city’s other stages.

As for publications, the failure of the centenary to elicit a volume of letters is disappointing, since Ravel’s reclusive personality can be penetrated only through his and his family’s intimate communications. Surely personal considerations cannot have been an issue in withholding the 1,500 letters that have been counted in private collections, for the most recent contribution to the correspondence is forty years old.

Some compensations will be found in a forthcoming study, Arbie Orenstein’s Ravel: Man and Musician.1 In addition to essays on the composer’s aesthetics and creative processes, Mr. Orenstein provides a biography, a bibliography, a discography, and exhaustive program notes for each work. His book, in fact, is the first on the subject to combine both a complete survey of the music and a substantial store of information about the man. Owing to Ravel’s hermetic privacy, the biography will be read for clues; thus the mention that he was fond of “Tea for Two” becomes significant, perhaps because of some similarity to Ravel’s harmonic style, and so does a note about the importance that he attached to Condillac’s Traité des sensations because that book’s discussion of phenomenological exteriority presents a metaphysical parallel to Ravel’s illness.

Mr. Orenstein does not direct his attention to the two most troubling questions in Ravel’s life, his sexuality and his terminal disease, but the author gives the material for answers to both, as well as for treating them as aspects of the same problem. Concerning the first, Mr. Orenstein limits himself to the statement that

Although not insensitive to feminine charm and beauty, there was apparently no romantic attachment at any point in [Ravel’s] career.

About the second, no more is said than that

Because of medical ethics, the exact nature of Ravel’s malady has remained obscure. It is clear that no tumor was found, and that Dr. Vincent succeeded in equalizing the level of the cerebral hemispheres, one of which had become depressed.

Medical ethics or medical ignorance? In either case, these same nonexplanations have been repeated since Ravel’s death, though the medical facts could hardly have been suppressed for the reason that it is unlikely that an organic basis for the illness was ever found. In 1932 the composer was involved in a minor automobile accident, apparently sustaining no injuries. But less than a year later he was incapacitated by what seemed to be aphasia, and by 1934 he was able to write a letter only with the aid of a dictionary from which he copied each word. Three years after that the “tumor” operation was performed, and Ravel died.

A functional diagnosis never seems to have been considered, though as early as 1912 Ravel was subject to attacks of “incipient neurasthenia” that obliged him to live for extended periods in semi-retreat. Furthermore, the “aphasic” failures of communication began after the death of the composer’s mother, or approximately fifteen years before the accident and terminal illness. Mr. Orenstein describes Ravel’s attachment to her as “the deepest emotional tie of his entire life [and] her death [as] a blow from which the composer never fully recovered.”

Although rejected for military service at the age of twenty, at forty Ravel was driving a truck somewhere near the front. Yet his only complaint was about the separation from his mother. In June 1916, he wrote to a friend: “I suffer from one thing, not being able to embrace my poor mother.” In fact Ravel’s breakdown and aphasia, or middle-age autism, began soon after his mother’s death, in January 1917. “Intense need to work,” he writes to his publisher, but “am absolutely incapable of obeying the impulse,” and though musical ideas possessed Ravel he was unable to compose or even to write. At the age of forty-five he confessed:

I think of those former times when I was so happy…. It will soon be three years since [mother] died, and my despair increases from day to day…. I no longer have this dear silent presence enveloping me with her tenderness, which was, I see it more clearly now than ever, my only reason for living.

Ravel never outgrew the world of his childhood, which he continued to furnish with toys, mechanical birds, music boxes, figurines—his first opera includes a scene for marionettes—bibelots. At thirty he composed a Noël dcs jouets and at fifty the doll’s house opera, L’Enfant et les sortilèges, which, though a miniature in every sense, is also the largest work of his later life. Nor is it farfetched to associate the fanfares in the backgrounds of such pieces as L’Enfant and Ma Mère l’Oye with the world of toy soldiers. And when Ravel composed mourning music for a death in his fairyland, naturally the object of his imagined grief was a child, and of course a noble one, a princess whose obsequies could be observed only in the most formal of dances from a remote and romanticized past. Whatever else may be said about this combination of Velásquez tableau and sentimental nursery drama, manifestly the undevelopable miniature form, the repeated melody, and the preciosity of the instrumentation—the petite horn-in-G instead of some prosaic instrument—are the essence of Ravel.

Fairy tales, in fact, are at the heart of Ravel’s imaginative world and they inspire his most affecting music. The childlike poignancy and ingenuousness of Petit Poucet and Le Jardin féerique, from Ma Mère l’Oye, and of the Princess’s “Hélas! petit ami” from L’Enfant are unique in the art. Whereas Schumann evokes childhood from without, Ravel’s creations are of the child spirit itself. He feels and expresses an intensity of emotion in his world of make-believe that he apparently is unable to do with the experiences of maturity. The tenderness in his adult songs (in the Trois beaux oiseaux du paradis, for example) is not that of one person for another but rather of a nostalgia for a distant and exotic time and place, found either in literature—Ronsard, Don Quixote—or in painting, for Ravel once identified the landscape of Daphnis et Chloé as:

the Greece of my dreams…which is the same as that depicted by late eighteenth-century French artists.

One effect on Ravel’s music of his inability to emerge from the emotional world of his childhood is that he became a sophisticated innocent, cultivating worldly tastes as protective disguises; the spirit whose home was close to the child’s playroom lived beneath the apparel of the dandy, behind the show of the connoisseur and bon vivant.

The musical translation of this is “orchestration,” which in Ravel’s case may appear to be more important than substance, a distinction he categorically denied: “There is no such thing as a well-orchestrated piece but only a well-written one.” Yet he contradicted this in a remark about Debussy, who was “angry that he orchestrates so badly.” Ravel went so far as to express the desire to re-orchestrate La Mer, and what this would have been can be imagined to some extent from Ravel’s admirably clear instrumentation of Debussy’s Danse. That Ravel did not bequeath this lesson in the textural decongestion of La Mer is a pity. How much more interesting it would have been than his transcription of Mussorgsky’s Pictures, which not only fails to enhance the original but actually dissipates the “Impressionistic” blur (in Cum mortuis in lingua mortua) that had had such a profound effect on French music two generations earlier.

Ravel’s deep attachment to the past may also be attributed to his arrested emotional growth. He was a neoclassicist from the start, his first published work being the Menuet antique, which he was to follow with three further examples in that form, a curious one for a young composer in the early years of the twentieth century. But archaicism pervades not only the music—in the use of modes, for example (the Aeolian Pavane de la belle au bois dormant)—but also the subject matter (D’Anne jouant de l’espinette, Le Tombeau de Couperin). This is one of the reasons why chronology in Ravel’s work can be difficult to determine; others are that the characteristics of his style were formed at an early date, and that his technical mastery could have been expanded, after about 1908, only with different directions in which to move and new territory to conquer.

Still another effect of the life on the work, or parallel between them, is in Ravel’s predilection, also from the beginning, for small forms (the Épigrammes de Clément Marot). Even the operas are brief, their single acts being comprised, in the case of L’Heure espagnole (which lasts less than that), of twenty-one scenes, and of L’Enfant (which is approximately the same length) of a series of short adventures, each complete in itself.

But the operas are miniatures quite apart from their musical dimensions. The age of the elementary-school hero of L’Enfant is also that of the work’s dramatic appeal, which creates an obstacle to performance on opera stages. (No doubt the ideal “performance” will one day be installed among the electronic entertainments of Disney-world.) The dramatic level of L’Heure espagnole is that of a Feydeau farce, but the joke on which the opera is based is a schoolboy’s. As for Daphnis et Chloé, the one large-scale work, it is both episodic in the wrong sense, stopping and starting according to the dictates of the choreography, and far too long, the Suite No. 11, which Ravel extracted from the last part, proving Miës’s law that less can be more. The ballet does not justify Ravel’s description of it as a “Choreographic Symphony in Three Movements,” or bear out his claim that “the development of a small number of motifs assures the symphonic homogeneity of the work.”

One further parallel between Ravel’s childhood and his art is that he is essentially a musical storyteller, more inspired by poetry, and more stimulated by words, syllables, literary programs, than by the problems of traditional musical form. To some of his scores he even affixed epigraphs—from Baudelaire, Perrault, Comtesse d’Aulnoy, Mme Leprince de Beaumont, and Henri de Régnier—two in the case of the last, one of which, in the Rapsodie espagnole, has little discernible relationship to the music. Gaspard de la nuit is subtitled “Poems for piano,” and in Daphnis words are used to supplement the music: “Émotion douce à la vue du couple,” Ravel writes over a particularly cloying progression. In fact only a comparatively small part of his work is without programmatic content, while in the realm of pure music the Trio alone is wholly successful.

Ravel was at his best in setting words. His first wholly original work, as well as one that reveals a new, ironical side, is the Histoires naturelles (1906), while the Trois poèmes de Stéphane Mallarmé (1913) stands at the peak of the development of his musical language and style. In the Poèmes, written under the influence of Pierrot lunaire, albeit at second hand—Stravinsky’s—nostalgia is a lesser element than innovation and discovery But Mallarmé is as potent a force as that of these two Promethean composers, and the poetry is the primary element in Ravel’s music, above melody, harmony, instrumentation. He crystallizes each syllable and gives each line and word musical rhythms that preserve Mallarmé’s—at the same time sparing him any vulgar melisma or false agogic. And in at least one line, “Princesse, nommez-nous berger de vos sourires” (from Placet futile), Ravel surpasses himself in an ingenious use of syncopation.

Perhaps the most curious aspect of Ravel’s failure to evolve concerns his orchestral music and work as an orchestrator. Since this was the greatest of his musical skills, how could he have failed to discover his extraordinary talent for it until the advanced age of thirty-two? The explanation would seem to be in the hostile reception of the first piece that he attempted to orchestrate, the Shéhérazade Overture (which he subtitled “Introduction to a fairy tale”). But would even the most sensitive composer have been discouraged for five years from trying again, before returning to the wreck of the first attempt to salvage a second? The new piece eventually became the popular Shéhérazade song cycle, which, Mr. Orenstein reveals, was considered the first clear demarcation between “Ravel” and “Debussy,” though if the piece were being heard for the first time today, and attributed to Debussy, surely not many people would identify the orchestrator as Ravel.

The Rapsodie espagnole was a coup de foudre, orchestrally speaking,2 and the instrumental mastery and imagination that distinguish every measure of L’Heure espagnole (both composed in 1907) are even more astonishing. Ravel pretends that the orchestra of the opera is simply an accompanist and commentator, but it actually takes the principal part. Unusual registers are exploited; novel effects, such as string glissandos on harmonics, are introduced; and even the tuba is called from the depths to sing an aria in its mellow upper voice. Ravel also exploits the sarrusophone (as well as its mouth-piece, in 1960s avant-gardist style), and in a way that determines the character of the whole work, just as saxophones determine the character of Boléro. But Ravel was always enlarging his orchestral palette, even in his very last opus introducing the vibraphone. His one failure, in this sense, was the addition of a wordless humming chorus, to enrich the colors of Daphnis et Chloé, an unfortunate anticipation of Hawaiian travelogues.

Ravel’s least dated orchestrations are his simplest, that of Ma Mère l’Oye, for example, which has few doublings, emphasizes pure timbres, and confines each piece to its own instrumental combinations and featured soloists—i.e., the contra-bassoon for the amorous roaring of “La Bête.” And while Ravel generally paints backgrounds and establishes moods before unveiling his principal subjects (cf. La Valse), in Petit Poucet and Le Jardin féerique he begins directly with the melody. (The same is true of the Pavane pour une Infante défunte and of the second movement of the Concerto in G, but the former repeats too literally and the latter does not stay on course.) Finally, the mediums of the piano (4-hands) and orchestra are so masterfully employed in the two versions of the piece that the listener cannot tell for which one the music was originally conceived. As clothing goes out of fashion, however, so do orchestrations, and today some of Ravel’s seem overdressed with percussion and arpeggiation. Later in life, too, he mistakenly tried to reproduce rather than to represent, as in the caterwauling and other voices of nature in L’Enfant.

Ravel’s musical nostalgia can be analyzed in terms of melody, instrumental color, harmony, rhythm. The first of these is characterized by modalities and by patterns that emphasize rising fourths and fifths and falling minor thirds. As for the second, sufficient to say that it makes all the difference that a flute (and not a clarinet) plays the theme in the second of the Valses nobles et sentimentales. And harmonically, Ravel uses (and sometimes abuses) pedal points, parallel fourths and fifths, unresolved ninths and elevenths, the lowered (“Blue”) seventh, and the seductive effect of the minor triad on the dominant moving to the first inversion on the subdominant; but his harmonic gifts were greater than his demands on them, as the Trois poèmes de Stéphane Mallarmé indicates.

Ravel’s rhythmic sense, on the other hand, is of a different caliber, and as one of the first champions of Le Sacre du printemps he might have been expected to engage in further rhythmic exploration himself. In fact if his giddier finales, such as the bacchanal in Daphnis, contain his poorest music, the principal fault is the banality of the rhythm. Correspondingly, most of his superior music, including his favorite valse forms, uses show tempi.

If part of the continuing appeal of Ravel’s music is attributable to its nostalgia, sensuousness, and—when the composer enters the imaginative world of childhood—purity of emotion, another reason for the popularity of both the man and his music is that they are quintessentially “French.” This is evinced in the pursuit of clarity and precision, the dedication to craftsmanship, the fastidiousness and formality, the love of finery and the awareness of fashion, the sensitivity to musical color and perfume. French, too, is Ravel’s wit—in his impersonations of birds in the Histoires naturelles, for example. But Ravel never crossed the borders of his Gallic heritage and sensibilities, fond as he was of journeys in fantasy to exotic places such as Madagascar and the Near East. And though he was attracted to the music of many peoples, his settings of their songs are more “French” than “African,” “Hebrew,” “Greek,” or even “Spanish.” Iberia naturally had a special importance in the work of a composer born of a Basque mother within sight of the Cantabrian coast, yet even here the local idioms and colors, jota and guajira, Habanera and Malagueña, are secondary to his own.

Ravel never regained his path after the War, when he became more the influenced than the influencer. To compose at all, in fact, seemed to be increasingly difficult for him,3 and he never again found either the fecundity or the quality of his music in the decade culminating in the Mallarmé Poèmes and the Trio. Moreover, much of La Valse, his first post-War piece, had been written long before.4 The two sonatas that followed took several years to complete, and the hard labor in them is more audible than the charm, which had theretofore been synonymous with “Ravel.” Neither of the concertos is satisfying, the Gershwin in the “G major” not having been assimilated, while the other is at a disadvantage because of the restrictions of the solo instrument. But the materials are less refined at every level than those in the pre-War pieces.

Ravel must have suffered great mental anguish not only in his final years but also in the 1920s when he was condescended to by his youngers (and inferiors). “Naturally most of the young composers of the day believed in a necessary reaction against the Debussy-Ravel influence,” one of them, Honegger, later explained. At the same time, Ravel’s fame increased, and he conducted the Piano Concerto in G and the Boléro internationally with enormous success—although the latter piece itself would seem to be either a portent of mental breakdown or, at the unlikely opposite extreme, evidence of a high psychotic breaking point.

Those who saw Ravel when he was stricken with his disease testify that his outstanding quality was courage. An obituarist who had known him as an artist more intimately than anyone else mentions this courage as a quality of his whole life as well:

The death of Ravel did not come as a surprise to me. I had known for some time that the seriousness of his illness was causing the gravest concern to those closest to him. I also knew that the type of illness would put an abrupt end to his musical productivity.

He was my friend for a long time. I knew him when I made my debut in Paris with The Firebird, and it was then that he played some fragments for me from his wonderful Daphnis, which he was composing at the time.

France loses one of her greatest musicians, one whose value is recognized throughout the world. He now belongs to history, assured of a place of glory in the domain of music, a place that he conquered with courage and unfaltering conviction. [Igor Stravinsky, L’Intransigeant, Paris, December 29, 1937]

  1. 1

    To be published by Columbia University Press in October 1975 ($10.95).

  2. 2

    Stravinsky, in Morges, to Diaghilev in Rome, November 21, 1916: “I have just come from Paris…. I saw both Ravel and Debussy at a rehearsal of the Concerts Colonnes for the Rapsodie espagnole and Saint Sébastien…. Except for one or two pieces I do not care for Saint Sébastien, but I greatly admire Ravel’s Rapsodie.”

  3. 3

    Ravel, in St. Cloud, to Stravinsky, in Morges, September 16, 1919: “Je continue à ne rien f….; je suis probablement vidé.”

  4. 4

    Ravel, in Saint-Jean-de-Luz, to Stravinsky, in Clarens, September 26, 1914: “I have just been obliged to abandon [the opera] La Cloche engloutie and a symphonic poem, Wien, that I had been expected to finish this winter.”

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