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. In addition to essays on the composer’s aesthetics and creative processes, Mr. Orenstein provides a biography, a bibliography, a discography, and exhaustive …

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