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The Brilliant Music of Ravel


by Roger Nichols
Yale University Press, 430 pp., $40.00


The simple story of the history of the arts as a battle between revolutionary innovators and stodgy conservatives in positions of power (a story that always ends with the victory of the innovators, whose works are handed down to posterity and become the basis for the future) does not fit very well with the career of Maurice Ravel. This is curious because the period of his life (1875–1937) is one of the rare eras when this naive view really fits the facts of history as they are generally accepted today. His working life coincided for much of the time with those of Mahler, Debussy, Stravinsky, Schoenberg, and Berg, as well as of James Joyce, T.S. Eliot, William Butler Yeats, Ezra Pound, Marcel Proust, and Italo Svevo, of Cézanne, Van Gogh, Gauguin, Matisse, Picasso, and Kandinsky, of Louis Sullivan, Frank Lloyd Wright, and Mies van der Rohe. It was the great classical age of what is called modernism, in short, when much of the work that has lasted until today was viewed with dismay and even horror, while the artists were frequently attacked by their contemporaries as immoral or even pathologically degenerate.

Lebrecht/The Image Works
Maurice Ravel

An excellent new biography of Ravel by Roger Nichols makes clear his ambiguous and fluctuating relation to full-fledged avant-garde modernism. The book is the most nearly complete and inclusive account of his life and work. Nichols quotes many thousands of remarks and articles about Ravel, the quotations embedded in the paragraphs or even sentences of his own writing. The decision to use only single quotation marks has not made the book easier to read unless one goes very slowly; otherwise one finds oneself misconstruing the source of some passages. It is also both an advantage and a disadvantage that Nichols mixes together simple accounts of Ravel’s personal life (like an annoying Czech domestic who broke a lot of the china) with detailed discussions of Ravel’s professional activity as a composer. The book is always full of interest, and we must be grateful for it even if reading it is not always facile.

Nichols deals very tactfully with the most personal aspects of Ravel’s life, refusing to pronounce on the controversial contention that he was homosexual. No attachment of any intimacy is known with a woman, and nothing specific about his strong friendships with men. He lived most of his life with his mother, a poorly educated daughter of a Basque family of fish-sellers, until her death. It is possible that he had no sexual activity at all. However, Nichols gives a rich picture of the business of music and the activities of the concert world of the time. There is very little drama in Ravel’s life except the sad wasting away of his last years, when he was weakened by a brain tumor.

The tone of the book, however, is often defensive, negative criticism recalled perhaps more often than positive and then answered mildly, as if Ravel’s status were somehow in question. This is, in fact, the case—but it is a very odd case, indeed, about a composer who, it is generally agreed, wrote some of the finest works still in the concert repertory from the first third of the twentieth century. It is the character of the works that is in question, and their relation to the main lines of the musical development of the early twentieth century.

Ravel began clearly as a figure of the avant-garde. He was even at first a protégé of Erik Satie, and was considered—correctly but somewhat to his dismay—as a follower of the slightly older Claude Debussy, and he soon objected publicly that he had developed a new and original way of writing for the piano before Debussy had attacked the problem. Along with Richard Strauss, Debussy was by 1900 the leading figure of the musical avant-garde in Europe. In any case, he was considered certainly the greatest danger to the traditional established style of composition. Rimsky-Korsakov warned his young pupil Igor Stravinsky not to listen to Debussy when he went to Paris: “You might end up by liking it,” he said. However, while Debussy’s early interest was above all the music of Wagner, an influence that he was able to shed only with some difficulty and never completely, he was also indebted to Schumann and Chopin, and later to Mussorgsky. Ravel’s style derived from different sources, above all the work of Franz Liszt and Emmanuel Chabrier.


His early set of piano pieces, Miroirs, have a virtuoso display of sound effects that Debussy rarely attained, above all in the pieces entitled Noctuelles (Moths) and the Alborado del Gracioso (Morning Song of the Joker). The latter, still heard often today in recitals, has guitar effects of very rapidly repeated notes and several flashy double glissandi1 in fourths and thirds (the last one of these rarely performed with the exceedingly difficult indication directed by Ravel that it is to be played relatively slowly with a diminuendo—sliding the fingernails over the keys is easier at a fast tempo than in controlled slow motion).

The Alborado is a brilliant specimen of an important French specialty: a work in a foreign ethnic folksy style. Berlioz wrote pseudo-Hungarian music; Chabrier has an orchestral poem called España; and Édouard Lalo composed a famous violin concerto called Symphonie Espagnole still in the repertoire today, and a concerto for violin, Concerto Russe, as well. Until genuine research into folk music was initiated later, one folk style was much like another (in fact, the opening of the Symphonie Espagnole sounds very Russian to me). Liszt’s Spanish Rhapsody resembles his Hungarian Rhapsodies, although using a well-known old Spanish song. All these works employ not genuine country folk music, but popular urban European tunes, which were fairly similar wherever they originated.2

It was Debussy who accomplished the real revolution of the genre with the orchestral Ibéria, from Images. He did not use popular tunes or folk songs but fragmentary motifs of rhythm and melody that he picked up from performances of flamenco troupes in Paris, and wove them into an original composition. The beginning of the final part representing the coming of morning activity in the city streets is a miraculous poetic construction woven out of the most disparate fragments of Spanish motifs, juxtaposed and combined like a cubist collage. Looking at the score, it is hard to conceive how it hangs together, but it does. Although Debussy never went to Spain, the Spanish composer Manuel de Falla said, “He taught us how to write Spanish music.”

Ravel’s own Rapsodie espagnole has wonderfully original and inventive orchestration but is fundamentally a much more conventional work, partly influenced by Rimsky-Korsakov. Ravel was himself very appreciative of Debussy’s Ibéria, and hotly defended in print the extraordinary originality of its conception against the critics who expected something more traditional. Nichols quotes from his article, in which he insists that the success of Debussy’s work is not due to its pictorial or literary elements, and writes about

being moved to tears by the rustlings of “Ibéria” and the profoundly affecting “Parfums de la nuit” [the second movement]; by the the new and delicate magnificence of harmony; by all this intense musicality….

Debussy’s Ibéria was first played in 1910, two years after Ravel’s Rapsodie espagnole.

Ravel’s final Spanish adventure is the well-known Boléro, first performed in 1928. This became rapidly his most famous piece. Nichols gives an excellent and elaborate account of its creation and subsequent history. It is a work of about a quarter of an hour that does nothing but repeat a single eighteen-bar melody eighteen times over the same harmony and an inflexible rhythmic accompaniment in the percussion. It is one long crescendo with changing instrumentation, an experiment of virtuoso skill in orchestration. Almost at the end it suddenly switches to a higher key with electrifying effect.

Nichols’s account of Ravel’s displeasure at Toscanini’s performance of the work is instructive. It is not clear whether Toscanini conducted the whole faster than Ravel liked, or whether he gradually speeded it up. At any rate, a recording by Toscanini after Ravel’s death takes fourteen minutes to Ravel’s own sixteen when he conducted. At the performance by Toscanini that Ravel heard, he stood in the wings holding an old-fashioned watch and afterward said only, “A minute and a half too fast.” At the ensuing confrontation, Toscanini claimed it was the only way to save the work and make it “supportable.” To a friend later, Nichols writes, Ravel “confided the whole point of Boléro was that it should be ‘insupportable.’” When Boléro was staged as a ballet, Ravel wanted the scene set in a factory. He clearly wanted the mechanical aspect of the composition stressed in performance.

We can see from this the paradox of the relation of Ravel’s most popular work to avant-garde modernist aesthetic, one essential recurring characteristic of which was the need to be not only provocative, but even irritating and repellent. Nichols reports: “When an old lady at the premiere yelled ‘rubbish!,’ [Ravel] replied, ‘She got the message!’” Today, when the works of early-twentieth-century modernism have become classical and so fully absorbed into our culture, we forget the abhorrence and disgust with which they w ere often greeted.

Nichols tells us that when Schoenberg’s Five Orchestral Pieces were first played in Paris in 1922, a woman shouted, “It’s a disgrace to subject war widows to stuff like this!,” neatly combining the natural fury at hearing atonal music with patriotic resentment of the German invasion. The work was not played again in Paris until 1957. We might recall here, as well, that when Random House successfully sued to have the ban on James Joyce’s Ulysses lifted in the United States, Judge John Woolsey allowed the publication with the observation that Ulysses might be “somewhat emetic” but it was not pornographic.


Although Ravel was clearly inspired by Debussy, his style differs radically in certain fundamental ways. Debussy tends to use a note strikingly dissonant3 to the main harmony in his scores by placing it in a distant register, so that there is a strong contrast between high and low. Ravel generally places his dissonant notes inside the chord, and this tends to offset the fact that his basic harmony is often very simple and conventional. Those interior dissonances stuffed inside the conventional chords disguise their character with spices. For this reason his harmony is both less innovative than Debussy’s and yet harsher. Nowhere is this better seen than in his greatest work for piano, the set of pieces Gaspard de la Nuit, which followed Miroirs in 1908. Based upon poems by Aloysius Bertrand, a minor cult figure of the time of Baudelaire, this is one of the masterpieces of European expressionism.

The first piece, Ondine, which depicts the water nymph who hopelessly loves a mortal, has extraordinary pictorial effects. The pianissimo opening is a shimmering figure like the glittering of light on water with a pure tonic consonant chord in the right hand with one extra dissonant note immediately above, played with the left hand. The chord and the note are steadily and very rapidly alternated, but with an irregular pattern (sounding the chord sometimes once and sometimes twice) that does not conform to the accent of the basic beat; this causes the right-hand figure to become a soft blur, enhancing the effect of water. The left hand, poised directly over the right, plays a soft lyrical and seductive melody, most of the notes of which are dissonant to the harmony of the right hand underneath with the two hands intertwining, delicately blending the contrasting consonance and dissonance in one indissoluble rich sonority. At the end, after the nymph disappears with a huge splash of virtuoso arpeggios, the poem describes the drops of water running down the windowpane, an effect illustrated by the descent of the music, which then calms down with a circular motion repeating four notes descending and rising over and over, gradually slowing as if describing the widening concentric circles in water after a splash.

  1. 1

    In a glissando, one slides the fingernails over the white keys of the piano (or over the black keys, which is more painful for the fingers). 

  2. 2

    The Hungarian Rhapsody is really invented by Schubert with his Hungarian Divertissement (and his “French” style is indeed different from his Hungarian). What Mozart called Turkish music derives from Hungarian motifs, with lots of percussion (drums, triangles, and cymbals). Haydn’s “Gypsy” Trio is a modest forerunner of Schubert. 

  3. 3

    In tonal music from 1400 to 1920 or thereabouts, a dissonance is not an ugly sound, but an interval or chord that grammatically requires resolution, that is, to be followed by a consonance, or interval or chord with which one can end a phrase or musical sentence. The basic consonances are octaves and fifths, with, slightly weaker consonances, thirds and sixths. The fundamental consonance of a tonal work in, say, C Major is the C Major triad (a fifth and a third over the bass note C). All other intervals require resolution. 

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