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.
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 …