The second piece is an exercise in morbid romanticism: The Scaffold, from which a dead body hangs while a bell tolls in the distance. In the center of all the dirge-like sonority a single note like a bell is repeated softly and unceasingly, with a short irregular rhythm with only slight and almost imperceptible changes from beginning to end. Ravel did not want the tolling bell set in relief, but to be just audible; and its constant repetition is a subliminal source of irritation and disquiet underneath an expressive lamenting melody interrupted by very soft descending chords. Nichols makes it clear that Ravel wanted this to be performed throughout in a strict unchanged tempo so that the tolling of the bell is never altered, but he had a hard time convincing pianists to play it that way.
The third and last piece, Scarbo, is the most sensational work for piano of the early twentieth century. Scarbo is a demon dwarf goblin that suddenly swells to gigantic size, and Ravel achieves an unprecedented effect of terror. It has the reputation of being technically one of the most difficult pieces ever written. The work is a constant pianissimo menace interrupted by wild explosions of immense violence. It seems to me the greatest tone poem of the school of Liszt. Nichols tells us that Ravel once said, “I wanted to write an orchestral transcription for the piano.”
Even more revealing was his once confiding about the work, “I wanted to make a caricature of romanticism,” and then adding in a whisper, “Perhaps it got the better of me.” He went further here in original invention than in any other work. He discovered new sonorities undreamed of before. There is one very long passage with a continuous accelerating series of major seconds—most of them two adjoining white or black keys. No one had ever written a series of bare major seconds before, as that interval was considered a dissonance. Ravel had to invent a new kind of fingering to achieve it. He realized that rapid major seconds could be played by depressing the two contiguous white keys with the thumb and the black keys with the second and third fingers, so the whole passage could be executed with three fingers.
Composers had written rapid series of thirds before (Muzio Clementi showed it off to Mozart, who was not impressed); Chopin’s études for thirds and sixths are well known, but these are consonances and this passage of Ravel’s is totally new in music. Almost as surprising is his direction a little before the end to play a menacing motif mezzo-forte with the soft pedal down. This makes a harsh muffled sound, rather ugly, in fact, and suited to the sinister character. I have never seen this used elsewhere.
The last bars have an original and poetic invention: the final harmony is defined by a very soft, delicate and extremely rapid eight-note figure; and the last two notes are held down by the right hand to continue sounding a single consonant interval, a major third; but the left hand immediately adds a major second, a very short and slight dissonant fleck under the final consonant sonority. This dissonance is properly resolved by the third that continues to sound above, but only for a brief moment, about a fifth of a second if the pianist follows Ravel’s direction not to slow down.
This results in only a half or imperfect resolution, deliberately unsatisfactory in theory, but curiously satisfying in its poetic novelty in this work. Few pianists can resist lengthening the final interval, to make it sound more like an ending—otherwise applause will be long in coming and somewhat tentative at first, as the audience realizes the piece is over. As it was imagined by Ravel, one might say that Scarbo does not end properly, but simply vanishes into thin air.
The range of the different kinds of sonority employed in Scarbo is astonishing, and oddly includes a lot of Spanish guitar-like textures. The rhythmic verve and the driving force were the greatest that Ravel would ever create.
The set of piano pieces that followed a decade later, Le Tombeau de Couperin, finished 1914 to 1917, presents seventeenth- and eighteenth-century dance forms with modern harmony, and was a move to a kind of pseudoclassicism that was becoming very fashionable. (Ravel said he was not specifically referring to the work of the Baroque composer François Couperin but evoking the qualities of the Baroque French keyboard suite.) Stravinsky began a radical and dogmatic development of a neoclassical style. Around the same time, Picasso, Braque, and other artists would return to classical forms. It was a global reaction, as if avant-garde modernism was taking refuge behind an appearance of respectability. (Perhaps the experience of employing the old dance forms in Le Tombeau de Couperin made possible many years later the more inspired use of the old sarabande rhythm as the basis for Ravel’s Concerto for the Left Hand.)
Nevertheless, in 1919–1920, Ravel was to create a second large expressionist work that undermines the neoclassical disguise, La valse, which is based upon the classical Viennese waltz, and is partly an outgrowth of an exquisite piano work of 1911, Valses nobles et sentimentales. This set of short waltzes ends without brilliance in a surprising series of fragmentary memories of the waltzes we have just heard.
La valse, however, is a unified longer work of a quarter of an hour (Too short for a ballet, Diaghilev complained when the piece was presented to him). It is, nevertheless, not so much a celebration of the Viennese waltz as its destruction. The sense of the dance begins to fall apart and collapse in the second half, and Ravel was reproached at the time for allowing himself to imitate the instrumentation of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. Ravel himself described the work “as a sort of apotheosis of the Viennese waltz which I saw combined with an impression of a fantastic whirling motion leading to death.” In any case, this work combines a popular style with a full expressionist aesthetic; it embodies a self-destructive force at its heart. Nichols observes convincingly that the process of disintegration toward the end “is the more powerful because the main subversive agent comes from within the ‘schmaltzy’ Viennese sound.” La valse is Ravel’s last large-scale expressionistic triumph, easily the most morbid.
Ravel developed the reputation of an impeccable craftsman. With some exceptions, the French avant-garde despised him, particularly the members of the group called Les Six, whose leaders were Darius Milhaud, Arthur Honegger, and Francis Poulenc. Their guiding spirit was Erik Satie, who had decided that Ravel was not the true disciple he had once believed him to be (it is true that Ravel disliked most of Satie’s work). It was Satie who made a famous wicked comment when Ravel refused the bourgeois decoration of the Legion of Honor: “All his music accepts it.” Stravinsky called him “the most perfect of Swiss clockmakers.” Nichols reports, however, that Prokofiev, who was in Paris during the 1920s, insisted that Ravel was the only good composer to be found there, and that all the rest wrote mush. Olivier Messiaen particularly hated the slow movement of the G Major Piano Concerto.
Pierre Boulez felt that after World War II Ravel’s music was still attractive but that he seemed to be afraid to go outside himself, that the work was more like a game. It is true that the combination of jazz idiom in the later works with his own French style are not as convincing as his adaptation of Spanish idiom had been in the earlier work. However, even when he wrote a piece of junk, like the Tzigane, an imitation of the Liszt Hungarian Rhapsody transferred to the violin, he did so with great distinction.
What might be said is that one can sense a certain lack of ambition throughout his career. The two operas, L’Heure espagnole and L’Enfant et les Sortilèges, are finely worked out and the simple lyricism of the second is impressive, but both are unpretentious. With the Sonata for Violin and Cello of 1922, he was working toward a stripped-down new style that did not rely on his genius for instrumental sound, but it is not a form that inspires many performances. Ravel himself never appreciated Debussy’s development of a monumental late style with the Études for piano, the ballet Jeux, and the three chamber sonatas that have taken more than half a century to receive the critical appreciation they merit. He did not, as Debussy and Stravinsky did, transform the inherited musical language. Ravel exploited the language that existed when he arrived, inventing new ideas and sonorities for it that added to its intensity.