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.

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.