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Maurice Ravel and His Featherbed of Nostalgia

28 December 2017

Maurice Ravel

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Ravel was mostly known for his role in the impressionist period with washes of colour characterising works like Pavane Pour Une Infante Défunte and the brilliantly orchestrated Boléro. But he was a complex man with wide-reaching interests and a depth of character many would not have suspected.

When we take the time to indulge in our own nostalgias of music, we almost always drift into the impressionists and one of the two main brushes of the era would have to be Maurice Ravel. As a composer, he is not easily forgotten or dismissed when Ma Mère L’oye, the ballet Daphnis Et Chloé, and the marvellous Le Tombeau De Couperin adorn his name. But it was his honesty and earnestness that drove the imaginative wonderment of the man and his music - two inseparable entities. A humble man of integrity, he was also insecure - shortening the legs on his furniture so he didn't seem so small in stature (he was 5 feet 4 inches). This vulnerability is refracted in his works time and time again. Whether they're Hispanic-inspired gems, including Alborada Del Gracioso (from Miroirs), Rhapsodie Espagnole and the delicately brooding Pièce En Forme De Habañera, they all carry an air of innocence. These works, for instance, are thanks to his mother's Basque heritage.

Magic and fairytale often filled his music - mysticism is heard in his ballet Ma Mère L’oye (Mother Goose) and the opera L’enfant Et Les Sortilèges (The Child And The Spells). Nostalgia seeped into his music like watercolour over canvas. Menuet Antique, Menuet Sur Le Nom D'Haydn, the central movement of his Sonatine, the fifth movement of the original piano version of Le Tombeau De Couperin all trace back to another time and another place, rarely in the now.

His child-like curiosity did lead him to oriental flavours, a popular style at the time, utilising the pentatonic scale in his Pagodes (from Ma Mère L’oye). Another musical adventure of his was American Jazz which came to influence his Piano Concerto in G, the Sonata For Violin And Cello and the 1927 Violin Sonata. And his friendship with Gershwin for this reason was to be expected. Gershwin perhaps saw a lifelong friend in him after Ravel charmingly refused to give him lessons on the basis that he didn’t want him churning out “second-rate Ravel” when he could be writing “first-rate Gershwin”. The same unpretentious man who wrote the most wistful melody and skin-rippling harmonies of the Pavane Pour Une Infante Défunte 30 years prior.

All his works reveal an exemplary skill set, imagination and empathy for his subjects and the music itself. Though one may suspect he never believed this himself. He attended the Paris Conservatory from the age of 14, and showed potential, but failed to win the Prix de Rome 5 years in a row at first. That is to say on the fifth attempt, the decision was overturned due to a public outcry that the media dubbed the "Ravel Affair". And much of Ravel's lack of success, at least academically (as the public adored him), was due to the bias of the conservative Conservatoire director Théodore Dubois. His prejudice toward Ravel (and Debussy) had condemned his music as flashy and lacking in basic technique. The same could not be said for his growing popularity.

In spite of this, thankfully, Ravel continued to revel in his exploration and manipulation of sound producing a prolific oeuvre of high quality works from Rhapsodie Espagnole (1907), and his two classic ballet scores that would visually and aurally mesmerise audiences, Daphnis Et Chloé (1909-12) and Ma Mère L’oye (1911-12) to his works for piano such as Gaspard de la nuit. His Piano Trio (1914) marked the beginning of his role in WWI and this would be the moment where his inner-child would be lost forever.

This soul destroying ordeal left Ravel somewhat broken. Each of the six movements of Le Tombeau De Couperin (1914-17) is dedicated to one of his friends he lost during the Great War. And the great composer retreated into his childhood, cocooning himself in the mechanical toys and trinkets of Le Belvédère, his newly acquired home in the village of Montfort l’Amaury. His composing slowed and his music seemed to lack the warmth it once had. His very life had become the feather-bed of nostalgia he often lay in. Works like the Sonata For Violin And Cello (1922), Tzigane (1924), the Violin Sonata (1927) and Boléro (1928) all lie just a little heavier on the listener with the weight of the world's sadness upon them.

Ravel's self-consciousness would eventually take him for good as he lived the rest of his life with Pick’s disease, which would gradually affect his speech and movement. He died in 1937 after an unsuccessful surgery. One can now find his unassuming black marble gravestone in the Cimetière de Levallois-Perret in the north of the city alongside his parents (as per his wishes), with the gently effectual words “Compositeur Français”. 

Anthony Dunstan

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