Unmasking Ravel is the intriguing title of a new collection of essays on the French master, edited by Peter Kaminsky. It joins an already impressive list of books on French music in the Eastman Studies in Music series published by the University of Rochester Press, including Stephen Zank’s acclaimed Irony and Sound. Here Professor Kaminsky describes his “Eureka!” moment with Ravel’s music and gives us some idea of what to expect from this new publication.
Ravel’s music has had an irresistible hold on me since my first encounter with it in Professor Joel Sheveloff’s music history class at Boston University. It was there that I heard the combination of hilarious story and impossibly clever music that is Ravel’s first opera The Spanish Hour (L’Heure espagnole); and the shimmering and utterly original dance “Forlane” from Le tombeau de Couperin. Cut to 15 years later as I began my professional career as music theorist: imagine my surprise when my colleagues sneered at the mere mention of Ravel’s name — too lightweight, too effete, too popular. (The ubiquity of Bolero did not help.) Needless to say, this situation presented precisely the thing that all writers need: A PROBLEM TO SOLVE. That is, how could I square my conviction that Ravel’s music was Hall of Fame material (I am a hardcore baseball fan), while all but a handful of scholars regarded him as strictly bush league*?
After writing a number of journal articles and book chapters, I finally had a breakthrough, a “Eureka!” moment. I understood that the metaphor that everybody writing about Ravel seemed to employ — MASKS — was in reality a bunch of tropes that, beginning with his earliest reviews onward, gradually hardened into the public and critical reception history of his music. These tropes include what I term “Ravel as classicist,” as “artisan,” as “artificial,” as deliberately attempting the impossible (the so-called “aesthetic of imposture” made famous by his student and first biographer Roland-Manuel), as “cold,” as “virtuoso,” and as “ornamentalist.” Three realizations followed: his music presents all of these facets at once; I decided to assemble and edit a Ravel book rather than write a monograph to better reveal the panoply of musical, aesthetic and historical contexts; and I found a title for the book that captured all this: Unmasking Ravel.
The book divides into three parts: Orientations and Influences; Analytical Case Studies; and Interdisciplinary Perspectives. In Part I, authors Steven Huebner, Barbara Kelly and Michael Puri—three of the most incisive current writers on Ravel’s music—engage aspects of cultural and literary history, biography, influence, reception, branding (in the modern advertising sense), memory, and interpretive strategies. Ravel provocatively stated that his most important composition teacher was the American author Edgar Allen Poe, especially the essay The Philosophy of Composition in which Poe describes the step-by-step creation of his poem “The Raven.” Huebner, equally provocatively, places this statement in the broader context of Ravel’s literary circle and unravels (pun intended) its crucial role in his aesthetics and concept of classicism (e.g., why Ravel loved Mozart and equivocated over Debussy). Kelly reveals how Ravel’s student and first biographer Roland-Manuel deliberately and continually manipulated the composer’s image in relation to ongoing music-critical currents to enhance his standing with audiences and critics alike, and how this effort subsequently shaped our current views on Ravel. Puri manages to interpret Adorno’s writings on Ravel with a positive spin by addressing the composer’s melancholic nostalgia in the context of the demise of the Western music tradition. (Do I hear La valse?)
The five chapters comprising Part II provide close analyses of compositions representing the chronological boundaries of Ravel’s mature work (from the 1899 Pavane pour une Infante défunte to the 1931 Piano Concerto in G Major). My essay provides an introduction to the other analyses by comparing formal process in three pairs of like works (including Aloysius Bertrand’s poem “Le Gibet” and Ravel’s musical setting as the middle movement of Gaspard de la Nuit). As theorist/pianist and concert pianist, respectively, co-authors Daphne Leong and David Korevaar address Ravel’s virtuosity in “Scarbo” from Gaspard and other works in terms of “mechanical motion” and “dance-like motion” (and their merging), showing how musical structure, physical gesture, and expressivity come together in ingenious ways. Sigrun Heinzelmann addresses Ravel’s approach to sonata form in the pre-War String Quartet and Piano Trio, further demonstrating Ravel’s axiomatic and classicist economy of means. Volker Helbing deconstructs the waltzes of Johann Strauss into their sub-atomic particles to show their culmination in the “spiral form” and self-destruction of Ravel’s La valse. Elliott Antoloketz, better known for his work on Bartók and Debussy, shows the relevance of Bartók’s polymodal chromaticism in modeling Ravel’s modernist post-War music, in particular the elusive Sonate pour violon et violoncelle.
In Part III, Interdisciplinary Studies, authors Lauri Suurpää, Gurminder Kaur Bhogal, and the present writer offer novel perspectives through the combination of philosophical, art-critical, or psychoanalytic theories with music analysis. Suurpää draws on semiotician A. J. Greimas and Schenkerian theory in dealing with text-music relations in songs from the cycle Histoires naturelles. Bhogal synthesizes aspects of the nineteenth-century Art Nouveau movement, pianistic pyrotechnics, current metrical theory, representation, and Ravel biography in her analysis of selected virtuosic piano works including “Ondine” from Gaspard. In the concluding chapter, I begin with psychoanalyst Melanie Klein’s well-known interpretation of Colette’s libretto, and go on to explore contrasting psychoanalytic theories (Freud’s and Piaget’s) of moral development in children as a backdrop for analyzing the 1925 opera L’Enfant et les sortilèges. Readers will discover what is meant by “his [the Child’s] chord is his sword.”
In conclusion, let us reconsider the notion of “Ravel as lightweight.” In a sense, the composer’s own irony and self-deprecation helps foster this impression. After all, any artist who heads a score with “the delicious and ever-novel pleasure of a useless occupation” (quoting de Régnier in Valses nobles et sentimentales) is not exactly asking to be taken seriously. But that is part of the seductive charm of Ravel’s irony. Indeed, Roland-Manuel cites Valses nobles as marking a seismic shift in his harmonic and compositional conception. (A glance at the voice leading of the opening two bars confirms this in spades.) Such a gap between the “face value” of a Ravel work and the depth of its technique, craft, and especially its expression manifests itself in virtually all of his major compositions. Perhaps more than any other factor, this argues for a re-examination of context, interpretation, perspective, style, and structure across his output. À mes lecteurs: amusez-vous!
Unmasking Ravel will be available soon. Why not order a copy from your local bookseller and help keep bookshops on the high street as well as in cyberspace?
* For those of us not steeped in the terminology of North American sports here is a definition of 'bush league'.