This month Michael Tilson Thomas conducts the San Francisco Symphony in concert performances of Maurice Ravel’s L’Enfant et les sortilèges, completed in 1925 to a libretto by the great Colette. The work, described by the composer as a “fantaisie lyrique,” is not often performed by major opera companies in the United States, so these concerts will be a wonderful opportunity for audiences to experience a rarely encountered composition by one of the concert hall’s most popular composers.
Though L’Enfant remains a rarity to many Americans, those who know it treasure it. One of those fans is the American composer and author Ned Rorem, who has written, “If my house were on fire and I could take only three records, they would all be L’Enfant et les sortilèges, the most beautiful music ever written. Yes, Pelléas and Sacre and Wozzeck, when I first heard them in adolescence, forever changed my state of mind. But Ravel’s masterpiece changed my state of body. It became the one work which most overtly influenced my own, and which, in some far corner of my being, I have listened to every day of my life.”
Such words are likely to raise eyebrows. If they referred to Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro, Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, Verdi’s Falstaff—perhaps, even, Bellini’s Norma—many American music lovers would either agree with Rorem’s sentiments, or at least understand why he might lavish such high praise. But to say such things about a French opera? And one by Ravel, a composer better known for writing glittery orchestral bonbons most often encountered at pops concerts, or as encores? “The most beautiful music ever written”? Perhaps there is more to Ravel and his music than critics and professors have led us to believe.
Perhaps the time has come to take a closer look at Ravel, to re-evaluate the output of a man whose musical signature is so well-known, so constantly enjoyable, that most of us are — understandably — tempted simply to surrender to the elegant enticement of his music, rather than give careful attention to what the composer actually wrote.
“Ravel has never been obscure, even to the plain public,” wrote the American composer and critic Virgil Thomson, who knew Ravel during the years Thomson spent in Paris. “His early work produced a shock, but only the shock of complete clarity. Anybody could dislike it or turn his back, still can. Nobody could fail, nobody ever has failed to perceive at first sight what it is all about.”
That is the widely accepted view of Ravel in this country, certainly from 1947, when Thomson wrote those words for the New York Herald Tribune, to today. The standard critical line is that Ravel’s music deals with surfaces. He was a master colorist, a composer who extended the boundaries of piano technique, orchestral timbre and harmony, a perfectionist and master craftsman who usually confines himself to smaller musical forms. His composition glitter and entice. They stir and tease the listener’s senses in the same way the best sec champagne delights the palette — and that is about as far as Ravel goes.
“Like Minerva [Ravel] emerged full-blown. Like Chopin he did not ‘advance,’ have periods, grow more complex,” writes Ned Rorem. “He entered the world with the true artist’s faculty to self-appraisal, and all his life wrote the same kind of music, consistently good….If taste [in music] means decorum, boundary, mesure, then Ravel’s jeweled box hold jewels. Debussy’s jeweled box holds a heart.”
The idea that Ravel’s music somehow contains less heart than that of his slightly colder contemporary, Debussy (to say nothing of the music of other composers), is a view one suspects Ravel himself nurtured carefully, Why else would he, for example, head the scores to both the piano and orchestral versions of Valses nobles et sentimentales with the phrase, “…the delightful and always novel pleasure of a useless occupation”? The words are from Henri de Régnier’s 1904 novel Les Rencontres de Monsieur de Bréot. The beginning of the sentence, which Ravel did not include in his score, is very telling: “I am convinced that my book best illustrates what I have sought in writing, which is nothing but….”
But there is another aspect of Ravel’s music we should consider. For some of us, Ravel’s glittering, sumptuous surface, his frequent use of musical forms from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, his adherence to perfectionism, his objectivity, are all ways to leash the true emotion in his music — emotion that is, in fact, so potent, so potentially threatening and overwhelming, that simply to be endured it must be encased tightly, almost entirely buried in its “jewel box.” In a sense, we can plumb the depths of Ravel’s musical emotions only by following his carefully (and beautifully) constructed labyrinth of mirrors until we arrive finally at Ravel’s heart, assuming we have not been permanently distracted by all the beauties along the way. (It is perhaps not accidental that one of Ravel’s best-known works for piano is entitled Mirrors.)
The case for looking beneath the cool, ravishing surface of Ravel’s music is akin to the re-evaluation of Mozart that has taken place in this century. For generations after Mozart’s death, he was seen as an eighteenth-century dandy, a clever little man in satin knee-britches and powered wig who wrote charming, light music of little dramatic or emotional substance. Today, of course, music lovers realize this view of Mozart is superficial. We prize his music all the more because its smoothly constructed surface conceals such rich inner emotions. So it should be with Ravel.
Now that much of Ravel’s music has become part of the standard repertoire, and since music lovers have a sense of who he is as a composer, we can get to the heart of his compositions more easily, perhaps, than previous generations, for whom the very sound of his music was so novel. As the composer himself once wrote, “On the initial performances of a new musical composition, the first impression of the public is generally one of reaction to the more superficial elements of its music, that is to say, its external manifestations rather than its inner content. The listener is impressed by some unimportant peculiarity in the medium of expression, and yet the idiom of expression, even if considered in its completeness, is only the means and not the end in itself, and often it is not until years after, when the means of expression have finally surrendered all their secrets, that the real inner emotion of the music becomes apparent to the listener.” (The italics are mine.)
Listeners in the United States might have a special problem understanding Ravel’s true greatness because of the particular places he occupies in our concert life. Boléro, Pavane for a Dead Princess, La Valse, Rapsodie espagnole, even the suites from Daphnis and parts of Le Tombeau de Couperin have become the province of pops concerts, which means that Ravel, like George Gershwin and Sergei Rachmaninoff, is therefore slightly suspect as a composer of truly “serious” music.
In addition to this unfortunate musical pigeonholing, Ravel has the added burden of being a composer of French music. For some reason, our musical establishment tends to equate “seriousness” and “greatness” in concert music with the German musical tradition. The implication often is that the “real” concert repertoire is made up of basically of nineteenth-century Romantic works by Beethoven, Schubert, Brahms, and Schubert, with some Bach, Mozart and Haydn thrown in. French composers are good for supplying dessert, but never the main course.
Perhaps one reason for this almost unconscious slighting of French music is that it depends for its effects on nuance and delicacy. It must be performed with elegance. In our culture “nuance” and “elegance,” are often synonyms for “weak” and “effeminate.” French music is suffused with charm, which we often equate with “empty” of “vapid.” But the dictionary tells us that charm s is “a trait that fascinates, allures, or delights.”
And Ravel’s music certainly does fascinate, allure, and delight. To return to Virgil Thomson (who understood French music as few Americans do): “Ravel’s music represents…the classic ideal that is every Frenchman’s dream and every foreigner’s dream of France. It is the dream of an equilibrium in which sentiment, sensuality, and the intelligence are united at their highest intensity through the operations of a moral quality. That moral quality, in Ravel’s case, and indeed the case of any first-class artist, is loyalty, a loyalty to classic standards of workmanship.”
Ravel was loyal not only to the classic standards of workmanship. He was often loyal to the classic forms of his predecessors, even while using them to express his own voice. A superb example is Le Tombeau de Couperin, which Ravel wrote for piano between 1911 and 1917, then orchestrated (in part) in 1919. Le Tombeau is a good example of Ravel wearing many of his disguises at the same time — hiding his true, deeply felt emotion behind surface layers of form and technique, while at the same time (so typical of him!) using those obscuring layers to hint at the true heart of his music.
From the fourteenth through the seventeenth centuries, tradition dictated that a composer commemorate the death of his teachers with a musical memorial written in the teacher’s style. Such a work would be labeled “glorification,” “lamentation,” or “tomb” (tombeau). In naming his work Le Tombeau de Couperin, Ravel consciously put himself in this tradition. Ravel, however, explained that his Tombeau, a collection of pieces based on eighteenth-century dance forms, was more homage to past French music in general than personal tribute to François Couperin (1668 – 1733), though Ravel did use the Forlane movement from Couperin’s Concerts royaux as the basis for the Forlane in his own Tombeau (the movement often considered the highpoint of Ravel’s composition).
In addition to honoring France’s musical heritage, Ravel’s Tombeau has an additional layer of meaning. Ravel served as a driver in the motor transport corps during the First World War. He was changed forever by the horrors he witnessed, and each movement of Le Tombeau is dedicated to the memory of a friend who died during the war. (Toccata us dedicated to Captain Joseph de Marliave, husband of the pianist Marguerite Long, who premiered not only Le Tombeau, but also Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G major.)
How typical of the composer to hide the depths of painful emotion behind the elegance and clarity of eighteenth-century musical forms, in a work made up of bright dance movements. Listen carefully to the heartbreaking simplicity of Le Tombeau’s elegiac, almost playful Fugue (for instance), and you will never again accuse Ravel of lacking deep emotion. Then plunge immediately into Le Tombeau’s next movement, the insouciant Forlane, with its jazzy swing and jaunty air of a young boulevardier, cigarette dangling from his lips. Ravel mines every emotion, every source, every influence to the maximum, the uses them in his own, inimitable voice. He is like a great chef who reduces a sauce to its essence, then uses it to enhance other dishes.
“[Ravel’s music] is a non-romantic view of life,” Thomson pointed out. “Not an anti-romantic view, simply a non-romantic view, as if the nineteenth century had never, save for its technical discoveries, existed. All the other modernists were children of Romanticism — worshipful children like Schönberg, or children in revolt, like Stravinsky, or children torn, like Debussy, between atavism and an imperious passion for independence. Even Satie felt obliged to poke fun at the Romantics from time to time. But for Ravel there was no such temptation, to Romantic problem.”
Perhaps being so entirely a composer of the twentieth century is what gives Ravel’s music, despite its often childlike charm and sense of wonder and joy, its deeper, very mature timbre. L’Enfant, despite its obvious delight in a child’s point of view, is not a children’s opera. It is a work in which a very sophisticated adult, with full knowledge of his actions, once again sees the world through the memory of a child’s vision. Ravel allows us to laugh and cry with the child in L’Enfant, but the humor is tinged with irony, and the music is suffused with the sensibility of an adult, and adult who knows how to play games and wear different masks, while he retains his own identity.
“In his sixty-two years,” observes Ned Rorem, “Ravel, who worked constantly, didn’t turn out more than eight hours’ worth of music, as contrasted to Debussy’s sixteen, Beethoven’s thirty, Wagner’s fifty, Bach’s seventy, Ives’s two thousand or Webern’s two. Of those eight hours none is slipshod or routine.”
Ravel produced one working day’s worth of music, in which we can profitably spend a lifetime.
Two Musicians from the San Francisco Symphony Talk about Ravel
Julie Ann Giacobassi, English Horn:
What’s the first thing that comes to mind when I think about Ravel? Coloring outside the lines! When I think of some of the classical repertoire, like Beethoven, the music is very defined. But Ravel is like an impressionist painting, when you combine his long lines, his complex tonality, his sense of humor. I said that he colors outside the lines, but his woks have sharpness and clarity. You have to make all the elements fit. He can be ironic — in the best sense. And the music is fiendishly difficult to play. When you talk to musicians who are coming upon Daphnis for the first time, they can’t believe there are so many notes to learn.
Beyond the technical issues in Ravel, I think it’s hard to take his simpler lines and carry them for as long as he intended. I don’t even mean dealing with the breath, but just keeping the phrase going, keeping the interest going, keeping the story going. It’s like a long complicated sentence, you need to keep moving forward. Take that long flute solo in Daphnis, for instance. It’s not only technically difficult, but to make it really work, you have to have the sense of the whole picture and never rest for a minute.
I think of complexly cut crystal when I think of Ravel, facets of light and color. His works have an enormous spectrum of color. They are complex, yet light, witty, sophisticated.
Robin Sutherland, Piano:
The main challenge of Ravel’s music for a pianist is to have enough fingers — by that I mean way more than ten — to put across the sound he demands. I’m not going to call that sound “gossamer,” because it isn’t always that. But it is a sound unique to Ravel, and the challenge is the incredible amount of work involved in doing it well. Fortunately, the music is written quite gracefully.. Even in the fiendish turns of Gaspard de la nuit, it’s always idiomatic, and what you need is where you need it. Ravel’s writing for the piano got thicker as he continued composing. I think of some of the early pieces as being spindly, yet magnificent, like the Mother Goose Suite or the Sonatine. But the last movement of Mother Goose, The Fairy Garden, is quite full of pathos. There’s incredible grandeur there. And in Beauty and the Beast from Mother Goose—what he does with the melody and its underpinnings! He harmonizes it as Brahms would, which is to say a Bach would, and just when you think you might choke on soufflé, bingo, you’re not choking at all.
There’s a wonderful sense of irony — it grabs my heart and gives it a twirl. With Ravel the comparison and analogies end up being gastronomic. I think of his music as stuff to be eaten with the ears. Properly done, there’s always a sense of being sated.
Ravel has style. You listen to only a few bars of his music and it’s unmistakably his. The French have a word I love, “ensoleilie.” It doesn’t translate into English, but if I had to render a sense of it, it would be “en-sunned” — infused, effulgent. It’s there in Ravel.
A very slightly different form of this article appeared originally in the program book of the San Francisco Symphony and is used here by permission.