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.

Vir­gil Thomson

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.)

Rav­el in 1912

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.

Pianist Louis Lor­tie’s Rav­el is a delight.

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).

Mar­guerite Long

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.