A small, slender man, Maurice Ravel was never an imposing presence, but he certainly cut a striking figure: a famously natty dresser, he was always meticulously groomed and impeccably turned out. Once, on tour, he delayed a concert for half an hour while his soprano soloist dashed to the station to fetch the right evening shoes from the composer’s left luggage. Appearances mattered.
As with the man, so with the music. Ravel produced relatively little, hardly anything on a large scale, and even at its most expansive (Daphnis and Chloe, La Valse, the left-hand Piano Concerto) his music never loses its sense of composure. He is commonly regarded as of lesser stature than those towering artists who came just before or after him (Wagner, Debussy, Stravinsky, Schoenberg), yet time and again commentators are struck by the “perfection” of his music: its elegance of construction, its exquisite detail, its finish. In art as in life, Ravel appears small but perfectly formed.
In art as in life, Ravel appears small but perfectly formed
Small art can, of course, be great art. Was Ravel a great artist? No one denies that he was a great artisan, tailoring his material to his sundry subjects, whether they were exotic evocations of Spain, Greece or Madagascar, the macabre gothic portraits of Gaspard de la nuit, intimations of the past (Le Tombeau de Couperin), transfigurations of popular music (La Valse), or logistical conundrums demanding inventive solutions (Minuet on the name of Haydn, the left-hand concerto). His music is “bespoke”: it is proportionate, fitting. Though he himself was not a great pianist, great pianists marvel at the way Ravel’s writing “fits the hand”. Nor was he a good conductor, yet he is widely held as a master of orchestration. Handiwork and craftsmanship are everywhere evident in Ravel: in texture, in colour, in arrangement, in technique. “The composer constructs an object so perfectly honed,” writes pianist Paul Roberts, “that the performer is fearful of damaging it.”
Such attention to appearance, though, lays Ravel open to a common complaint: that he is artificial. That he does not express himself, is self-effacing, even hides his real nature. The idea of the music as a mask for the man has had considerable currency – and it’s not exactly wrong. He cut his cloth to suit his musical subject and, in accordance with the ideas of Edgar Allan Poe, whom he much admired, he was more interested in composition and poetic effect than in emotional revelation. And so, faced with the disparate styles and subjects within his small body of work, people are inclined to think: these must be masks, where is the real Ravel? The answer is: that is the real Ravel. As music scholar Deborah Mawer writes, “No mask: no Ravel.”
For some, that sense of containment makes Ravel easier to appreciate than to love. Yet he inspires adoration as well as admiration. Why? I think the containment is key. From the outside, Ravel appears small, self-contained, even buttoned-up. But anyone who has a heart can see that he is bigger on the inside. There is anguish within the Passacaille of the Piano Trio, mystery in the Miroirs, endless tenderness in the adagio of the second Piano Concerto, with its “mile upon silver mile” of melody. There is vivacity in the Violin Sonata, innocent wonder in Mother Goose. Nature is writ large in Daphnis and Chloe; in Histoires naturelles, human nature is writ small. These are intimations of the ineffable, not expressions of it. You don’t need to look behind the mask to feel them; look at it.
You don’t need to look behind the mask; look at it.
Ravel was a small composer but not a minor one; great, I think, but the opposite of grand. To get the measure of him, you need only visit Le Belvédère (“beautiful view”), Ravel’s house in Montfort-l’Amaury, southwest of Paris. It is a small wonder: a tiny cottage, stylistically disparate and full of delightful quirks, home to Ravel’s beloved mechanical toys and backed by a miniature ornamental garden that gives onto fields, forests and sky. Ravel’s music is like that: small, wondrous, with windows onto wide vistas. For his biographer Roger Nichols, the image of the composer working away in Le Belvédère inescapably recalls the enchantment and pathos of his song Le Grillon, about a little cricket carefully attending to his house of sand and grass, while around him “in the silent countryside, the poplars rise like fingers in the air, pointing at the moon.” That, in a nutshell, is Ravel.
Beyond Bolero: five favourite Ravel pieces
String quartet in F (1904)
Ravel used classical forms many times. He wrote the String Quartet when he was 28 and still completing his studies at the Paris Conservatory. His biographer Roger Nichols considers it both a homage to and exorcism of Debussy. It is a surpassingly lovely piece.
The fourth of these five piano pieces, Alborada del Gracioso, is one of Ravel’s many “Spanish” works. The others show the composer at his most mysterious: evocations of moths, birds, water and bells that shimmer with veiled imaginings and vanishing sonorities.
L’Enfant et les sortilèges (1925)
“If my house were on fire and I could take only three records,” wrote composer Ned Rorem, “they would all be L’Enfant et les sortilèges.” The “sortilèges” of the title has been variously translated as “enchanted”, “bewitched” and “spellbound”; all are apt, and not just for Rorem. With its story of innocence, errancy, compassion and redemption, the opera has drawn parallels with Wagner’s Parsifal. Except Ravel’s is a veritable toybox of musical delights, his hero a child who momentarily helps an injured squirrel in a drama lasting barely 50 minutes and with an apotheosis that contains all of two notes, sounded once.
Soupir (1914) from Trois Poèmes de Stephane Mallarmé
Of the Trois Poèmes de Stephane Mallarmé one critic sniffed that it sounds like the vocalist is “singing one number while the instrumentalists are playing another” – and he had a point. The equation “song = vocal melody + instrumental accompaniment” was way too simple for Ravel. Listen to the exquisite scoring in Soupir: gossamer arpeggios, reminiscent of Philip Glass, form a filigree over which the voice floats as if in another world.
Piano Concerto for the left hand (1931)
Trust Ravel to take on a technical challenge, and then transcend it. The left-hand piano concerto was a commission from Paul Wittgenstein (brother of philosopher Ludwig), who had lost his right arm during the war. Sinister is most definitely the word for it: it is a brilliantly bitter work, even its jazzy central section shot with biting sarcasm. Once you’re done listening, why not refresh your senses with its utter opposite, the two-handed concerto? Miles Davis loved it forever, and so should you.