An eccentric little house called Le Belvédère – shaped like a narrowboat and perched on the edge of the small town of Montfort-l’Amaury, 40km south-west of Paris – is among the world’s most rare and enchanting musical museums: the Musée Maurice Ravel. The house, in which the composer lived from 1921 until his death in 1937, is as exquisitely crafted and uncannily affecting as his music. Filled with mechanical toys, offbeat furnishings and eclectic curiosities, and backed by a stylised miniature garden, it offers the visitor a delightful diversion and a glimpse into the soul of this most private of composers.
Le Belvédère offers a glimpse into the soul of this most private of composers.
It was here that Ravel wrote his most famous piece, the Boléro, but the work most embedded in the property is the opera L’Enfant et les sortilèges. To walk around the house and garden is almost to step into the magical arc of the opera – its first act featuring teapots, armchairs and wallpaper that come to life, its second moving to a night-time garden brimming with cricket calls and croaking frogs – as well as to feel its unforced mix of playfulness and profound seriousness.
In fact, stay here for a while and you begin to sense the “small wonder” of Ravel: the connoisseur’s mind, the watchmaker’s heart, the eye for beauty and detail, the feeling for pathos. The suggestion of a hidden interior that is bigger than it appears from the outside. Such qualities inspire adoration from musicians throughout the classical world and beyond – staunch admirers include Stephen Sondheim, Burt Bacharach and Miles Davis.
Man, music and museum are, then, intimately linked. The man is long gone, the music will live forever; but the future of the museum now appears in danger. Last week, without warning, it was abruptly closed for an indefinite period. The official reason given was water damage, but a report in Le Figaro suggests that it is the culmination of a series of troubling incidents at the museum. On 1 February, just before the closure, the museum’s longstanding custodian Madame Moreau was dismissed without warning. A treasured, amenable figure who had over the last three decades become as integral to the museum as its furnishings, she was popular with visitors and admired for her outreach work.
A few days earlier, on 27 January, conductor Charles Dutoit and pianist Martha Argerich visited the museum, only to find themselves escorted from the premises by the local police. According to Le Figaro, a council official objected to their taking photographs inside the museum – though this is not prohibited – and had informed the police that the museum was being burgled.
Le Figaro also reports that the Réunion des Musées Nationaux-Grand Palais (RMN-GP), which owns the museum, though it is managed by the municipality of Montfort-l’Amaury, had expressed concern over the recent possible disappearance of objects and archives from the museum, and that the mayor’s office had last year prohibited both the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and the state-owned France Télévision from filming inside the house.
If this latest turn of events does indeed herald the end of the museum, it will be a bitter blow. Ravel died intestate: his estate was inherited by his younger brother Édouard, who, shortly before his own death, made two provisions in his will to secure Maurice’s legacy. One was a signed promise to the city of Paris to set up a music prize funded by Ravel’s royalties. But he never kept that promise. Instead, thanks to a labyrinthine saga encompassing divorce and remarriage, a last-minute change of testament and fierce legal battles, the millions of Euros’ worth of royalties paid to the Ravel estate – by far the most lucrative of any French composer’s, thanks to the Boléro – ended up siphoned off through a network of companies sheltered in various tax havens across several countries. No one knows exactly how much was paid or to whom; only that none of it has gone towards supporting Ravel’s musical heritage.
Édouard’s other provision was the bequest of Le Belvédère to the RMN-GP, to keep as a museum dedicated to Ravel’s memory. If this is allowed to close too, it will not only be a sad loss for the international visitors – some devoted pilgrims, some simply curious – to this rare and precious place, and for the world of music in general, but also the last nail in the battered coffin of the legacy of Maurice Ravel.