Obituary: Maurice Ravel (March 7, 1875 - December 28, 1937)

Gramophone Fri 23rd October 2015

The original Gramophone obituary from February 1938, by Martin Cooper

Maurice Ravel (photo Tully Potter Collection)

Maurice Ravel (photo Tully Potter Collection)

Ravel is one of the type-figures of 20th-century music. By the time of his death in last December he was not, it is true, in any sense a member of any avant-garde of musical idiom or technique: for since the war and the flood of experimentation which it brought to music as to all the arts, Ravel has been unrepresentative of any specifically "modern" feeling. In spite of his flirtation with jazz idioms he remained to his death a wanderer from the pre-war world, a musical dandy, an exquisite with a brilliant and subtle musical intelligence, and a cold heart. At the beginning of the century he was dubbed a revolutionary: but the only real novelty of his music lay in a certain bitter-sweet flavour which proved easily assimilable not only by the public but, unfortunately for Ravel himself, by other composers too.

The surface and the texture of his music belonged to different schools and epochs and Ravel's only originality lies in the successful grafting of two alien manners to form a single, coherent style which is always recognisably his own. The roots of his musical thought lie in purely French soil and the content of his music is in a direct line from Saint-Saëns, Massenet and Fauré (his master). His inspiration is thinner and more short-winded, his emotion more trivial and more self-conscious than theirs: the spring no longer bubbles spontaneously and the water of the fountain no longer leaps up clear and vigorous. But there is no denying that the fountain head itself is magnificent.

‘The aptness and good taste of all that Ravel ever wrote is unquestionable’

Ravel learnt his orchestration and many of his purely technical devices from the Russians, and the pure French of his early idiom (String Quartet, 1902-3, Sonatine, 1903- 5, Ma mère l'oye, 1908) soon became corrupted with foreign words and phrases picked up on his travels both to the past and to exotic countries, Spain, Greece, Africa, America, as well as Russia. Nevertheless, the language remains French, though it bears the same relation to pure, classical French as the Greek of the New Testament to the original language of Demosthenes or Plato. The neatness and clarity, the aptness and good taste of all that Ravel ever wrote is unquestionable: and he set a good example to his fellow-composers by his refusal to accommodate himself or modify his natural bent by a forced adoption of post-war ideas and methods which were fundamentally unsympathetic to him. His eclecticism was superficial and he never really assimilated the thought and feeling which underlay the styles with which he amused himself. His minuets and pavanes, for instance, have a purely superficial resemblance to those of the French clavecinists and are really little more than brilliant pastiches.

The commissioning of Daphnis et Chloé by Diaghilev (1909-11) and the collaboration with the brilliant ensemble of the pre-war Russian ballet which this entailed left a deeper impression on his style than any other influence. The virtuosity and sensuous beauty of Rimsky-Korsakov's orchestration, to say nothing of that of his pupil Stravinsky, fascinated the craftsmen and the voluptuary in Ravel, and left a permanent mark on his orchestral style, in the same way as Liszt's piano writing had fascinated and influenced him in his piano works.

Naturally anaemic and frileux he blossomed in the warm glow and the atmosphere of vitality which these barbarians brought to Western Europe: their strong flavour tickled his jaded palate and acted as a stimulant to his weak creative powers. During and after the war these influences were replaced by the still coarser and stronger stimulant of jazz, or, as in the case of the Piano Concerto for the left hand only, by a piquant technical problem. If illness had not brought his life to an end at a comparatively early age, it seems likely that he would either have had recourse to some still stronger stimulant or else – and this in my opinion is the more likely alternative – ceased writing altogether. Having exhausted the quality and quantity of possible drugs, the drug-addict must reform or die. Perhaps it is fortunate that Ravel is dead in the flesh before his artistic death became an open fact to the world. 

What has he left and what chance has his work of surviving permanently? The compositions for piano are justly among the most famous of his works. In them Ravel is at his most personal, less lyrical than in his chamber music but more natural and, I feel, more sincere. He exploits the atmospherics of the instrument with a cold briiliance which is only occasionally interrupted by a lyrical touch, often so plainly in the sentimental vein of Massenet that one has the impression – and, I think, quite rightly – that Ravel has his tongue in his cheek, that he is, as it were, quoting.

The most successful of all his piano works, Alborada del graciosoJeux d'eauOndine, have little or no lyrical interludes: they are tissues of exquisitely managed sound nearer to the etudes of Chopin or Liszt than to the Stimmungsbilder of Debussy. Ravel's piano music is nearly always cold, clear and liquid, hard to define but perhaps most satisfactorily described as the exact antithesis of the piano music of Brahms.

His chamber music shows a different side of Ravel. The String Quartet, composed in 1902-3, is charming and rather affected, obviously the work of a young man for all its technical ease. The second subject of the first movement is almost cloying, tender in the sense for which the French have the word mièvre, but without the power to stir any emotion whatsoever: the conventional 'femininity' of the sonata-movement's second subject is there, almost to excess, but it is the femininity of a pretty doll, a toy. The Introduction and Allegro for harp, string quartet, flute and clarinet (1906), is a bolder and richer work, standing nearer to the piano music than the quartet, but naturally more highly coloured. The Trio in A minor is more freakish, the tonal effects are far bigger, sometimes threatening to burst the bonds which set the natural limit to chamber music, but still more lyrical than the piano works. 

The smallness of Ravel's orchestral output has often been commented upon: and, given his amazing technical virtuosity as an orchestrator, certainly calls for some explanation. The Rhapsodie Espagnole (1907) shows this virtuosity in its most unadulterated form – there is, in fact, little but virtuosity to show; and very much the same is true of La Valse (1920). In Daphnis et Chloé, where many of Ravel's admirers see the culmination of his gifts, there is more than virtuosity, there is the shadow of a real emotion, literary and diluted no doubt, but a shadow which only waits for the dancers to turn it into reality. The Alexandrine streak in Ravel's character responded at once to the sophisticated simplicity of the story, and in no other work did he ever express so much of his personality.

L'Heure Espagnole (1907), is a brilliant triviality which can never be more than a curtain-raiser to another man's work. For the voice Ravel wrote with more understanding than feeling, and on such a small scale that it is difficult to count him as a serious song-writer. His settings and pastiches of exotic folk-songs are done with the regular accomplishment: but raise at once the question whether they were worth doing. That is the question which is raised only too often by the majority of his works: and it would not be surprising to see in future histories of French music the line of genius stretching straight from Fauré to Debussy, with Ravel mentioned for little more than a few brilliant works which are finally accounted little more than talented trivialities. 

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