In that intimate circle of artistic friends to which Ravel belonged — Les Apaches — he was nicknamed Rara. This was, no doubt, derived from the first syllable of his name but, of course, it carried with it the most apt Latin connotations; did it also, I wonder, remind them, as it reminds me, of ‘Maestro Raro' the nickname that Schumann gave to himself to denote his integral artistic identity, Florestan and Eusebius held in perfect equilibrium? It has become a commonplace to talk of musical ‘split personality’ in the case of Schumann, increasingly, too, in the case of Liszt (Faust/Mephistopheles, Franciscan/Gypsy, and so on), and yet a detailed examination of the complex of attitudes that make up Ravel reveals a duality quite as pronounced as either. (Significantly, he venerated both the older masters, and their influence on him, particularly that of Liszt, is incalculable).
Ricardo Viñes, his friend from childhood, described Ravel aged 21 as “...very complicated, there being in him a mixture of Middle Ages Catholicism and satanic impiety, but also with a love of Art and Beauty which guide him and which make him react candidly.” That is but one way of characterising this fundamental antithesis — ‘light’/‘dark’, ‘Apollonian’/‘Dionysiac’, ‘Aesthetic’/‘Decadent’ would be equally appropriate antitheses, all of them in some way limited and limiting. What is really remarkable is not only Ravel’s ability to explore separate sides of his personality in individual works, but also the absolute necessity of holding both sides in equilibrium so that he almost invariably had two works on the go at the same time.
The parallel composition of the two Piano Concertos is a well-documented instance; less well-known is that he had such awful difficulty getting off the ground with the G major Concerto until the commission for the Left Hand Concerto came in, after which both of them proceeded quite smoothly. This is, however, just the final example of what emerges as a persistent need; also composed in tandem were Sonatine and Miroirs, and Ma Mère L'Oye and Gaspard de la nuit; fascinatingly, it appears that Le Tombeau de Couperin also had an "invisible companion" — in a letter to his friend Roland-Manuel dated 1.x.1914 he writes, “I’m beginning two series of piano pieces; first a French Suite and secondly, a Nuit Romantique full of spleen, with a hunt in hell, an accursed nun, etc....” All the biographers of Ravel tell us that his life’s work was littered with unfinished projects, some of them, like the opera on Hauptmann's La Cloche Engloutie, brought to a substantial degree of readiness before being abandoned. It's my hunch that these works were all "invisible companions’ of extant works in the oeuvre, a sort of necessary waste- product of his artistic refinery.
Much in the fashionable artistic currents of fin-de-siècle Paris in which Ravel grew up corresponded with the needs of his nature. He himself was in no doubt as to which camp he belonged, referring to himself in a letter of 1898 to Mme. de Saint-Marceaux as ’the little symbolist’. Ravel lived and breathed Symbolism; he was steeped in the works of Baudelaire, Mallarmé, Wilde; his first songs were settings of poems by Verlaine and Verhaeren; in fact, he seems to me in many ways the archetype of a Symbolist artist. The life, totally given over to art, was outwardly expressed in attitudes of dandyism that came quite naturally to him. The extreme forms of dress are there in the photos for all to see; we know that he took 50 shirts with him on his 1927 USA tour, and that his main concern at the premiere of L'Heure Espagnole was that he and his companion were the only ones not wearing the latest midnight-blue evening clothes. His friend the critic Emile Vuillermoz has left us a charming vignette in this comment on Histoires Naturelles. “Ravel’s friends were interested and amused to find in them the habitual inflections of the author reproduced with an amazing fidelity; when he delivered himself of one of those perfectly fashioned ideas which were his speciality, he would make a very characteristic gesture; slipping the back of his right hand quickly behind his back, he would do a sort of ironical pirouette, lower his eyelids to conceal the malicious twinkle and end his little speech abruptly with a falling fourth or fifth." There was a real ‘dark’ side to his life — this chain-smoking man, painfully self-conscious of his small stature, was prey to the blackest depressions which silenced him often for months on end. There is silence on the personal emotional front, no evidence whatsoever of personal attachment, even in our age of frank revelations no hint of anything. Like many a symbolist he imagined that the real world of action might, ought to, have something to offer: he was desperately anxious to get into the war — when he did he wrote to his war-time godmother. “I have never been brave. But there it is, I'm eager to have adventures. It has such a fascination that it becomes a necessity. What will I do, what will many do when the war is over...?” The answer was clear, because this ‘action-interlude’ also silenced him. So, with Ravel, even more than with most artists, the life of the imagination is the life.
Ravel’s works typify the two major strands of Symbolist thought which can be summed up in the terms ‘Decadent' and ‘Aesthetic’, the one concealing behind its symbols a world of ideas and emotions within the artist, the other suggesting, in its perfection of form, an ideal world towards which he aspires, Miroirs, Gaspard de la nuit, and the Concerto for the left hand belong to the former category, the other piano works to the latter.
“My aim is technical perfection”, declared Ravel, and his works are the products of unceasing technical exploration. He had an unerring gift of knowing exactly where to look for what he wanted. During the composition of L'Enfant et les Sortileges he wrote to Colette, “Would you like to have the cup and the old black Wedgwood teapot sing a ragtime? I must confess that the idea of making two negroes sing a ragtime in our ‘National Academy of Music’ fills me with joy. Note that the form — a single couplet with a refrain — is perfectly suited to the movement in this scene — complaints, recriminations, rage, pursuit", (my italics). Ravel has been accused by one commentator of ‘playboy jazziness’ and yet his attitude here, as everywhere, is quite the opposite of ‘playboy’ — his is a most ‘responsible’ art. The two sides of his output required different technical resources and influences; the ‘light’ works are organised on lucid, formal principles — the dance, sonata-form, prelude and fugue, all manner of ‘forms and ceremonies’; the ‘dark’ works are more inchoate — the dance is nowhere in sight (except in the sense that Scarbo is, in part, a Mephisto Waltz) — and it took him rather longer to evolve the means of expression for them. Ravel’s output seems not so small if one appreciates the extent to which he never repeated himself; new works required fresh resources to contain them. His greatest asset was to have possessed what Debussy, no less, described as “the most refined ear that has ever existed”. He discovered innumerable 'new’ chords — empirical, belonging to no system (he used to experiment by turning his back to the piano, or by scrabbling about with his fingers on old out-of-tune pianos to savour the quarter-tone dissonances) — Valses nobles et sentimentales and the Piano Trio alone contain enough new chords to have furnished most composers with material for a lifetime’s work! He was always ready to seize upon new resources. His use of jazz, for instance, is very interesting. I’ve seen it suggested that, like Picasso’s discovery of African masks, it was the exotic and barbaric quality of the Negro music that attracted him. I don’t think so: I think he found, particularly in the “Blues”, something already sophisticated, a very condensed form — emotionally, usually sardonic — and remember that Ravel often had ‘the blues’ very badly!
Whatever the techniques and influences, Ravel was able to transmute them into his own manner from the outset. The Sérénade grotesque (1893) which is his Op. 1, is supposed to have been influenced by Chabrier, though having been through my Chabrier, the connection escapes me. In its unrefined (i.e. probably not fully prepared for publication – it was only resurrected in 1975), bizarreness, it turns out sounding not quite like anybody else; it is a kind of very primitive version of Alborada del gracioso; as I was recording it, it reminded most people, in its quirkiness, of the Stravinsky of Petrushka.
Menuet antique (1895) has traces of Chabrier and was his first piece to be published — by Enoch, the publishers of Chabrier, I should mention at this point two textual emendations I have made in these performances. When Ravel orchestrated the Valses nobles et sentimentales he added a ’cello countermelody in the fourth valse which he later sanctioned for inclusion in the piano version and which I play; by the same token, his orchestration of Menuet antique, done as late as 1929, repeats not the first part of the Trio section but the second, to which is added a muted trumpet and trombone figure which I find totally irresistable, and have therefore not resisted!
Pavane pour une infante défunte (1899), despite its enduring appeal, found little favour with its composer. Evidently its grave poignancy and wonderfully memorable and beautiful melody were no substitute for what he saw as its formal shortcomings, and, again, its dependence on the style of Chabrier. I rather think he overestimated the influence of Chabrier in his music — the obvious influence here is, more to be expected, the Pavane of his teacher Gabriel Fauré. The title should not be translated, the words having been chosen for their sound alone.
Jeux d'eau (1901) is the first great Symbolist work for piano and, as such, inaugurates an entirely new style of keyboard writing. All the problems that beset Symbolist writers and painters — how to achieve unity of form and meaning, action and contemplation, movement and stillness — are handled with seemingly effortless command. The influence of Liszt is paramount, especially Les Jeux d'eaux á la Villa d'Este and Au bord d'une source; although Ravel tells us that the work is constructed out of two themes, like a sonata-movement, he has learned from Liszt how to produce a work of contemplation rather than argument, where the material is not developed but repeated with minute variations of decoration, harmony and texture, an accumulation of musical gestures which constantly reiterate and reinforce the essential inner theme of the piece. Technically, he was able to extend the ideas of Liszt by harnessing the greatly enhanced resonant properties of the modern grand piano to new sound concepts he had encountered at Paris Exhibitions, the sounds of oriental ethnic instruments with their precise attacks, indefinite ends, and added resonances. His friend and pupil, the composer Maurice Delage has put his finger on the fundamental difference from Liszt when he refers to the “eblouissement a-sentimental" of Jeux d’eau, something emphasised by the epigram by Henri de Régnier, disciple of Mallarmé, which heads the score: “Dieu fluvial riant de l’eau qui le chatouille” (River god laughing at the water as it tickles him).The technical innovations that produced this combination of movement and stasis, of which a fountain is the perfect image, were not lost on Debussy: armed with its example and that of Ravel’s then unpublished Habanera (1895) for two pianos, the score of which he had borrowed, he produced Pagodes and La soirée dans Grenade, the first two pieces of Estampes, his first great work for piano.
If Ravel had misgivings over the formal perfection of his Pavane, he need not have feared for his Sonatine (1903-5) which, despite its curious origin — the first movement was written as his entry for an aborted composition contest — stands as one of the loveliest and most perfect of all his works. To the highly condensed first sonata-movement he added a minuet and a toccata-like finale. I’m reminded always of the idealised paradise presented by Baudelaire in L’Invitation au voyage, and particularly its three times repeated refrain:
La, tout n’est qu’ordre et beauté,
Luxe, calme et volupté.
In 1891 Mallarmé defined Symbolism as the art of “evoking an object little by little so as to reveal a mood or, conversely, the art of choosing an object and extracting from it an ’état d’âme’”. He added that this mood should be extracted “par une série de déchiffrements” (by a series of decipherings); that actually goes some way towards defining my job as a re-creative artist, but in discussing Miroirs (1904-5) I will try to do something along those lines in words, particularly because I think it one of Ravel’s best but most misunderstood, or, perhaps better, incorrectly apprehended, works. Roland-Manuel provides some interesting background information: “One evening, when Ricardo Vines had been to present his interpretation of D'un cahier d'esquisses to the celebrated composer of this little- known piece, he arrived at the rue de Civry full of what he had heard: Debussy had declared to him that he was dreaming of a kind of music whose form was so free that it would seem improvised, of works which would seem to have been torn out of a sketchbook. Ravel was present at the gathering. Quite unexpectedly he approved of the idea and confessed that the music he was working on was based on similar principles: 'I shall be glad’, he said,’ to produce something to set me free from Jeux d'eau". When Ravel later declared Oiseaux tristes to be the ‘most typical’ of the set, he was surely referring to this notion. Miroirs — mirrors — quintessential Symbolist title (like Images); there’s an extraordinary scene in Huysmans’ novel A Rebours (Against Nature) where its ‘hero’ Des Esseintes contemplates by the dim light of his lamp his treasured possession, Gustave Moreau’s painting of Salome, whilst reading a fragment of Mallarmé’s Hérodiade “that seemed to lay a magic spell on him at certain times”; perhaps it did. too, on Ravel:
….. O miroir!
Eau froide par l’ennui dans ton cadre gelée
Que de fois et pendant les heures, desolée
Des songes et cherchant mes souvenirs qui sont
Comme des feuilles sous ta glace au trou profond
Je m’apparus en toi comme une ombre lointaine,
Mais, horreur! des soirs, dans ta sévère fontaine,
J’ai de mon rêve épars connu la nudité!
Oh mirror! cold water frozen by ennui within your frame, how many times, for hours on end, saddened by dreams and searching for my memories, which are like dead leaves in the deep hole beneath your glossy surface, have I seen myself in you as a distant ghost! But, oh horror! on some evenings, in your cruel pool, I have recognised the bareness of my disordered dream!
The notion of these pieces as dream sequences, constructed by rapid cinematic cutting and cross-cutting, imbued with almost ‘expressionist’ intensity has puzzled many commentators (‘not generally regarded as one of Ravel’s best’, opines one) and yet an inability to grasp this seriously diminishes the range of Ravel’s total achievement. Each piece is dedicated to one of Ravel’s fellow-Apaches. Noctuelles (Owlet-moths) takes its title from a poem by its dedicatee, Léon-Paul Fargue “Les noctuelles des hangars partent, d’un vol gauche, cravater d’autres poutres”; vol gauche is the key phrase — everything in the piece is seeking, groping, fugitive, awkward. The central, slow section comprises snatches of themes which hint at the passionate ardour which lies at the heart of Miroirs; note the marvellous way these are broken up by ‘vols gauches’ as a way of resuming the rapid material. Oiseaux tristes (Sad birds), dedicated to Ricardo Viñes, evokes, according to Ravel, “birds lost in the torpor of a very dark forest during the hottest hours of summer”. Here all is static, disjointed, oppressive, anxious, unresolved. Une barque sur l'océan (A boat on the ocean), dedicated to Paul Sordes, is the central, and longest, piece of the set. It is, apart from anything else, a masterpiece of essentially piano writing — Ravel orchestrated it but, for once, was dissatisfied with the result and withdrew it. Briefly described, the piece opens with caresses; alternates passion and tenderness — increasing passion producing ever-lovelier moments of tenderness; is arrested in a moment of luminous stasis; boils over in an almighty climax, subsides in a series of ‘aftershocks’ and shudders; and ends with a resumption of the most exquisite tenderness. Alborada del gracioso (The jester’s dawn-song), dedicated to M.-D. Calvocoressi, was Ravel’s first published piece to have a Spanish title,a title so striking and unusual as to suggest not simply an excuse for Ravel’s ‘Spanish’ manner, but some precise connotation. An alborada was a song sung at dawn to rouse lovers from their night of bliss and to warn them of approaching day. The piece seems to me quite clearly ‘programmed’ — the Fool comes in swanking and swaggering, each phrase of his raucous ‘cante jondo’ is met by wonderfully rapt musical gestures that evoke the bliss of the lovers, the more he urges his song the more rapturous becomes these evocations; he tries every trick to rouse the lovers including a few somersaults (double-glissandi on the piano!!) to no avail; for a moment, just before the coda of the piece he seems to become bound up himself in the lovers' bliss but eventually he recovers his senses and succeeds in his task as the piece is driven to a spectacularly explosive end. If this is accepted as a ‘reading’ of the piece, then it need hardly be said that the three preceding movements are not ‘about’ moths, birds, or a boat heaving on the breast of the ocean! Furthermore the final piece, La vallée des cloches (The valley of the bells), dedicated to Maurice Delage, then stands as the perfect coda to the sequence, its central ‘souvenir of Love’ (an intensely lyrical passage marked ‘broadly sung’) framed in the finally attained calm and stillness of the bells. “It is the spectator, and not life, that art really mirrors”, said Oscar Wilde; a work like this has endless connotations; for instance, the falling 2-note phrase which is heard throughout this work has a very special connotation for me, as I feel sure it did for Ravel.
THE GASPARD DE LA NUIT POEMS + TRANSLATIONS
... Je croyais entendre Une vague harmonie enchanter
Et près de moi s'épandre un murmure pareil Aux chants
entrecoupes d'une voix triste et tendre.
Ch. Brugnot. — Les deux Génies.
— Ecoute! — Ecoute! — C'est moi, c'est Ondine
qui frôle de ces gouttes d'eau les losanges sonores de
ta fenêtre illuminée par les mornes rayons de la lune;
et voici, en robe de moire, la dame châtelaine qui
contemple à son balcon la belle nuit étoilée et le beau
Chaque flot est un ondin qui nage dans le courant,
chaque courant est un sentier qui serpente vers mon
palais, et mon palais est bâti fluide, au fond du lac,
dans le triangle du feu, de la terre et de l’air.
Ecoute! — Ecoute! — Mon père bat l'eau
coassante d’une branche d’aulne verte, et mes soeurs
caressent de leurs bras d’écume les fraîches îles d'herbes,
de nénuphars et de glaïeuls, ou se moquent du saule
caduc et barbu qui pêche a la ligne.
Sa chanson murmurée, elle me supplia de recevoir
son anneau à mon doigt, pour être l’époux d’une
Ondine, et de visiter avec elle son palais, pour être le
roi des lacs.
Et comme je lui répondais que j'aimais une mortelle,
boudeuse et dépitée, elle pleura quelques larmes.
poussa un éclat de rire, et s'évanouit en giboulées qui
ruisselèrent blanches le long de mes vitraux bleus.
... I thought I heard
A vague harmony haunting my sleep,
A murmur spreading about me
Interspersed with songs of a sad and tender voice
Ch. Brugnot — Les deux Genies
'Listen! Listen! It is I, it is Ondine
brushing with drops of water the resonant lozenges of
your window illuminated by the gloomy rays of the moon;
behold too, the Chatelaine in watered-silk gown
admiring from her balcony the beautiful starlit night
and the beautiful sleeping lake.
Each wave is a water-sprite swimming in the current,
each current a pathway snaking towards my palace,
my palace of fluid built, at the bottom of the lake,
in a triangle of fire, earth, and air.
Listen! Listen! My father beats the croaking water
with a green alder branch, whilst my sisters,
with arms of foam, caress the cool islands of grass,
of water-lilies, and of gladioli, or mock the willow,
bearded and decaying, as he fishes.”
Her song thus murmured, she implored me to receive
her ring on my finger, so as to be husband to an Ondine,
to be able to accompany her to her palace and be
king of the lakes.
When I answered that I loved a mortal, sulky and put out,
she shed a few tears, burst out laughing, and vanished
in spray which trickled, clear, down the length of my
LE GIBET (*)
Que vois-je remuer autour de ce Gibet?
Ah! ce que j'entends, serait-ce la bise nocturne qui
glapit, ou le pendu qui pousse un soupir sur la fourche
Serait-ce quelque grillon qui chante tapi dans la
mousse et le lierre stérile dont par pitié se chausse
Serait-ce quelque mouche en chasse sonnant du cor
au tour de ces oreilles sourdes à la fanfare des
Serait-ce quelque escarbot qui cueille en son
vol inégal un cheveu sanglant à son crâne chauve?
Ou bien serait-ce quelque araignée qui brode une
demi-aune de mousseline pour cravate à ce col
C'esr la cloche qui tinte aux murs d’une ville sous
l'horizon, et la carcasse d'un pendu que rougit le
What do I see stirring round this gallows?
Ah, What do I hear? Could it be the night wind howling,
or the hanged man heaving a sigh on the forked gibbet?
Could it be some cricket singing, crouched in the moss
and sterile ice with which, out of pity, the wood is shod?
Could it be some fly a-hunting, sounding the horn about those
ears deaf to the fanfare of the kill?
Could it be some beetle who, in his uneven flight, plucks
a bloody hair from his bald pate?
Or might it be some spider embroidering a half-ell of muslin
as cravat for that strangled neck?
It is the bell which tolls at the walls of a town below the
horizon, as the carcass of a hanged man reddens in the
Il regarda sous le lit, dans la cheminée,dans le bahut; —
personne. Il ne put comprendre par où il s'était introduit,
par où il s'était évadé. Hoffmann — Contes nocturnes
Oh! que de fois je l'ai entendu et vu, Scarbo, lorsqu'à
minuit la lune brille dans le ciel comme un écu d'argent
sur une bannière d’azur semée d'abeilles d'or!
Que de fois j'ai entendu bourdonner son rire dans
l'ombre de mon alcôve, et grincer son ongle sur la
soie des courtines de mon lit!
Que de fois je l'ai vu descendre du plancher, pirouetter
sur un pied et rouler par la chambre comme le fuseau
tombe de la quenouille d'une sorcière!
Le croyais-je alors évanoui? le nain grandissait entre
la lune et moi comme le clocher d'une cathédrale
gothique, un grelot d'or en branle à son bonnet pointu!
Mais bientôt son corps bleuissait, diaphane comme
la cire d'une bougie, son visage blêmissait comme la
cire d'un lumignon, — et soudain il s'éteignait.
(*)Publié d'après l'édition du Mercure de France,
He looked under the bed, in the fireplace, in the cupboard
— no-one. He could not understand where he was getting
in, nor how he was escaping. Hoffmann — Contes nocturnes
Oh! how many times have I heard and seen him — Scarbo
— at midnight when the moon shines in the sky like a silver
coin on an azure banner studded with gold bees!
How many times have I heard his laughter buzzing in the
shadow of my alcove, and his nail grating on the silk of my
How many times have I seen him come down from the
rafters, pirouette on one foot and roll aross the room like the
bobbin fallen from the distaff of a witch!
Was I then to believe him vanished? The dwarf would grow
bigger between the moon and me like the steeple of a
Gothic cathedral, a little gold bell swinging on his pointed cap!
Presently his body would become blue like the wax of a
candle, his face wan like the wax of a taper and all of a
sudden he would snuff out.