by Roger Nichols.
Yale, 430 pp., £25, April 2011, 978 0 300 10882 8
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‘Trying to pin Ravel down,’ Roger Nichols writes in his penultimate paragraph, ‘is about as futile as trying to catch Scarbo in a bucket.’ It may seem a disconcerting admission to find at the end of a 350-page biography; but in fact it’s a positive and exact assessment, characteristically honest, and at the same time a high compliment to its subject. Both in himself and in his work Ravel has always eluded labelling, and it seems that the more closely you look, the more precision recedes. Nichols, a modest and tolerant man, quotes lavishly the observations of those who knew Ravel, those who loved him or hated him, those who liked or disliked his music, the critics who reviewed it, the musicologists who have studied it; Ravel passes through the midst of them all and goes his way.

How to explain this reticence (Nichols prefers the French term pudeur, which is perhaps closer to ‘delicacy’ or ‘sense of propriety’) in an artist whose work is often so spectacular in its effects? Why, on the other hand, is an explanation needed? You can hardly go to a concert these days without the players or the composer holding forth about the meaning of what you’re about to hear. Everything has to be elucidated, preferably in terms that fit with our daily experience of the world. Shklovsky’s concept of art as ‘making strange’ long ago went by the board. And by the same token the artist himself has to stand before us with an inventory of his likes and dislikes, his sexual preferences, his influences. Ravel wouldn’t have flourished in this environment: he would have been an unforthcoming subject for a composer’s residency or a London Sinfonietta study weekend (he was a poor teacher who suffered amateurs reluctantly). Without being timid about his own artistic worth, he largely resisted the normal mechanisms of self-promotion. He turned down the Légion d’Honneur (while accepting foreign honours with no cachet in Paris), refused to have anything to do with musical cliques, detested deference or homage, and was so secretive (if that’s the right word for simply not raising the subject) about his sexuality that even a biographer as painstaking as Nichols is unable – and, to do him justice, he doesn’t strain – to confirm whether this suave, dandified musician, who wrote no love letters and was never photographed entering a brothel or with his arm round a 15-year-old boy, preferred the opposite sex or his own or, for that matter, was interested in either.

Nichols draws attention to such questions in passing, but he doesn’t worry them to death. He is not – as he admits elsewhere – ‘a professional analyst’. Freud and the post-Freudians are quoted on one or two of Ravel’s works, but never on his personality. Instead, Nichols tells Ravel’s story lucidly, vividly, with an admirably light touch, drawing on more sources than any of his numerous predecessors, including, as he admits, his own Master Musicians volume of 1977. We learn about the composer’s somewhat unbalanced parentage, his educated, middle-class engineer father (the inventor of a circus motor-car prophetically named ‘Le Tourbillon de la Mort’, which crashed in an early test in 1905 and killed its driver), and his Basque mother, the illegitimate daughter of a fisherwoman from Ciboure. Ravel seems to have been fond of both, and fond to excess in his mother’s case: he never entirely got over her death in 1917. Whether or not his self-protectiveness had anything to do with these origins is a matter for speculation; but he was certainly touchy about his musical aptitudes. He was a good enough pianist at the age of 14 to audition successfully for the Paris Conservatoire, but he never achieved real virtuosity at the piano, was unable to give adequate performances of his own more difficult works, and was often criticised for failures of keyboard touch and refinement, Ravellian qualities par excellence. He never won the hyper-conservative Prix de Rome despite numerous attempts, the last of them when he was 30 and already the composer of the String Quartet, Shéhérazade, Jeux d’eau and the Miroirs – a failure that scandalised the Parisian press. (Nichols suggests that Ravel may have deliberately thrown his final attempt, since success would have meant spending two years in Rome at a time when his parents were traumatised by the ‘Tourbillon de la Mort’ disaster.)

Whatever the cause of his touchiness, its symptoms are everywhere to be seen in his work. Like many artists of supposedly insecure technique, he was pernickety about technical matters: ‘He always preferred right notes to fantasy,’ Nichols writes. Just as his personal dandyism looks like a cover for stylistic anxiety, so the fastidiousness of his music might have been a way of disguising emotional sensitivity. It was perhaps recognition of this familiar quality that led him to prefer Mendelssohn to Schumann, Mozart to Beethoven and Saint-Saëns to Berlioz. (He described the acoustics of the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées to Stravinsky as ‘so perfect that you can even hear the refinement of Berlioz’s harmonies’ – Nichols, uncharacteristically, misses the cutting edge of this remark.) Elsewhere, Nichols notes ‘a self-contained air that came over to some people as coldness and indifference’. Constant Lambert laments the ‘painfully good taste’ of the Piano Concerto in G. The anonymous music critic of the Times (probably H.C. Colles) provides a complete portrait in October 1923: ‘M. Ravel’s charm is something elfish and inscrutable … he conducts with a wrist as steady and supple and with as much economy of unnecessary emotions as a man might practise with his razor … he plays the piano in the low-pitched tone of ordinary conversation, as if he were telling you the common sense of the matter.’ The Paris critic Pierre Lalo, a sworn enemy of Ravel’s music, excoriates his ‘petitesse de l’esprit’.

There is a superficial rightness about these remarks, and at the same time a profound and distressing misconception at their heart. One doesn’t have to love Ravel’s music to hear, and perhaps rebel against, its intense nervous energy. I once listened to La Valse in one of those tiny listening-booths in a London record shop, and it remains one of the most nerve-wracking musical memories of my life. To this day, I hear in the dawn episode of Daphnis et Chloé not the serenely radiant musical iconography of (for instance) the Good Friday music in Parsifal, but the menace of a powerful searchlight. No doubt these are idiosyncratic responses. But they are not necessarily altogether subjective. Nichols finds ‘abundant testimony that Ravel was a more tortured soul than might appear from the smart waistcoats and lurid ties’, and he quotes René Chalupt, an early editor of the correspondence, on Ravel’s ‘latent melancholy [and] anguish’. ‘Tension lies at the heart of his music,’ Nichols insists, ‘whether in the technical detail … or more generally in the deliberate mismatching of form and content, as in Valses nobles et sentimentales and La Valse.’ And he talks about Ravel’s music being ‘riven with contrary impulses’, often expressed through a variety of superficially incompatible styles.

A pupil of Fauré and 13 years younger than Debussy, Ravel came onto the scene at a time when French music had begun to explore regions of language and expression beyond the scope of classically based textbooks. Classical German harmony had always derived its energy from the bass-line, like the sap rising from the roots of a tree. But this was a lot less normal than taught theory liked to pretend. Italian music, for instance, being largely vocal, was dominated by melody and ornament, with bass-lines a more or less conventional necessity. The French tradition was weaker and more hybrid. Partly rooted in the old ballet de cour, with its emphasis on melody and rhythm, it had at some point picked up the idea of classical harmony, but had misread it, in a Bloomian sense, as an enrichment of texture. In Berlioz, for example, top-line melody is always paramount (think of the idée fixe in the Symphonie fantastique), while the harmony tends either to get stuck or to meander: the texture is made exciting, not by harmony, but by orchestral colouring. Fauré, on the other hand, found a corrective in plainsong and the church modes, which he studied as a prospective church organist and choirmaster at the Ecole Niedermeyer. In plainsong the mode is just a fixed set of permissible intervals, but once you start writing in parts, the mode turns into a field to which the parts are confined and through which they travel according to more or less strict rules of combination. Modal music is polyphonic, but harmonically static – it doesn’t, so to speak, change key. Fauré is not limited in this way, yet much of his individuality comes from modal melodic thinking, with harmony in the classical sense subordinate.

This may sound like a simple matter of style, but its consequences were great. As a student in the 1870s and early 1880s Debussy was continually at war with the fusty theoreticians of the Conservatoire. His biographer Edward Lockspeiser records a remarkable conversation between Debussy and his old composition teacher, Ernest Guiraud, in which Guiraud plays a sequence of simple parallel chords and asks Debussy how he would ‘get out of this’ (manage it, that is, as harmony that was going somewhere): ‘I’m not saying that what you do isn’t beautiful, but it’s theoretically absurd.’ ‘There is no theory,’ Debussy replies, ‘you have merely to listen. Pleasure is the law.’ The point is that parallel chords are not harmony at all: they are melody turned into texture. Debussy had become obsessed with Wagner. But in his own music Wagnerism appears not as the huge structural process of the Bayreuth music drama but as an exploration of sensuous moments, as if one were to cut a small square out of a Titian and enlarge it as a colour abstract. This approach shaped the wonderful songs that Debussy wrote in the 1880s. By the 1890s he had developed it into a style that nearly transcended the textbook completely, but that functioned on its own terms and not just on a miniature scale: the Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune (1892-94) and the orchestral Nocturnes (1897-99) are both hefty works.

This is more or less where Ravel comes in. Nichols describes the key influences on his student career: the Javanese gamelan at the Paris Exhibition of 1889 and the Russian concerts in Paris that summer; the teaching of Fauré, whose appointment as composition professor in 1896 ‘testified to the perception in official quarters that the Conservatoire was in danger of becoming too conservative’; the private play-through of Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande in 1900, ‘one of those legendary sessions at which the composer, seated at the piano, became an orchestra and a succession of soloists to rival those of any subsequent production’; the premiere of the first two Nocturnes that December, and Ravel’s own two-piano transcription of the third, ‘Sirènes’, which in 1901 earned him an inscribed copy of the full score from Debussy. Mixing these influences together, and adding one or two other ingredients (the café music of Erik Satie, whom Ravel met in 1893; the fashionable hispanism of Chabrier and Bizet, which I like to think stirred his Basque blood), he was able to concoct a state-of-the-art ‘French idiom’.

One might even speculate that, like many repressed artists (Stravinsky was another: Hans Keller notoriously diagnosed him as a sado-masochist), Ravel found it convenient to base himself on models. His so-called Debussyism is to some extent a modelling of this kind. In sheer sensibility, the two were profoundly different – which may go some way to explaining their cool relations in later years. You’ve only to compare Ravel’s ‘Ondine’ or ‘Une Barque sur l’océan’ with, say, Debussy’s ‘Cloches à travers les feuilles’ to see how a superficially similar approach to harmony, texture and instrumental technique can produce quite different aesthetic results. Where Debussy seems to explore every interior detail of texture and harmony, even laying the music out on three staves rather than two to ensure the correct separation of elements, Ravel takes a single musical image and turns it into a highly refined concert display. His Jeux d’eau (1902), which probably provoked Debussy into composing the Estampes, is a sparklingly lit musical picture of fountains, in the spirit of Liszt’s Jeux d’eaux à la villa d’Este; Debussy’s ‘Reflets dans l’eau’ (in the first book of Images of 1905) seems to peer into deep pools and catch images of mind as much as water. Nichols quotes Ravel’s complaint to Pierre Lalo, who had credited Debussy with the invention of this idiom, asserting the priority of Jeux d’eau. And he agrees that the Ravel piece is ‘the key work for the “Impressionist” school of French piano writers’. Ravel was certainly the first to explore the resonances and colour variations of the modern piano in quite this way. But the somewhat mechanical quality of his fountains (Nichols refers to ‘his particular insistence … on regularity of speed’) finds little echo in Debussy. The cool machine that occasionally explodes under steam pressure is a Ravellian motif: it recurs many times, most famously in Boléro, but also, less overtly, in Daphnis, La Valse and elsewhere.

The relationship between this kind of detachment and the idea of modelling comes out most strongly in the wartime and postwar music. Le Tombeau de Couperin, mainly composed in 1917, typically responds to the war from a distance, invoking courtly French values while dedicating each movement to the memory of a friend killed in the fighting. But the best and most enjoyable example of this synthetic style is the one-act Colette opera, L’Enfant et les sortilèges, from the mid-1920s. The child in question is a naughty little boy who refuses to do his homework and, when scolded by his mother, smashes the crockery, stabs the pet squirrel with his pen nib, pulls the cat’s tail, and starts ripping off the wallpaper. One by one the objects come to life and turn on him in various appropriate but increasingly sinister and violent ways, first in the house, then in the moonlit garden, until, in a perhaps too Colettish dénouement, another squirrel is injured, the child bandages its paw, and the grateful animals lead him back to his mother. Ravel evades the mawkish aspects of the tale and turns it into what amounts to a series of revue sketches ‘in the spirit of American musical comedy’, as he described it in an autobiographical note. The opera is a dazzlingly scored sequence of catchy, jazzy, waltzy parodies, linked by Ravellian atmospherics in an advanced, postwar version of his fairytale idiom. ‘The danger was,’ Nichols writes, ‘that such a compilation of vignettes would become less than the sum of its parts. That this is emphatically not the case must stand as one of the highest achievements of Ravel’s composing career.’

Some would question this judgment; others would accept it, sadly, as a back-handed assessment of the other achievements. Nichols quotes with disapproval Robert Craft on Ravel’s ‘inability to emerge from the emotional world of his childhood’, but might have represented Craft more fairly by including the rest of the remark (in Current Convictions), which has it that Ravel ‘became a sophisticated innocent, cultivating worldly tastes as protective disguises’. To my mind, this is a shrewd insight, and not at all a put-down. In the main, though, Nichols is a balanced and sympathetic reporter of the views of others, to the point of being unnecessarily sparing when it comes to his own. He seems in awe of some pretentious sub-Freudian obfuscations of straightforward matters of narrative symbolism, such as Melanie Klein’s observation that Arithmetic, one of the vengeful objects in L’Enfant et les sortilèges, ‘can be interpreted as Father-as-Judge, while the Garden symbolises Mother and the hostile animals within it the aggressive aspect of the “bad mother”’; or Debbie Hindle’s suggestion that Colette’s story ‘illustrates the inevitable tension between passion, imagination and conformity, the “freedom” of childhood versus the responsibilities of adulthood, or the preoccupations of the writer, artist or musician versus more conventional modes’, to which Nichols responds with, I hope, a touch of asperity: ‘Given Ravel’s perennial stance as the ironical outsider, it seems more than likely.’

Nichols is careful not to try to ‘pin Ravel down’. He is an urbane scholar who would rather leave an overwhelming question unanswered than fix it in a formulated phrase. He loves Ravel and his music without making exaggerated claims for it; claims that therefore don’t have to be refuted or disputed. He has lived with the work, and the literature written about it, and discusses it with ease, understanding and good humour. Only one question might have hoped (sortilège-like) for a clearer answer: the exact cause of the illness that led to Ravel’s death. For the last few years of his life, Ravel suffered from a brain condition that steadily slowed down his responses, liquidated his memory, and destroyed his ability to compose. Late in 1937, after a good deal of agonising by doctors, an operation was performed (against Ravel’s apparent wishes and without general anaesthetic), soon after which he died. No tumour was found, no abnormality, and death was evidently a result of the operation. In a sense, Ravel simply faded away.

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