Saturday, April 23, 2011


Roger Nicholls
Yale, 430 pp

Our foremost expert on French music in general and Ravel in particular, here has written a third book on the composer of Daphnis and Chloe. There was a biography way back in 1977 and a Ravel Remembered ten years later. Much new material has come to light since then. This is the volume to sit on your bookshelf, to be read with great interest and pleasure.

It is well written and tells the reader all he can want to know about Ravel (and thankfully, not more than he needs to know – the besetting sin of so many present day biographers). If it doesn't explain the peculiar charm and strength of Ravel's music, that is because that would be an impossible task. As Mendelssohn said, if you can explain it, it isn't music.

His contemporaries often called him cool but I think they were wrong. Ravel doesn't embrace youth but surely that makes him last longer. And didn't Mozart say that if a composer doesn't entertain, he doesn't get heard?

Ravel is an entertainer, in the fullest sense of the word.

He is neither ethical, not political. Is there such a creator who is both objective and yet deep down a Romantic? He was a consummate artisan capable of making intricate musical jewellery. Knowing Stravinsky's taste, it was surely a compliment that he called Ravel 'the most perfect of Swiss clockmakers'. Actually, in spite of Swiss connections Ravel was French through and through even though the mother he adored was a Basque and came from close to the border with Spain.

Virgil Thomson summed up his friend: "Maurice Ravel was in religion a skeptic, in love a bachelor, in social life a semi-recluse, a suburbanite. He was kind but not foolish, a wit, a devoted friend; his was an adult mind, tender, ironic, cultivated, sharply observant."

Leftish in politics, refusing the Légion d'honneur (although Satie said that all his music accepted (miaow), he was not respecter of persons – as witness his roundly ticking Toscanini off for galloping through Bolero (originally title Fandango, so Nicholls tells us).

Like all famous composers (except Richard Strauss) Ravel was 'vertically challenged', five foot three. And like Gabriel Fauré, he was never without a cigarette in his mouth. Those he travelled with said he was always losing things, tickets, passports, pens. He was quite a useful pianist when young but an indifferent one later on; neither was he a good conductor, strange when he wrote such good piano music, enlarging the scope of keyboard virtuosity.

When I visited his house at Montfort l'Amaury, outside Paris, where he lived latterly I kept hitting my head on the ceiling; it was like a dolls house, built years before he found it, it must have belonged to a dwarf. But it suited the children that he loved so much and was so at home with, both in the flesh and in his music.

Nicholls rehearses fully Ravel's failure, even by the time he was quite well known, to win the Prix de Rome; which was partly his own fault (wouldn't toe the necessary lines) and a national scandal; and how a rivalry was built up with Debussy. Ravel remained above it all but Debussy was sometimes bitchy.

It was a terrible fate that Ravel suffered, gradually losing his ability to compose, finally even to write his name. He was only sixty-two when he died in 1937.

Ravel's music achieved fame during his lifetime for it is the epitomy of every Frenchman's dream and every foreigner's dream of French culture, the dream of perfect unification of sentiment, restrained sensuality, intelligence and superb craftsmanship.

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