Maurice Ravel, the gifted composer, pianist and trendsetter, was sui generis: a remarkable genius of refined sensibilities. Roger Nichols, the author of a wonderful new biography of Ravel, employs the word pudeur to describe the composer. It’s a French word. Pudeur is a noun that is defined as a “sense of modesty, decency, propriety; a sense of shame, especially in sexual matters.” Nichols follows the example of his subject, producing a graceful biography of supreme refinement.
Born in 1875 at St. Jean de Luz, Ravel grew up in the Basque country of France. His mother, uneducated like many women of the day, came from a family of Basque fish-vendors, while his father was an educated man – an engineer – who, through being at the right place at the right time in history, became successful and wealthy.
From the outset there was no question what direction Ravel’s career path would take. He was a child prodigy, displaying prodigious musical ability at a very young age. Thus he attended the Conservatoire in Paris, where white-haired Gabriel Faure was his teacher. Faure wrote what were called ‘miniatures.’ And his status was built on the foundation of chamber music, song settings of symbolist poems, and short compositions for solo piano. Faure’s musical goal was to “shrink the units of which music was constructed and to aim for an effect on the listener’s feelings that would be more direct, more immediate, and above all more momentary.” The elderly man’s musical philosophy rubbed off on the young Ravel.
Nichols points out that genius, as a phenomenon, has a lot to do with exceptional energy, focused, analytical, imaginative energy yoked to original thought. This amazing energy was the source of Ravel’s genius.
After leaving school, Ravel immersed himself in his music, writing songs, orchestral arrangements, and piano music. Ravel’s music reflects a rich voice, under exquisite lilting control. To listeners, the music manifests itself as physically stunning, even visceral.
On March 15, 1908, in Paris, Maurice Ravel premiered his four movement orchestral suite Rapsodie espagnole. Tagged as ‘symphonic,’ it wasn’t. Rather it was made up of little parts. Parts, in fact, that were very small indeed. One critic who was there compared the Rapsodie to a painting. He wrote: “It was not mere impressionism, but “pointillisme” in music . . . Mr Ravel throws in tiny dabs of color in showers upon his canvas. There is not an outline nor an expanse in the sketch; everything is in spots.”
Ravel’s dabs of color were the result of two influences: first, his time spent learning his craft under Gabriel Faure; second, Ravel loved to visit cabarets, where he discovered that the logic of music eschewed long-windedness, and that the relation between music and emotion relied more upon tone and color than upon counterpoint. Essentially, what Ravel did was distill music into its components. Then he proceeded to put it back together again in a new way, a way that appealed to emotions. He combined his classical training with trends from popular music.
This amalgamation of classical music with popular music – a delicate balancing act – was unique to France at this time. Debussy, Satie, and Ravel were the musical alchemists of their epoch. They were avant-garde modernists.
Nichols examines every aspect of Ravel’s life, personal and public. He diplomatically circumvents the widely held belief that Ravel was homosexual. Any residual oddments of suspicion in regard to Ravel’s sexual proclivities are left suspended in the air. For Nichols yields no opinion. He does, however, grant that as far as anyone knows, Ravel was never intimate with a woman, while at the same time he had intense friendships with a number of men. But no details of any of the relationships are provided. It may be that Ravel was asexual, uninterested in physical intimacy.
What Nichols does very well is this: he opens a door, providing his readers with a fascinating look into the world of music, both as business and as performance.
Near the end of his life, Ravel came face to face with personal cataclysm. Undermined by a brain disease which has still not been identified, Ravel retained the ability to hear music in the orchestra of his mind, but he couldn’t put it down on paper. Eventually, he elected to undergo surgery to resolve the problem. He died shortly after the operation. He was only 62 years old.
All in all, Ravel is a delight to read. It’s one of those ‘special’ biographies that come along once every decade or so, the kind that make readers shudder and cry and laugh and cheer. The reader comes away with a sense of imminence about a man and his music. On the Read-O-Meter, which ranges from one star (pathetic) to five stars (superb), Ravel deserves five melodious stars.