We explore the life and work of this master craftsman of French music
‘My only mistress is music.’
Ravel’s declaration of absolute fidelity to his art must be a paramount consideration in any discussion of any aspect of his creativity or his personality – not just his sexuality, favourite subject for speculation though that is.
Music was his life, his passion, and nothing would induce him to sell it short by producing a score of less than complete integrity. There is scarcely one Ravel work that is not wholly comprehensible in musical terms or that requires reference to external circumstances to explain it. However, recently, much clinical attention has been devoted to tracing the progress of the disease that was to lead to the composer’s death, at the age of 62, in 1937.
The French writer Jean Echenoz is so fascinated by the subject that in 2006 he published a novel about it. His Ravel is redolent of research at Le Belvédère, the Ravel house at Montfort-l’Amaury, and yet so faulty in biographical and musicological detail that it carries little credibility as either fact or fiction. Of course, if there are signs of mental decay in such works as Boléro and the Left-hand Piano Concerto in D – two of the greatest orchestral works in the 20th-century repertoire and at the same time two of the most commonly chosen subjects for neurological case study – we should not shrink from learning about them. But anyone who takes the risk of associating the repetitions in Boléro with frontotemporal dementia, for example, should be very certain of the facts.
Not compulsive but coolly deliberate, the repetitive pattern of Boléro is in fact an inspired solution to a professional problem. Having set aside just enough time to orchestrate a selection of piano pieces by Albéniz for a ballet score on a Spanish theme, Ravel found that the arrangement rights had been reserved for his Spanish colleague Enrique Arbós. He first panicked and then conceived the idea of creating a score that would take no longer to complete than an exercise in orchestration.
Once he had invented the appropriately Spanish-coloured melodic material, he was up and running. ‘Don’t you think this tune has something insistent about it?’ he asked a friend while playing it for him with one finger on the piano. ‘I’m going to try and repeat it a good few times without any development while gradually building it up with my very best orchestration.’
Boléro is not only hypnotic but also calculated in construction. If Ravel had ever demonstrated obsessively repetitive behaviour in his everyday life and if he were not still to write three works which betray no such thing – the two piano concertos and the Don Quichotte songs – there would be something in the Boléro-as-dementia theory. In fact, it is as unreasonable as diagnosing dementia in the apparently even more obsessive minimalist composers of today.
When it comes to the Left-hand Piano Concerto, an oddly persistent old theory that it indicates that one side of the composer’s brain was not functioning is easily disposed of. It was written for left hand only because it had been commissioned by the Austrian pianist Paul Wittgenstein, who had lost his right arm in World War I. Some commentators insist on finding something sinister about it, even though a piano concerto written largely for the lower part of the solo instrument was bound to produce a dark-coloured score – and not only in the piano part. As the work begins, with a low rumble on cellos and basses and then a double-bassoon solo, Ravel introduces the orchestra as, in a sense, left-handed too.
It is true that Ravel is on record as expressing the opinion that ‘the music of a concerto should be light-hearted and brilliant and not aim at profundity or dramatic effects’. But, working at much the same time on the ‘light-hearted and brilliant’ Piano Concerto in G, the professional in him knew that he had to produce something different. The Concerto in G might, as he said, be ‘more Ravel’ but the Concerto in D proved to be a far greater contribution to Wittgenstein’s left-hand repertoire than anything the pianist got from such mentally unscathed composers as Richard Strauss, Prokofiev and Britten.
Of course, Ravel did suffer mental and physical traumas profound enough to affect both his personality and work. We will probably never know what happened to him in his early youth to convince him that, as he told pianist Marguerite Long, ‘love never rises above licentiousness’. We do, on the other hand, know about the dangers, illnesses and deprivations he experienced as a soldier at Verdun in World War I. Le tombeau de Couperin and La valse – the latter of which begins like the Left-hand Concerto in the darkest depths of the orchestra and ends as catastrophically as Boléro – bear the marks of that experience.
Another wartime misfortune was the death of his mother in 1917, causing him inconsolable grief. The conflict between what Maurice saw as his duty to stay with his mother and his duty to enlist in the defence of his country in 1914, a conflict reflected in the Piano Trio, was probably the most intense emotional crisis in his life. L’enfant et les sortilèges, which he began to write after her death, could be seen as a confession of both guilt and love.
It would be a sort of betrayal to see it that way, however. Ravel’s whole career was devoted to creating music from which the self was excluded. He was no self-revealing Schumann or Janácek. He would deny his own inclinations, as he did when he suppressed his innate ‘pudeur’ (prudity) to create the erotic atmosphere of Daphnis et Chloé. The thought that any sign of dementia had intruded on his work would have horrified him. Happily, it never did. Or as a musically aware neurologist recently said of the Piano Concerto in G: ‘If that was the product of a sick brain there should be more of that sickness in the world’.