Monday, 28 March 2011

Ravel - the greatest composer of the 20th Century

My two favourite 20th Century classical music composers are a sartorially-challenged, twice-married, burly, 6’4” Englishman once memorably described as resembling an exploding sofa, and a tiny French dandy who never married (and whose sexuality has long been the subject of speculation).

Whereas Ralph Vaughan Williams’s music is often beautiful and plangent, I can’t imagine a homosexual writing it – whereas it would be hard to imagine a heterosexual producing Ravel’s masterpieces: they are somehow too ravishing, exquisite, witty and delicate. Yet his music is far from camp or emotionally overblown – and there’s certainly no lack of muscularity: after all, his most famous work (and possibly the least interesting) is that great thumping rhythmic beast, Bolero.

Ralph VW actually visited Paris to study under Ravel (I would love to have been a fly on the wall as this vast English bear sat at the feet of the diminutive French butterfly). The effect on VW’s music is obvious – he became a superb orchestrator of his own work. In Ravel, he had chosen a teacher who, in terms of orchestration and melody, was quite possibly the most musically gifted composer of the last century, an artist of unrivalled sensitivity and refinement.  

My favourite Ravel piece is the Daphnis and Chloe Suite No. 2, based on his music for a Diaghilev ballet (here performed by Charles Dutoit and L’Orchestre Symphonique de Montreal - the best interpretation I’ve ever heard). If I need to be transported to somewhere unimaginably beautiful, this is what I usually turn to. 

Ravel disliked being called an Impressionist composer – but listening toDaphnis and Chloe is like stepping into  a painting, part-Renoir, part-Manet. The first of its three parts, “Lever du Jour”, is almost unbearably poignant – not because it’s sad, but because it combines broad-brush lushness and myriad Seurat-like pinpoints of light – the warmth of the rising sun envelops the listener, flowers unfold, dew steams, insects flit, birds glide, deer laze, we narrow our eyes against the sudden glare and the sunlight explodes into a million sparkling fragments… or something (“Nurse, he’s having one of his turns!”). Parts of it sound like the most sublime film music ever written -  but there isn’t a hint of vulgarity anywhere in the piece.)

This is immersive, swooning music – and Ravel did swooning better than anyone, including those brilliant contemporary swooners Debussy and Delius. Ravel sounds to me a more accomplished orchestrator than Debussy (he certainly thought he was) and to be far more purposeful and in control of his material than Delius: the little Frenchman gives the impression of knowing exactly what each note and each instrument is meant to express. 

Ravel composed some 60 works in total. He didn’t do symphonies, but did produce two celebrated piano concertos. He used mainly modal melodies (which, I’m told, lends his work a musically intriguing, ambiguous quality, neither fixedly minor or major), and he almost invariably composed for piano first and orchestrated – painstakingly – later. Debussy and Ravel respected each other hugely, but, before the First World War (Ravel, by the way, enlisted and drove a truck on the Verdun front), critics divided into distinct camps behind each composer. After Debussy’s death in 1918, Ravel became France’s foremost composer. 
In the 1920s, (an era during which, to his great credit, he championed the work of British and American composers) Ravel produced two works which would make him rich and internationally famous. In 1922 he orchestrated (quite brilliantly) Mussorgsky’s piano composition,  Pictures at an Exhibition, and in 1928, the year he undertook a sensationally successful four-month concert tour of the United States, he composed the other work which even non-classical music lovers all know – Bolero.

Ravel’s innate exoticism is on display in his early song-cycle, Schéhérezade– I particularly love the first song, “Asie” (Asia), which offers another example of controlled swooning, as does “Le Jardin Féerique”, the fifth movement,  of his music for the ballet, Ma Mere L’Oye (Mother Goose).

His regard for early French classical composers is on display in another early work, Pavane for a Dead Infanta, and in the wartime work, Le Tombeau de Couperin – especially here in the “Minuet”. The composer’s infatuation with music from other countries (Spain, in particular) is evident in the spiffing “Alborado del Gracioso” from Miroirs, and in the gypsifiedTzigane.

Vaughan Williams’s music reminds me of all that’s best about England. Ravel’s represents a celebration of taste, intelligence, beauty and heaven-sent genius… in other words, of civilisation itself. I really don’t care what he got up to – if anything – in his private life, especially if it helped him create such such sublime music.


  1. I wouldn’t have had you down as a Ravel lover. I think convincing cases could be made for Prokofiev, Stravinsky and Sibelius, all great in very different ways. Mahler crept into the last century. Britten produced any number of great works in a wide variety of forms. So did your hero Vaughan Williams. You once wrote about Janacek and I thought made a decent case for the old boy. Shostakovich has his advocates though support has ebbed a bit since the overthrow of communism. So I don’t think Ravel is a shoo-in for the Gold Medal. Despite all the experimental rubbishof the last hundred years it produced lots of wonderful music. That’s all gone now of course.
    Friday, April 1, 2011 - 12:44 PM

  2. Come on Gronners! This "sensitive artist=friend of Dorothy" theory is balls. People have frequently made that assumption about me and yet even the most peremptory check of my wallet would reveal a complete absence of 9 bob notes. I might just as well argue that only a pink oboeist, as you put it, could write with such taste and insight about art and music.

    Ravel would have been a brilliant composer and orchestrator even if he had been a 6ft 4" rampaging Norwegian-Scottish beardie heterosexualist.
    Saturday, April 2, 2011 - 09:12 AM

  3. All that said, your post on Ravel, like others you have written on poetry and art, have forced me to challenge my own opinions. I had for some reason ignored many of the orchestrated pieces, I suspect because I had heard the originals as written for piano first and loved the simplicity and clarity of the original concept. Thanks for the links which are making me think again.
    Saturday, April 2, 2011 - 09:32 AM

  4. Unfortunately, Cavandpag, whereas the wonderful music might be in short supply, I’m not sure the experimental rubbish has all gone – the specially commissioned pieces of modern music shoehorned between established works of genius at the Proms all sound as if they were composed 60 years ago and are uniformly execrable (well, the ones I’ve been forced to sit through in the hall). I love all the composers you list – except for Shostakovich, who I haven’t heard enough of to judge. I don’t know enough about classical music to be dictatorial about my enthusiasms – I’m a few steps beyond “I know what I like!”, but not that many!
    Sunday, April 3, 2011 - 07:34 PM

  5. Yes, I know I’m on thin ice with my pink oboe theory, Ex-KCS. Just trying to figure out what made Ravel so different from other composers – there’s something both feline and feminine about his cleverness and delicacy: listening to Ravel, I feel as if I’m being expertly manipulated by someone indefinably “other”. But I’d better tiptoe back onto dry land before I go crashing into the water below!

    If you’re listening or re-listening to stuff you might otherwise have missed because of something I’ve written, I’m truly delighted! I’ve never really got over that teenage phase of wanting to share my enthusiasms – only these days I don’t get enraged if people disagree – and I’m always genuinely interested to hear what other people are reading and listening to.
    Sunday, April 3, 2011 - 08:04 PM