Ravel the Decadent: Memory, Sublimation, and Desire

Ravel the Decadent: Memory, Sublimation, and Desire

Ravel the Decadent: Memory, Sublimation, and Desire

Ravel the Decadent: Memory, Sublimation, and Desire


The music of Maurice Ravel (1875-1937), beloved by musicians and audiences since its debut, has been a difficult topic for scholars. The traditional stylistic categories of impressionism, symbolism, and neoclassicism, while relevant, have offered too little purchase on this fascinating but enigmatic work. In Ravel the Decadent, author Michael Puri provides an innovative and productive solution by locating the aesthetic origins of this music in the French Decadence and demonstrating the extension of this influence across the length of his oeuvre. From an array of Decadent topics Puri selects three--memory, sublimation, and desire--and uses them to delineate the content of this music, pinpoint its overlap with contemporary cultural discourse, and link it to its biographical context, as well as to create new methods altogether for the analysis and interpretation of music.

Ravel the Decadentopens by defining the main concepts, giving particular attention to memory and decadence. It then stakes out contrasting modes of memory in this music: a nostalgic mode that views the past as forever lost, and a more optimistic one that imagines its resurrection and reanimation. Acknowledging Ravel's lifelong identity as a dandy - a figure that embodies the Decadence and its aspiration toward the sublime - Puri identifies possible moments of musical self-portraiture before stepping back to theorize dandyism in European musical modernism at large. He then addresses the dialectic between desire and its sublimation in the pairing of two genres - the bacchanal and the idyll - and leverages the central trio of concepts to offer provocative readings of the two waltz sets, the Valses nobles et sentimentales and La valse. Puri concludes by invoking the same terms to identify a topic of "faun music" that promises to create new common ground between Ravel and Debussy. Rife with close readings that will satisfy the musicologist,Ravel the Decadentalso suits a more general reader through its broadly humanistic key concepts, immersion in contemporary art and literature, and clarity of language.


The music of the French composer Maurice Ravel (1875–1937) is one of the great artistic successes of the twentieth century, as beloved for its beauty as it is esteemed for its craft. Nevertheless, serious attempts to get to the heart of this music—how it works and what it means—have appeared all too seldom. Ravel the Decadent seeks to break this cycle by providing a broad account of Ravel’s music and relating it to contemporary trends in early European modernism.

When dealing with a specific repertoire, such as the output of a single composer, we oft en rely on preexisting critical terms to capture its particular style. In the case of Ravel, familiar and enduring terms include imposture, artifice, and irony, among others. In this book I propose my own set, which features the four mentioned in the title and subtitle: decadence, memory, sublimation, and desire. I do not necessarily intend my terms to negate their precedents and the interpretations they inform; the two sets mentioned here are actually quite compatible since imposture, artifice, and irony were all marked as typically “decadent” behaviors at the end of the nineteenth century in France. Nonetheless, by highlighting the dynamism of Ravel’s music—its vacillation between lust and lassitude, rawness and refinement, sentimental reminiscence and unsentimental oblivion—and associating this dynamism with both the mind and the body, I maintain that these terms open up novel and productive perspectives on Ravel. In this introduction I begin by surveying these phenomena during the period in question before delving more deeply into the complex topics of memory and decadence. I conclude by briefly summarizing subsequent chapters and indicating their relation to the key concepts.

Offering refuge from a hectic world and entry into the limitless and mysterious depths of the mind, memory fascinated French artists and audiences at the finde siècle, appearing prominently in varied venues such as the fêtes galantes of Verlaine, the philosophy of Bergson, and the nostalgic effusions of Proust. Sublimation—conceived here as the transformation of some entity into a more elevated form of itself—counterbalanced memory by shifting emphasis away from the invisible interior and toward the . . .

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