Academic journal article Notes


Academic journal article Notes


Article excerpt

RAVEL Ravel. By Roger Nichols. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2011. [xii, 430 p. ISBN 9780300108828. $40.] Music examples, illustrations, works list, bibliography, index.

Publications about Maurice Ravel and his music, especially those from British and American scholars, have increased in quantity and quality in recent years. Claude Debussy, whose sesquicentennial is celebrated this year, has been similarly favored, and once more the public has the opportunity to compare these two great French composers, whose achievements share many common traits and mutual influences, but whose individualities are at least as striking, to the incalculable enrichment of modern music.

Roger Nichols has for many years been one of the most expert authorities on modern French music in general and on Debussy and Ravel in particular. His earlier biography of Ravel formed part of the Master Musicians series (London: J. M. Dent, 1977), and his Ravel Remembered (London: Faber and Faber, 1987; New York: W. W. Norton, 1988) is a good compilation of portraits-mémoires by Ravel's friends and colleagues. Pianists have special reason to be grateful for Nichols's painstaking edition (published by Peters) of Ravel's Gaspard de la nuit, which rectifies some major errors that appeared in Durand's original edition of 1909, and which were corrected by Ravel himself in his shelf copy, now at the Bibliothèque nationale. (Ravel's autograph of Gaspard, now in the Ransom Library at the University of Texas, was actually the source of some of the errors.)

Available books in English about Ravel's life include readable studies by Madeleine Goss, Norman Demuth, Victor Seroff, Rollo Myers, and a translated book by Vladimir Jankélévich, but all of these, though still useful, are now superseded by later research. The first examination of Ravel and his work to meet the standards of modern scholarship was the pathbreaking Ravel: Man and Musician, by Arbie Orenstein (New York: Columbia University Press, 1975), who made use of previously unpublished documents, and this book remains of fundamental importance after thirty-seven years. (I reviewed it in these pages: Notes 34, no. 1 [September 1977]: 63-65.)

Without superseding Orenstein, whose work it amply acknowledges, Roger Nichols's new book bids fair to be the bestever biography of Ravel in English. It is spacious and thorough without bogging down in miscellanea; there is plenty of information that punctuates the meticulousness of Ravel's life much as the subtle details of his music formed so much of the precision in his art. There is abundant new information about Ravel's ancestry, including details about his father, Joseph Ravel, a renowned mechanical engineer; Ravel's early musical training, and his service in the Great War; his extensive travels, especially his visit to the United States in 1928; and the performance history of major works, with special attention to the operas and the two concertos for piano.

Ravel's life and career were essentially peaceful, and he was able to dedicate the majority of his time to his work, for which he had regular habits and steady productivity. He never married and was not even known to have had any romantic involvement, but he had a wide assortment of friends whose company and counsel he sought regularly. He was only occasionally an active performer and his skills as pianist or conductor were not of a professional level. The most serious crises of his life were the Great War, the deaths of his parents, and his final, protracted illness, whose etiology was never satisfactorily explained. This life should be contrasted with that of Debussy, whose romantic relationships were often tumultuous; who was a first-rate pianist and a sometime conductor; who spent a significant amount of time writing about music; who composed in alternate bursts of energy and indecision, leaving many unfinished works; and who suffered from cancer for most of a decade but managed to keep on working almost to the end. …

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