Ravel Rousing Ravel: A Life, Roger Nichols, Yale University Press, 430 pages
Chesterton once wrote that Spenser and Keats "had a mysterious incapacity for writing bad poetry." Of Joseph-Maurice Ravel (he soon consigned the name "Joseph" to oblivion) it can likewise be said that he had a mysterious incapacity for writing bad music, an incapacity he shared with Mozart, with Mendelssohn, and with few if any others. Even the juvenilia that remained in manuscript long after Ravel's death, aged 62, in 1937-works which, in fact, only attained publication and performance in the 1970s-proved demoralizingly unblemished, lacking only the ultimate individual touch that would rank them with his mature masterpieces.
How much easier Ravel would be for biographers to write about if only he had undergone a lesser mortal's metamorphosis from apprentice to master-if a single piece of his could be classified as a magnificent failure, rather than simply magnificent. It is absurd to interpret Ravels mastery in terms of blathering about his "persona," because such talk suggests that behind the flawless Ravel there somehow lurked a flawed, undisciplined, amateurish Ravel putting on an ultra-smooth act. This myth will not survive 10 minutes' exposure to Ravel's creations, where jewel-like exactitude usually coexists with a fervor that is seldom far removed from actual agony, a passion that should have invalidated for all time Stravinsky's simplistic description (intended to be flattering) of Ravel as "the most perfect of Swiss clockmakers."
For those convinced that Ravel somehow creatively suffered through being "artificial," the composer offered the perfect response: "Don't these people ever arrive at the idea that I could be artificial by nature?" In contemplating this paradox, we can come as close to the core of Ravel's genius as his introverted self will allow. Like the similarly introverted and ironizing T.S. Eliot, he was a neoclassicist only because permitting himself to be a full-blooded romanticist would have sent him insane.
Roger Nichols, notable already for his earlier books on Debussy and Messiaen, is among the very few Englishmen who belong to Frances Legion of Honor. He brings to his subject a reticence all the more welcome after the recent efforts of Commentary contributor Benjamin Ivry, whose ferocious zest in every chapter for trying to turn Ravel into a Gay Icon resembles the "Everyone has AIDS!" chorus from "Team America: World Police." Readers seeking even more exhaustive musical discussion than Nichols has room to furnish-though, happily, staff-notation examples do adorn his text-should consult Irony and Sound, by former University of North Texas professor Stephen Zank. Irony and Sound is not for dabblers, and neither is Nichols's study. Both authors assume a substantial acquaintanceship on their readers' part with Ravel's oeuvre, and at times they give the impression of analyzing previous analyses-some of them Freudian, alas-instead of the original music. Still, Nichols writes with greater panache than Zank, and Ravel could not have hoped to be evaluated by a more elegant stylist.
To get Topic A behind us forth-with, Nichols confirms that Ravel's private tastes, notwithstanding Ivry, remain obscure. A nurse who attended Ravel in his last illness believed him to have been syphilitic, but no one else seems to have thought so. Insisting, as Ivry does, that Ravel's occasional setting of somewhat campy words proves him to have been homosexual ranks with insisting that Hercule Poirots cases prove Agatha Christie to have been a serial killer. Others' gossip alleged that Ravel visited female prostitutes. Again, verification is elusive. To a friend he once wrote, "We artists, we're not made for marriage." It is possible that Ravel had no carnal desires at all, a condition inconceivable to modern American novelists but somewhat common in real life.
On artistic issues Ravel habitually spoke with greater bluntness. …