The Cambridge Companion to Ravel

By Chiu, Remi | Canadian University Music Review, January 1, 2004 | Go to article overview

The Cambridge Companion to Ravel


Chiu, Remi, Canadian University Music Review


Deborah Mawer, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Ravel. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000. xv, 294 pp. ISBN 0 521 64026 1 (hardcover).

Published in 2000 to mark the 125th anniversary of Ravel's birth, The Cambridge Companion to Ravel offers a smorgasbord of current research on the composer's aesthetics, music, and reception history. One of the mandates of the Companion is to "broaden the base for Ravel studies beyond France" and to "bring in 'new blood' from other related areas" (p. 2). To that end, the majority of the contributors are scholars who have established their reputations not in Ravel studies, but in neighboring research areas such as Debussy, Milhaud, Satie, Bartók, and even Webern. Each essayist brings a distinct set of expertise to the discussion, which helps to connect Ravel to the broader trends in music research, interpretation, and criticism.

The book, organized into three parts, contains a total of eleven essays, together with an appendix of a selection of early reviews, some previously untranslated, of Ravel's main works. The first part of the Companion, entitled "Culture and aesthetic," contains three essays that contextualize Ravel's aesthetics through references to various aspects of his biography. The first essay, by Barbara Kelly, situates Ravel within French musical and cultural traditions, beginning with his relationship with the Conservatoire - the "establishment" - then moving into his connections with other French composers and his place in French aesthetic history, and finishing by looking outwards at the influences of Schoenberg and jazz. Robert Orledge' s contribution, "Evocations of Exoticism," broadens the geographical scope to examine the aesthetics of French musical exoticism and to situate Ravel's engagement with diverse cultures within that history. Orledge* s essay explains how Ravel's musical approach to "otherness" is inherently French.

Deborah Mawer provides the last essay of the first section, in which she sympathetically examines claims for a detached objectivity in Ravel's music. Mawer begins by explicating the idea of "musical objects" - the tolling B-flats in "Le Gibet," the tritone in La Valse, and other such devices that, unlike motives, are fixed and do not engender organic growth - and explores their use in a variety of other works. She also looks at the source of Ravel's interest in machinist aesthetics and its manifestation in works such as Boléro and L 'Heure espagnole. Mawer is thereby able to draw some thought-provoking parallels between the composer's music and other artistic movements such as Symbolism, Cubism, and Italian Futurism.

The second section of the Companion, "Musical Explorations", further elaborates and substantiates through closer musical analysis some of the thematic kernels offered in the essays of the first section. It makes up the bulk of the Companion and includes six analytical essays that examine Ravel's oeuvre by genre: piano, chamber, orchestral, ballet, and vocal works. Roy Howat takes up Barbara Kelly's discussion of the relationship between Ravel and composers such as Chabrier and Debussy and examines the motivic, harmonic and other idiomatic correspondences among a few piano works by the three composers. Likewise, Peter Kaminsky looks at the exotic aspects of some of Ravel's vocal output. This thematic interweaving lends cohesion to the Companion and is especially helpful in mitigating against the unfocused eclecticism that often plagues essay anthologies.

In her essay in this section, Mawer discusses Ravel's ballets from a variety of angles: categorization of dance types in Daphnis et Chloé, the idea of duality in La Valse, and a fuller exploration of machine aesthetics in Boléro. The aim of Mawer' s essay is "to aid listening with a score or study prior to a ballet production or concert performance" (p. 143). She succeeds, I think, in catering to a dual audience, those interested in a closer analysis of the music as well as those looking for more challenging-than-usual program notes. …

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