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Unmasking Ravel

Unmasking Ravel: New Perspectives on the Music

Edited by Peter Kaminsky
Volume: 84
Copyright Date: 2011
Published by: Boydell and Brewer,
Pages: 352
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  • Book Info
    Unmasking Ravel
    Book Description:

    "Unmasking Ravel: New Perspectives on the Music" fills a unique place in Ravel studies by combining critical interpretation and analytical focus. From the premiere of his works up to the present, Ravel has been associated with masks and the related notions of artifice and imposture. This has led scholars to perceive a lack of depth in his music and, consequently, to discourage investigation of his musical language. This volume balances and interweaves these modes of inquiry. Part 1, "Orientations and Influences," illuminates the sometimes contradictory aesthetic, biographical, and literary strands comprising Ravel's artistry and our understanding of it. Part 2, "Analytical Case Studies," engages representative works from Ravel's major genres using a variety of methodologies, focusing on structural process and his complex relation to stylistic convention. Part 3, "Interdisciplinary Studies," integrates musical analysis and art criticism, semiotics, and psychoanalysis in creating novel methodologies. Contributors include prominent scholars of Ravel's and fin-de-siècle music: Elliott Antokoletz, Gurminder Bhogal, Sigrun B. Heinzelmann, Volker Helbing, Steven Huebner, Peter Kaminsky, Barbara Kelly, David Korevaar, Daphne Leong, Michael Puri, and Lauri Suurpää. Peter Kaminsky is Professor of Music at the University of Connecticut, Storrs.

    eISBN: 978-1-58046-837-4
    Subjects: Music

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. 1-6)
    Peter Kaminsky

    In a letter to critic Louis Laloy dated March 8, 1907, Claude Debussy, upon hearing the premier of Ravel’s song cycle Histoires naturelles, writes:

    I agree with you in acknowledging that Ravel is exceptionally gifted, but what irritates me is his posture as a ‘trickster,’ or better yet, as an enchanting fakir, who can make flowers spring up around a chair. Unfortunately, a trick is always prepared, and it can astonish only once!¹

    In a “Tribute” published in 1933, Ravel’s friend and musicologist Michel Dimitri Calvocoressi notes:

    He had a marked taste for the recondite, which people who did not...

  5. Part One: Orientations and Influences

    • Chapter One Ravel’s Poetics: Literary Currents, Classical Takes
      (pp. 9-40)
      Steven Huebner

      In a panegyric published in La Revue Musicale (1921) that set the tone for much subsequent Ravel criticism, Alexis Roland-Manuel stated that if “the composer of the Poèmes de Mallarmé were ever asked to describe his poetics he would simply refer his interlocutor to Edgar Allan Poe’s essay “The Philosophy of Composition.”¹ There, famously, the American poet explained how “The Raven”—and by extension, all of his poetry—was conceived not in a state of “fine frenzy” but rather as an assembly of “wheels and pinions” and “with the precision and rigid consequence of a mathematical problem.”² During the creative...

    • Chapter Two Re-presenting Ravel: Artificiality and the Aesthetic of Imposture
      (pp. 41-62)
      Barbara L. Kelly

      Roland-Manuel’s words capture something of the elusiveness of Ravel’s legacy. This chapter assesses individuals and groups close to Ravel who had an important role in shaping his aesthetic and the public understanding of his music. The central figure in this process was Roland-Manuel—Ravel’s student, disciple, spokesman, and friend.¹ Roland-Manuel is frequently cited as his first biographer, but his role in influencing and writing Ravel’s legacy has not been scrutinized. Roland-Manuel’s efforts to relaunch the composer in pre- and postwar France amounted to an important, if subtle, repackaging of Ravel in the context of shifting postwar aesthetics. This study traces...

    • Chapter Three Adorno’s Ravel
      (pp. 63-82)
      Michael J. Puri

      It is not surprising that philosopher, sociologist, cultural critic, and musicologist Theodor W. Adorno (1903–69), steeped in the Western European art of his era, should have written about Maurice Ravel and his music.¹ What is surprising, is the insightfulness of this writing, given Adorno’s well-known devotion to the Austro-German repertory, a tradition with markedly different aesthetic priorities. It is not difficult to imagine reasons for these valuable texts having been overlooked for so long. For Adornians, they would likely have seemed insignificant and ephemeral when set alongside his voluminous writings on Beethoven, Wagner, Mahler, Schoenberg, Berg, and others. For...

  6. Part Two: Analytical Case Studies

    • Chapter Four Ravel’s Approach to Formal Process: Comparisons and Contexts
      (pp. 85-110)
      Peter Kaminsky

      Precious little has been written about Ravel’s approach to form. Even in works purporting to catalogue all the salient aspects of Ravel’s musical language, the discussion of form is conspicuously absent. For example, in Vladimir Jankélévitch’s well-known study of Ravel, the headings under his second section, “Skill,” comprise chapters entitled “Challenge,” “Artifice,” “Instrumental Virtuosity,” “Rhythms,” “Harmony,” “Modes,” and “Counterpoint.”¹ One possible reason is the widespread assumption that for Ravel, form means little more than the choice of a conventional vehicle with which to convey his innovations in harmony, orchestration, and sonority. As Charles Rosen notes, “[Ravel’s] musical forms are generally...

    • Chapter Five Repetition as Musical Motion in Ravel’s Piano Writing
      (pp. 111-142)
      Daphne Leong and David Korevaar

      In Ravel’s writing for the piano, the tactile dimension influences and sometimes determines aspects of musical structure. We consider physical motions—the gestures of the performer—as a dimension of musical structure in Ravel’s piano-centered writing, and demonstrate how the conjunction of physical and musical features produces distinctive units, which, repeated and varied, create characteristic qualities of musical motion.¹

      Consider the opening of Jeux d’eau (ex. 5.1), with its ascending right-hand arpeggiation requiring the fingering <1, 2, 4, 5>—a figure that is inspired in part by the way the hand lies on the keyboard.² This...

    • Chapter Six Playing with Models: Sonata Form in Ravel’s String Quartet and Piano Trio
      (pp. 143-179)
      Sigrun B. Heinzelmann

      Ravel’s advice to his students quoted above points to the central role that models played in his composing.¹ A composer arguably with little overt “anxiety of influence,” Ravel sought inspiration both in past conventions and in the innovations of his contemporaries. Ravel’s appropriation of baroque and classical forms implies both homage and provocation: playing with models, Ravel entices his listeners to place his creations in the lineage of the composers whose heritage he evokes while at the same time distancing himself from them. Jankélévitch’s assertion that “every composition by Ravel represents . . . a certain problem to be solved”²...

    • Chapter Seven Spiral and Self-Destruction in Ravel’s La valse
      (pp. 180-210)
      Volker Helbing

      In La valse two aspects constitutive of Ravel’s work converge in an ideal and characteristic manner: a tendency toward “distancing appropriation”—the ever-alienating incorporation of pre-found musical material into one’s own musical language—and the formal conception of the “spiral,” with its acceleration and intensification toward a final culmination. The work is to a large extent choreographically shaped with tendencies toward caricature, the fateful, and the (self-)destructive to a degree that is singular in Ravel’s oeuvre. This study will explore the aspects of distancing appropriation, spiral, and self-destruction.

      Repetition, circular motion, and dance shaped Ravel’s music at least since the...

    • Chapter Eight Diatonic Expansion and Chromatic Compression in Maurice Ravel’s Sonate pour violon et violoncelle
      (pp. 211-242)
      Elliott Antokoletz

      At the first performance of Maurice Ravel’s Sonate pour violon et violoncelle on April 6, 1922, some critics were shocked by what they referred to as a “massacre,” because of its supposed abundance of “wrong notes.” While this invective is incongruous with a work of such beauty and logic, the “wrong-note” conception nevertheless implies a certain “mischievous” quality that is manifested initially in the bimodal (minor/major) duality of the first movement. It is striking that the first movement of the Duo Sonata, published in La Revue Musicale on December 1, 1920, was followed by three more movements that were composed...

  7. Part Three: Interdisciplinary Perspectives

    • Chapter Nine Deception, Reality, and Changes of Perspective in Two Songs from Histoires naturelles
      (pp. 245-271)
      Lauri Suurpää

      This chapter analyzes two songs from Histoires naturelles (“Le paon” and “Le cygne”), focusing on the music, text, and musico-poetic associations. Histoires naturelles (1906), composed to poems by Jules Renard, provides a particularly interesting subject for an analysis of text-music relationships. Ravel’s own comments shed light on both his views of Renard’s poems and his ideals of text-music associations at the time of the cycle’s composition. Of the poems Ravel said that “the direct, clear language and the profound, hidden poetry of Jules Renard’s works tempted me for a long time.”¹ According to Renard’s journal, Ravel said that he had...

    • Chapter Ten Not Just a Pretty Surface: Ornament and Metric Complexity in Ravel’s Piano Music
      (pp. 272-305)
      Gurminder K. Bhogal

      By now it is a truism that Ravel’s piano music is better known among performers than scholars. While pianists continue to astound audiences with their mastery of lightning-speed repeated notes in “Scarbo” or seamless double-third glissandi in “Alborada del Gracioso,” the academic’s aloof intellectual response mimics little more than a disinterested yawn. The same old conundrum that hindered a serious investigation of Liszt’s piano works for several decades seems also to have haunted the critical reception of Ravel’s piano compositions: how can a piece that is thoroughly obsessed with its surface communicate anything more meaningful than an attention-seeking display of...

    • Chapter Eleven The Child on the Couch; or, Toward a (Psycho) Analysis of Ravel’s L’enfant et les sortilèges
      (pp. 306-330)
      Peter Kaminsky

      During World War I, Colette wrote a ballet scenario on a commission from Jacques Rouché, director of the Paris Opéra, who suggested Ravel as an appropriate composer.¹ A copy of the scenario was sent to the front, but Ravel neither received nor saw it until he returned from his service as an ambulance driver in 1918. Colette’s story, with its vivid depiction of the joys and especially the terrors of childhood, brimming with potent psychological overtones, dovetailed beautifully with Ravel’s lifelong attraction to themes of childhood, toys, machines, automata, and magic. With the rise of Les Six, a new generation...

  8. List of Contributors
    (pp. 331-334)
  9. Index
    (pp. 335-342)
  10. Back Matter
    (pp. 343-343)