By Randy Anderson
Maurice Ravel found himself in a position that most artists can relate to. He knew he could create something of value, but at the time Claude Debussy's music was carrying all before it and Ravel wasn't interested in being part of the Debussy parade. The question was could Ravel carve out a place for himself in French music?
In Paul Roberts' new book "Reflections - the piano music of Maurice Ravel" we get a blow by blow account of Ravel's journey from being yet another talented pianist who wanted to compose to one of the leading lights of French Art an
d someone who's music was now inspiring the aging Claude Debussy - and we get this step by step transformation one keyboard work at a time.
In my radio program The Piano I often try to link the listener in a psychological way to the music by relating what the composer was going through at the time of its composition. Some artists are quite biographical in their works and Roberts gives us a good idea of the psychological landscape Ravel inhabited while creating each piece of music. He reports from letters, on friendships and poetry, normally the symbolist poets that inspired generations of French artists from the mid - nineteenth century through to the Second World War. The author reveals insights from pianists that studied with Ravel and what he passed on to them, such as the initial vision of Ravel provided by the great pianist of the mid twentieth century, Robert Casadesus who passes on what the composer said of his La vallée des cloches (the Valley of the bells) that it was not one bell sounding in a valley but of a metaphorical valley of buildings; this is Paris at noon when all the churches in earshot started ringing their bells and the sensation of those reverberant sounds - some loud and others far away overlapping and filling out the minimalist melodies that Ravel gives us. This is comprehension far beyond a mere translation of the works title.
One brutal insight into Ravel's personality comes out in Roberts' introduction to the book. Ravel ha
d strong views on the people who played his music. He wasn't interesting in having his music - interpreted. In an argument with Paul Wittgenstein the one armed pianist that commissioned Ravel's Concerto for the Left-hand, the performer was defending his re-writing of some passages as saying "Performers music not be slaves" to which Ravel retorted "Performers ARE slaves"; to Ravel literal slaves to the notes and the intent of the composer.
Maurice Ravel was one of the most closed mouthed artists of the day and while you can gain insight into the composer's personal life by reading "Reflections" one will get a better idea of Ravel by reading the new crop of biographies - in English that Roberts recommends in the books preface, like a new biography of the composer by Roger Nichols as well as his "Ravel Remembered".
This is one review copy I will keep and refer to in my up coming programs on the piano music of Ravel. Paul Roberts is just about the perfect writer for this task, a concert pianist and an expert in French music he also wrote "Images" about the piano works of Claude Debussy and after that thorough grounding brings us to that second peak of the French musical landscape in the twentieth century, Maurice Ravel.