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Composer of the Week: Maurice Ravel

This week we are taking a look at one of the 20th century’s greatest and most enigmatic musical voices. Maurice Ravel composed what, by some metrics, is the world’s most performed musical work. He developed a musical style that fused his own western tradition with oriental influences. He even maintained a Japanese garden at his home. In Ravel you can hear the distinctly western obsession with artificiality and mechanism, suffused with far eastern pentatonic ambiance. He himself called his Bolero “orchestration without music” – an assessment with which I agree (you can listen to it below – I’m sure you will recognize it). A similar idea looms in his famous La Valse, in which we hear the chaotic death of the civilization of the machine, the civilization we know as “western”, through whose uninspiring denouement we are currently living in the 21st century.

You might be getting the impression that I dislike Ravel. This isn’t the case. When I listen to Ravel I see the tragedy of late Faustian (Germanic) man turning into farce. I’m reminded of that Irish mystic Yeats: Ravel, even as a young man, is old and tired, a tattered coat upon a stick. If you listen very closely to Ravel, you will hear fleeting moments of staggering beauty that rush away as you pursue them. Like Marcel Proust, it’s pointless bothering with Ravel until you’re old enough to know you aren’t immortal. As a youngster I cut my teeth on Jeux D’eau and Gaspard de la Nuit, two pieces of music that redefined the pianoforte, and defined my engagement with the culture in which I grew up, as an alien. I also appreciate Ravel’s acerbic wit and the love he bore for his friends (more on these later).

Maurice Ravel and the World of Film

So far, you might also be unsure how all of this ties into our film composer theme. Well, it does, but obliquely. Ravel did write a song cycle for a 1933 film about Don Quixote, but the songs were not used for the film. Instead, what connects Ravel to the art of film is this IMDB page, which lists over 240 credits for Maurice Ravel. This means that 240 films, TV series and animations use Ravel’s music. This is a testimony to the cinematic quality of his work. In this article we will look at one of Ravel’s greatest works (which you probably haven’t heard of) that featured in a film you’ve definitely heard of. We will also see a performance I staged with some of South Africa’s finest musicians in Pietermaritzburg.

The Pavane for a Dead Princess, and Batman

In 1899 AD, Ravel composed his Pavane pour une infante défunte – a pavane for a dead princess. A pavane is a European dance genre of the early modern period. It seems to have originated in Spain, as a stately dance of noble couples. Pavanes are generally quite sombre and not ornate. There is a kind of brooding seriousness and sensuality to Spanish music – we’ve touched on this before. While this piece is not about any particular princess, it evokes a Spanish princess of a previous era. Ravel himself claimed that he added the words “dead princess” entirely for effect, and upon hearing a pianist play it too slow for his liking, he reminded him that it was not a “dead pavane for a princess”.

This nostalgia for a hallowed Spanish past is something Ravel shared with other composers in the impressionist school and probably has something to do with his basque mother. Nevertheless, this is an amazing piece of music. About ten years after writing it for piano, Ravel wrote an arrangement for orchestra. A century or so after that, this orchestral arrangement found its way into The Dark Knight Rises (2012 AD). I think the brooding, sardonic character of Batman is a rather good analogue for Ravel, and the piece features in the movie in a very unsettling way. It’s a ballroom scene with a masked woman who is, unsurprisingly, up to no good.

 Chansons madécasses 

Ravel wrote his “Madagascan songs” in 1925 AD. The work uses poems by the French poet de Parny. The poems are about Madagascar and reflect the colonial French encounter with the Malagasy people, with all the predictably florid exaggeration and distortion that entails. This is extremely frivolous, libertine music, right up until the very end of the third movement, where the word arbres (“trees”) coincides with a shift to B double flat in the piano. Every time I hear or play this, I enter a deep silence. Ravel, artificer, sorcerer, gives way momentarily to Ravel, the man.

I had the enviable opportunity to play this whole song cycle with some of South Africa’s premier musicians: Nigel Fish (cello), Theo Venter (flute) and the inimitable Ronel Perks (soprano). I took the piano part and I got to play on a gorgeous Steinway. We performed in Pietermaritzburg, where Louis Napoleon, Prince Imperial, once sojourned. South Africa truly is a bizarre place.

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