New York: Welcome Rain Publishers. 2000. 229 pp.
Summary for the Busy Executive: Good, with reservations.
By now, Ravel has likely entered the Pantheon of Permanent Greatness,
and yet he hasn't attracted much scholarly or critical work. Debussy
is still the hotter ticket. Ravel has written some of the most beautiful
scores of the twentieth century - the two piano concerti, the mature
violin sonata, Gaspard de la nuit, the string quartet, Introduction et
Allegro, Ma mere l' Oye, L' Enfant et les sortileges, among many others.
Like many great composers, he creates a definite, personal artistic
space, one that you want to know better. Few writers have said much
illuminating about his art.
Ivry, a poet and a translator, can certainly write. He has probably heard
everything Ravel ever wrote, more, certainly, than I can say for myself.
Clearly, he loves Ravel and he writes about the music with understanding
and original insight, despite occasional elementary mistakes on the
technical side of music. For example, he points out the importance of
Pan to Ravel's artistic makeup, as well the centrality of sorcery and
magic in his work. Ivry links the latter to Ravel's Basque mother. He's
also especially good both on the meaning of Greece in late-nineteenth,
early-twentieth-century France and on Ravel's slightly different take.
This, thank goodness, is not a book aimed at specialists, although even
a specialist might get something out of it.
However, one finds mental speed bumps throughout. In a life of Ravel,
why is there no mention of his baptismal name, Joseph Maurice Ravel?
It's a small point, I admit, but the fact that Ivry didn't notice it was
missing strikes me as more than a little strange.
Then there's the question of the composer's sexual orientation. As a
matter of fact, there's no evidence that he ever had sex. He was discreet
to the point where his friends disagreed what his orientation could be.
Ivry takes this as repressed homosexuality. I should say I have no dog
in this fight. Yet consistently Ivry takes the word of those contemporaries
who agree with him and dismisses those who don't without ever offering
an argument - indeed, begging the question. Why Ivry dwells so much on
this indicates our current notions of the centrality of sexual orientation
to a person's life. This is actually a relatively new point of view.
To me, Ravel - with his fascination for toys, his dandyism, his
self-absorption, his attraction to the world of childhood, exotica, and
18th-century erotica - was essentially a child who never grew up. It
seems to me he feared sex, as many children do. Sex certainly bursts
forth in much of his work, but that, of course, is dealing with sex at
the remove of art. It seems to me far more promising - and even more
interesting, in this case - to investigate on the lines of what we
actually know. But Ivry is hipped on sexual orientation. He identifies
every major homosexual artist in his text, although (again curiously)
not the heterosexual ones, like a kid reciting the line-up of his favorite
sports team. Consider the following paragraph:
Another salon Ravel attended was hosted by Winnaretta Singer,
an American sewing-machine heiress and lesbian who had
married the gay Prince Edmond de Polignac. The Princesse
de Polignac later commissioned many fine composers, including
Stravinsky, Falla, and Milhaud.
Why is this information relevant? If it is relevant, why not rewrite
the last sentence to read "including the flamboyantly heterosexual
Stravinsky, Falla (closet coprophiliac?), and the
boringly-meat-and-potatoes-sexual Milhaud?" It's relevant if you consider
sexuality central to the artist, but let's face it: there are more
homosexuals in the world than there are homosexual artists who write at
the level of Ravel. Ravel's homosexuality (or whatever) doesn't set him
Nevertheless, as an introduction, this isn't a bad job. I would recommend
listening to Ravel's music while reading Ivry's descriptions.
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