London: Phaidon Press, Ltd. 1996.
Summary for the Busy Executive: Not bad.
Academics have sniffed at this biography as musically superficial
because it doesn't have any musical type in it. Apparently, no one has
told them that most people don't read music. The book aims squarely at
the intelligent general reader.
I like the fact that Larner emphasizes that Ravel was a composer.
This sounds obvious, but the number of composer biographies which ignore
that basic fact would amaze you. Indeed, many composers' lives and
personalities aren't much to write about. They spend most of their
day writing music or thinking about writing music. Therefore, authors
probably should focus on that music. Larner does this and thus wins
from me all kinds of points. He covers most of Ravel's output, major
and minor, in a general way, noting the circumstances of composition and
the general character of each piece. If you want deep appreciations and
insights into Ravel's music, look elsewhere, although Larner I believe
remains true to the spirit of each work.
Larner shines, however, in his consideration of Ravel's difficult,
enigmatic personality. Many recent Ravel bios have speculated about
his sexual orientation (see my review of Benjamin Ivry's Maurice Ravel:
A Life, for example) as if, first, they knew it and, second, it shaped
his art. Most of them do little more than beg the questions. Ravel
gripped the secrets of his personal life very tightly indeed. One finds
conflicting testimony about his sexual orientation. Poulenc, certainly
in a position to know and to invite confidences, was of the opinion that
Ravel was asexual, at least from the point that Poulenc knew him (Ravel
in his late forties or early fifties). However, almost everyone agrees
that he had no lasting romantic attachment, if any. Furthermore, I know
some people claim the ability to discern gay art - a kind of aesthetic
gaydar that gives them the ability to know the orientation of an artist
without knowing anything of the life - and at one time, I thought I had
that magical ability, when I was young and stupid. Consequently, I made
hilarious mistakes. Debussy, of course, was gay (all those perfumed
breezes!), while Copland was straight as a ramrod (an unfortunate image,
as it turns out). Eventually, as I learned more and read more, I came
to understand that sexual preference does not necessarily determine the
direction of one's art or, indeed, of one's life. Tchaikovsky, after
all, thought of himself not as a gay composer, but as a Russian one.
Make no mistake, however, it makes little difference to me whether Ravel
preferred men to women or vice versa. I'm interested almost exclusively
in the music he wrote and in a rounded portrait of his personality.
In addition to the usual Basque and Spanish elements, Larner emphasizes
the modernity of Ravel's music. Ravel's father, an engineer, took his
son to see his factories, and the boy fell in love with the sound of
machinery and with precision craftsmanship. While his music seldom
becomes as percussive as, say, Mossolov's Steel Foundry, machines flit
through many of his scores like ghosts. One thinks of the clock-shop
opening of L' Heure espagnole. Even the snare-drum rhythm in Bolero
Ravel himself associated with a factory, and the driving finale of the
G-major piano concerto sounds like factory noises sublimated.
Ravel fashioned his music from many sources: Chabrier, Faure, Debussy
(the influence here was mutual), Les Six, Stravinsky, and Schoenberg
(particularly Pierrot lunaire) among them. His basic method came down
to pastiche, and paradoxically he was never more himself than when he
was imitating - a style, a genre, etc. He worked slowly, as essentially
a miniaturist. Not one of his scores lasts longer than an hour. In
addition, long dry spells afflicted him most of his life. His sonata
for violin and cello, a neglected masterpiece, took him eighteen months
to complete. Yet he never doubted his calling, and he managed to write
large, substantial scores.
Larner gives you the broad outlines of Ravel's music and a balanced
idea of his personality. He examines the evidence on the composer's
sexual orientation and, like almost every researcher before him, concludes
that he hasn't enough to go on. He makes a stronger case for Ravel
as the adored child who never grew up - self-absorbed to the point of
narcissism, emotionally stunted in his life, though not in his art. He
also examines Ravel's troubled last years in detail. When I was young,
the standard story on Ravel was that he went insane. Larner makes a
case for the composer as having suffered a brain injury from a taxicab
accident. The injury took time to manifest itself. Eventually, Ravel
developed aphasia and lost his hand coordination to the extent that he
could no longer write music. In short, he was probably no crazier than
he ever was. For me, this book constitutes a good introduction to Ravel
for the general reader.
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