La belle époque
‘Bliss was it to be alive.’
For a century the music of pre la belle époque was dominated by the Austro-German tradition. And in general terms, within the intellectual and cultural orbit three men were to change the face of the known world in three different but related direction – Karl Marx, Sigmund Freud and Albert Einstein – come to govern men’s thoughts and feeling about the world in which they lived and thrust deep probes into the future.
France needed to break free of the German musical umbrella, and especially from the all-pervading shade of Richard Wagner, but they only became ‘anti-Wagnerians’ by reflex, as it were. In the words of Erik Satie, spoken to Claude Debussy, it is not necessary to be ‘Anti-Wagner’ but it is necessary to abandon the ‘sauerkraut aesthetic,’ Ravel, even more than Debussy, was one who was foremost in removing the sauerkraut from the French musical menu.
If Debussy’s music is full of ‘mysterious effects’, that of Ravel is all clarity, linearity, objectivity, achieved through a subtle mixture of technical and aesthetic elements. Ravel found his aesthetic ideal in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries most notably in the French clavecinistes, headed by Francois Couperin, on the one hand and Mozart on the other. In certain respects the artistic development of Maurice Ravel parallels that of the poet W.B. Yeats, his senior by ten years in age but his near contemporary in aesthetic evolution. Yeats began to write poetry in a sensuous, romantic, subjective manner, then evolved after the 1914-18 war into a ‘modern style, embracing many of the ideals of the younger generation of poet sand winning their allegiance. Ravel was never as subjectively romanticist in this sense; yet he too showed a similar line of development, from the sensuous quality of restrained romanticism in his pre-1914 works to the deliberate, even at self-conscious ‘modernism’ of his later compositions from the 1920s and 1930s when he joined (though not welcomed), in the ranks of the young pretenders.
Paris in the 1920s
Since the death of France’s leading composer Claude Debussy (March 25, 1918), musical fashion was being set by a young group known as ‘Les Six’ — Darius Milhaud, Francis Poulenc , Arthur Honegger, Georges Auric, Louis Durey and Germaine Taileferre. They were given their collective name by Henri Collet in 1920, who enrolled under the banners of jean Cocteau and Erik Satie. Milhaud also gave them the name of the ‘Ecole d’Arceuil’ (a commune in the Val-de- suburbs of Paris), in tribute to the influence of Satie. There was a certain irony in this, since Satie had been an early champion of ravel and Ravel in his turn had helped to champion Satie’s return to the limelight after his dozen years of self-enforced obscurity. Yet Ravel was one of the French composers who had come into prominence in the pre-war years and was now regarded as over-refined, ‘post-Wagnerian,’ and generally démodé. Along with Debussy, ravel found his reputation on the shelf, himself misjudged and without much honor in his own country. It would not last; it did not last; but while it did last it helped to distort a number of important values and perspectives.
The cold-shouldering of Ravel and his music by the young ‘Les Six’ composers in the immediate postwar years is confirmed by many contemporary reports and by the published commentaries of the period. He was for the time being more honored and appreciated outside his own country than within it. The late Master of the Queen’s Musick, Sir Arthur Bliss, wrote in his autobiography, As I Remember—
When in 1919, I met Ravel in Paris I told him that his was the first ‘modern’ music I had ever known, and his slight answering shrug perhaps conveyed an ironic comment on my choice of words, the reaction against his works in favor of the ‘circus music’ of his juniors being very apparent at this time. My first affection for his music has never wavered. Some of his work may consist of trifles, but they are trifles fashioned with all the imagination and finish of a Fabergé ornament.
Ravel in fact again experienced a situation in close parallel with that of W.B. Yeats in poetry. Yeats, like ravel, found himself temporarily out of favor, somewhat ‘old hat,’ in the face of the new challenge on the one hand of the American T.S. Eliot—Ezra Pound development, and on the other of the younger Auden—Day Lewis—Spender—MacNeice group with their political and technical curiosity. And, also like Yeats, Ravel responded in kind. It perhaps fitted Ravel better than Yeats, if only because Ravel was by nature and temperament a ‘classicist’, in the true and merely journalistic sense, while Yeats remained at heart a Romantic, so that Herbert Read could not unreasonably write of his later work —
In spite of the romantic diction against which Yeats right reacted, I feel that it produces a unity of effect which, romantic as it is, is superior in force to the more definite, more classical diction of the later version . . . The old suit may have been shabby, but it was a good cut and even tone . . .
In the end, of course, both Ravel and Yeats come to be seen as more accurate and more profound representatives of the modern world and its currents of thought and feeling in its first decades than many of their morel obviously ‘contemporary’ juniors with their great technical agility and fashionable appeal. In the case of Ravel, if ‘Les Six’ caught the contemporary limelight, won momentary accolades, ultimately most of their music immediately attractive though it is, seems to belong to category of ‘circus music’ as Bliss (and in another context Sibelius also) defined it. There was in most cases evidence of too many overtones and not enough fundamentals.
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The idea for L’Enfant et les sortileges (The Child and the Spells) originated when the Director of the Paris Opéra, Jacques Rouchè, asked the celebrated writer Colette for a ballet scenario and suggested Ravel as the possible composer. This first came to light during the war years,
while Ravel was on active service. Agreeable in principle to the proposition, he awaited the arrival of the text, which Colette had provisionally entitled ‘Ballet pour ma fille’. In the confusion of the war, it never reached him. The first he saw of it was sometime in 1918. He took it with him to Mégève the following year when he began to think about it, but he did not make a start on the music until 1920. Rave; had known Colette and her first husband, Willy (Henri Gauthier-Villars), since the days of his youthful aspirations in the Paris of the 1900s. Colette herself wrote about Ravel and their early association towards the end of her life –
“Can I say that I ever really know him, my illustrious collaborator, the composer of L’Enfant et les sorilèges? I met Maurice Ravel for the first time at the house of Mme de Saint-Marceaux, who received guest every Wednesday evening after dinner. Those receptions in the Saint-Marceaux town house, forty years ago now, were not merely a diversion for the worldly and the curious; they were a reward granted to faithful music lovers, a higher form of recreation, the bastion of an intimate artistic world. Those two, not particularly large drawing rooms opening into one another were for a long time the place which set a final seal on the reputations of composers and virtuoso performers alike, for their mistress was a woman of great musical culture. In truth, Mme de Saint-Marceaux was far from being a celebrity hunter, yet the honor of being a regular at her Wednesdays was very much sought after . . .
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In Paris the ‘jazz influence’ was peripheral. Ravel, like all the younger French composers and some older non-ethnical French ones like Stravinsky, was attracted to the attracted to the superficialities of jazz but had only the vaguest idea at best of what true jazz was really about. He and they could see it only from the outside. Characteristically, Ravel greatly admired what was purveyed at the time as ‘symphonic’ jazz, the pseudo-jazz, that is, of Paul Whiteman and George Gershwin, which tended to be both pretentious and simplistic. The indigenous black music that crystallized into jazz appears historically to have been born in New Orleans and spread north to Chicago in the 1920s, but in fact it had already emerged in many varied forms all over the United States during the 1910s. Ravel himself visited the States in the 1920s and Darius Milhaud did hear some of the black Harlem bands in the immediate postwar period. But their contact with their ‘real thing’ remained superficial. Milhaud’s La Création du Monde is probably the most successful and idiomatic of the ‘jazz-inspired’ compositions of the Parisian 1920s; but even that is only successful in part, and in every sense inferior to the authentic jazz beginning to be created in America. The original Dixieland Jazz Band had created a sensation in London in 1919 and various jazz or pseudo-jazz bands had appeared in continental Europe