Books

Ravel the Decadent: Memory, Sublimation and Desire

spacer By Michael J. Puri
Oxford University Press; 272 pp. $24.95

Books Ravel Cover 1212

For Michael J. Puri, Ravel's works have the rhetorical precision of the written word. He finds in them not just inspired, elegantly crafted music but aesthetic statements as specific as those in poetry, fiction and philosophy. This allows him to position the composer as a literary figure in the line of the Decadents of the late nineteenth century — Verlaine, Mallarmé, Baudelaire. 

The paradoxical sadness of the music for the sex farce L'Heure Espagnole,Puri writes, shows that "the opera is founded in a decadent experience of time as an existential prison." But the writer whose work most convincingly correlates with Ravel's, as Puri presents it here, is not one of the previous generation's Decadents but the composer's near-contemporary Marcel Proust. Like the novelist's epic Remembrance of Things Past,Ravel's works often explicitly describe the workings of memory — the fleeting shards of melody, echoing from the previous century, assembling themselves into the Dionysian strains of La Valse; the vision of arcadian Greece rising out of the mist at the opening of Daphnis et Chloë. A recurring theme in the Sonatine conjures "the image of a collector who is holding the past up to the light of memory and turning it slowly, making its amber glow and scintillate." The Malagueña of Rapsodie Espagnole, says Puri,"[brings] to mind the common trope in visual media that places the face of the rememberer at the center of our vision while surrounding it with a hazy wreath of emotions." The nostalgic strain in so much of the music suggests Proust's observation that "the true paradises are the paradises we have lost." 

The book takes in nearly Ravel's entire oeuvrebut pays special attention to Daphnis,the composer's largest-scale work: scarcely a measure remains unexamined. Puri presents the androgynous hero as an embodiment of the archetypal Decadent figure of the dandy, especially in the languorous "Danse légère et gracieuse." And he demonstrates how the hour-long work, much of it spun out from a small kernel of themes stated in the Introduction, represents an act of "involuntary memory" — the musical equivalent of a tea-soaked madeleine.

This densely argued book is not an easy read. Puri's exhaustive musical analysis demands concentrated attention, with scores and recordings at hand. Moreover, the author writes like an academic, sometimes to murky effect. He sees no reason to use a word like "insertion" if "intercalation" is available, and he seems to think that "retrospect" is a verb. But his insights into the music's behavior often reward the hard work. I am not thoroughly convinced that he pulls off his central argument about the rhetorical implications of Ravel's music, but Puri's thoughts about the works themselves are consistently provocative and convincing. It is a book that will let you hear the composer with fresh ears. spacer 

FRED COHN 

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Current Issue: January 2015 — VOL. 79, NO. 6