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Magician of Sound: Ravel and the Aesthetics of Illusion
by Jessie Fillerup
302 pp. University of California Press
Late in life the conductor Pierre Monteux inveighed against modern music to the Associated Press. After giving his hot take on the composers he believed would be cast into the trash heap of oblivion - among them Mahler, Bartók, and Shostakovich - he surprisingly added another composer whose music had been part of the backbone of his career.
“Probably one or two works by. . . Ravel will live. But when I play [his] works so many times, I see how [he] worked it.”
He then added ruefully: “You should not see the work when you hear it.”
Monteux’s remark, like that of a child disillusioned by learning how the magician’s act that had dazzled him only a moment before actually works, touches upon aspects of Ravel’s art which Jessie Fillerup explores in her Magician of Sound: Ravel and the Aesthetics of Illusion. In some respects, Ravel prefigured the neoclassicism of Igor Stravinsky—only whereas the point of the Russian’s works in that vein were to open up the music’s guts to the listener, the Frenchman’s was to obscure them.
Sergei Diaghilev famously said of Ravel’s La Valse that it was “not a ballet, but a portrait of a ballet.” The impresario got the facts right, but missed the point. Ravel’s music is an idealized vision of the thing, instead of the thing itself, Fillerup writes. In that brief historical moment between the twilight of Romanticism and the rise of the “New Objectivity” that was among the collateral consequences of trench warfare and rolling clouds of mustard gas, Ravel suddenly found himself awkwardly wedged between the old and new; one of the forgotten generation lost in the din of the 19th’s century equivalents of “Gen-X” and “Millennials.” Rather than swearing allegiance to either side, he maintained cordial relations with figures and trends on both, while carrying on with his own unique art.
Fillerup’s narrative takes a while to warm up. A quarter of the book is devoted to excessively long explanations of 19th century prestidigitation which could have benefitted from judicious pruning. But past this often tedious exposition, Fillerup takes her reader and soars. Her fascinating sub-section on Ravel’s ingenious use of the harp, for example, recalls the young Leo Arnaud’s remark to the composer.
“You should write a book on the harp,” he said. To which the composer shot back: “Why don’t you?”
As with everything he did, Ravel deployed this often magical-sounding instrument with fastidious care. His use of it, as Fillerup notes, constituted a virtual summation of the expressive and aural possibilities of the harp as they existed in his time, not to mention one of the many devices which the composer used to tip off the attentive listener to the musical sleight-of-hand taking place before their ears. The very obviousness of its deployment, she argues, obscured the clichés it traffics in.
“These effects, together with hushed dynamics, create an illusion of proximity and intimacy,” Fillerup writes of the orchestral sorceries Ravel conjured in the “Les Entretiens de la Belle et de la Bête” in his Ma mère l’Oye, “as if we are drawn to Sleeping Beauty’s glass coffin that we can see our breath on it.”
In Ravel’s most poignant moments—the “Menuet” from Le Tombeau de Couperin, the final cry of “maman” in L’Enfant et les sortilèges, or the “Chanson romanesque” in Don Quichotte à Dulcinée—the listener is made aware that their own breath is as much the subject as Sleeping Beauty’s coffin. They are musical illusions in which the participation of the listener is crucial; a simultaneous enactment and deconstruction of a magical trick, a sort of musical anticipation of Penn and Teller.
Echoing Monteux and turning his critique on its head, Fillerup later writes of Ravel’s art: “Come closer, now: You can almost hear the gears at work.”
Responding to a critic’s accusation that his music was contrived and superficial, Ravel said: “Has it not occurred to these people that I could be naturally ‘artificial?’” He added that as a composer he could “never have enough control.” Fillerup makes clear—in case Ravel’s music had not already done so—that its surface beauty was not only carefully prepared, but often has its own depth as well. The title of a recent bestselling book could have been Ravel’s motto: “design is storytelling.”