- Irony and Sound: The Music of Maurice Ravel
The year 2010 marks the thirty-fifth anniversary of the publication of Arbie Orenstein's biography of Maurice Ravel, an indispensible resource to which any new study will inevitably be compared (Ravel: Man and Musician [New York: Columbia University Press, 1975; reprint, New York: Dover, 1991]). Orenstein's seamless integration of historical background, biographical insight, and stylistic analysis makes his book, if not the first Ravel biography in English, then arguably the most accessible. The unwavering popularity of Ravel's music and concurrent growth of scholarly research has not, however, erased significant lacunae, including the absence of a complete works edition. Crucial aspects of Ravel's meticulous art remain elusive or underappreciated.
Stephen Zank's new study proposes to re-examine Ravel's oeuvre through the lens of irony, a topic more commonly associated with literary theorists than music historians. While Ravel himself was reticent to use the term, his colleagues were not, and Zank locates numerous references to Ravel and the [End Page 335] ironic; one notable example comes from French politician Jean Zay, who stated at Ravel's funeral that the composer possessed the "weapon of irony" (p. 1). Rather than employ a chronological or genrebased approach, Zank supports his comments with an eclectic selection of examples drawn from across Ravel's creative life, demonstrating how the music consistently thwarts expectations regarding harmony, form, instrumentation, timbre, and other elements. There is no claim at comprehensiveness. Zank's obvious penchant for instrumental music means that Ravel's vocal works, with a few notable exceptions, receive comparatively less attention.
Starting from the premise that scholarly investigation of Ravelian irony remains terra incognita, Zank writes that "the present study cannot be about irony writ large, or about musical irony per se, but rather about retracing Ravel's music in view of contingent influences acknowledged frequently by him (and many others)" (p. 16). He interprets Ravel's initial interest and eventual refusal to join the National League for the Defense of French Music as ironic, calling the group "a rather unrecognized event in French musical history" (p. 21). While more work needs to be done regarding Ravel's political inclinations, scholars including Jane F. Fulcher—never cited by Zank—have explored Ravel's ambivalence towards the League and advocacy for both Jewish artists and contemporary music in general (see Fulcher, "The Preparation for Vichy: Anti-Semitism in French Musical Culture Between the Two World Wars," Musical Quarterly 79, no. 3 [Fall 1995]: 458–75). In 1927, for example, Ravel invited Schoenberg to present his works at a concert of the Société Musicale Indépendante, a bold gesture considering the ban on Austro-German music advocated by French conservatives.
At its core the book contains five chapters centered on Ravel's use of dynamics, counterpoint, registration, the exotic, and multisensory perception—topics that frequently intertwine, despite clear chapter divisions. After describing Ravel's use of crescendo as "multifaceted," (p. 41), Zank considers how the composer defies conventional paradigms in several works, chiefly the piano concerti, Jeux d'eaux, Shéhérazade, and La valse. Zank's analyses are dense, requiring a high level of analytical acumen, and despite the presence of copious music examples, readers are advised to have complete scores close at hand. Some assertions are puzzling and flimsily supported, including his assessment of the recapitulation in the opening movement of the Concerto in G Major as "enigmatic" (p. 54). In fact, this moment, with its downbeat on the dominant followed by a fanfare-like presentation of the main theme, fortissimo, is one of Ravel's clearest examples. Zank also overlooks the likely influence of Gershwin—and especially Rhapsody in Blue, premiered eight years before—on the "highly unusual Romantic vein" (p. 56) of the concerto.
The significance of counterpoint in Ravel's music has been little explored, despite its crucial role in the musical training he received at the Conservatoire. Mirroring...