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Reviewed by:
  • Ravel the Decadent: Memory, Sublimation and Desire
  • Edward Campbell
Ravel the Decadent: Memory, Sublimation and Desire. Michael J. Puri. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011. Pp. viii + 264. $24.95 (cloth).

Ravel the Decadent: Memory, Sublimation and Desire is a substantial and highly original monograph in which author Michael J. Puri argues that Ravel’s music is not only steeped in the decadent, a term that he defines with great care, but that a number of the composer’s most significant musical scores are finely wrought narratives focusing on the themes of memory, sublimation, and desire. Puri suggests that these terms, taken together, form a novel conceptual lexicon which may complement rather than replace more commonly used terms in Ravel studies.

The study subtly contextualizes Ravel’s output in relation to a number of historically contemporary movements in aesthetics, and Puri draws profitably on the composer’s writings, correspondence, and interviews, as well as the work of Ravel scholars past and present. Once identified, the concepts of decadence, memory, sublimation, and desire are situated historically within contemporary culture and become the focus of Puri’s close readings of some of the composer’s most important scores.

Central to Puri’s research is the thesis that Ravel’s music is ”indebted to the Decadence” that was prominent in France and throughout the rest of Europe in the late nineteenth century (4). His study works through a number of key aspects of decadence that he identifies within Ravel’s music, and he suggests that these aspects have previously been eclipsed by the categories of impressionism, symbolism, and neoclassicism. He presents an impressive and brilliantly economical digest of what “decadence” means, synthesizing a great deal of information in lucid and eloquent language. The writing oscillates between close-ups and distance-shots to present a constantly shifting dialectic of general summaries balanced by passages providing necessary detail.

Puri’s distinctive reading, drawing variably on insights culled from hermeneutics, Freudian psychoanalysis, phenomenology, and narrative studies, situates itself on the cusp of musicology and memory studies. The author does an excellent job providing valuable and interesting cultural histories of his chosen key concepts and their originators, among whom are Freud, Bergson, and Proust. Detailed analyses of pertinent aspects of the scores provide close readings of the musical works, again without demanding specialist knowledge, and the effect is an impressive fusion of theoretical insight and musical analysis.

Puri suggests that ”every piece by Ravel is arguably inflected by decadent aesthetics” (14). Sublimation, desire, and the sublimation of desire are related, in Ravel’s case, to Mallarmé, and Ravel’s dandyism is attributed in general terms to the influence of Baudelaire. Memory is studied in relation to Proust’s voluntary and involuntary memory, Bergson’s pure memory and habit memory, and Pierre Nora’s lieu de mémoire (site of memory). Puri develops his own methodology, musical mnemoanalysis. Ravel’s Sonatine is identified as ”a turning point” in his poetics of memory (52), and such is the success of the method that Puri goes on to consider the possibility that “all contextual repetitions might be conceived of as memories” (23). Consequently, Puri [End Page 809] uses the remainder of the book to apply this central insight to the String Quartet, Introduction et allegro, Rapsodie espagnole, Daphnis et Chloé, Valses nobles et sentimentales, and La valse.

The analyses that follow are sensitive and varied, drawing out innumerable, subtle insights along the way. Ravel’s predilection for cyclic form is discussed in relation to the Sonatine in terms of the recurrence of the ”contextual past,” the reiteration of the musical idea in a new place within the work, and the recurrence of the ”historical past,” which pertains to the work’s associations with eighteenth century music. Puri suggests that the ”moment of recollection” in the menuet is redolent of ”psychological interiority” (26) while the finale produces a case of ”second-order memory” (27). He goes on to trace the employment of ”thematic cyclism” in a number of Ravel’s finales, with repetition equated variably with ”recollection,” ”gentle reminiscence,“ and ”an active, even voracious appropriation of the past” (35). Of the Rapsodie espagnole, Puri suggests that ”the many differences...


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