Music Professor Examines Ravel, Modernism's Forgotten Sophisticate

March 19, 2012

Maurice Ravel was a French composer whose "decadent" aesthetic sensibilities shaped an important and often-overlooked contribution to his musical era, according to a new book by University of Virginia professor Michael J. Puri.

"Ravel the Decadent: Memory, Sublimation, and Desire," published on Feb. 27 by Oxford University Press, is a critical look at the under-noticed role Ravel's music played in the modernist movement, said Puri, an associate professor of music in the College of Arts & Sciences.

A graduate of Harvard, Yale, and the Music Academy in Basel, Switzerland, Puri is a musicologist and concert pianist who first encountered Ravel through his beautiful but technically challenging music for piano. Puri's research into Ravel grew beyond the piano music to include the composer's entire output. An article on Ravel's dandyism, which appears as a chapter in this book, received the Alfred Einstein Award from the American Musicological Society.

"I saw that there were gaps in the way historians accounted for late 19th- and early 20th-century music," Puri said. "Ravel's music remains very popular for classical musicians and audiences, but for various reasons he's been neglected in these narratives. It occurred to me that I had the opportunity to think new thoughts about a major repertoire."

Ravel is probably best known for "Boléro," a 1928 ballet and orchestral piece. Nevertheless, his aesthetic is rooted in the French literary "decadence," which flourished at the turn of the century and included such writers as the novelist Joris-Karl Huysmans and the poet Paul Verlaine. A "decadent," or highly ornamental but also sensual, approach to both music and life joined him to this larger artistic movement, Puri said.

"Decadence was a double-edged sword," he said. "On one hand the term had negative connotations. On the other, it was precisely those sorts of connotations that an avant-garde movement, coalescing since about 1880, was trying to transform or revalue in adopting this term to describe themselves."

By identifying Ravel as a decadent, Puri places him into a generation of artists – painters, writers and musicians who produced from the end of the 19th century through the years between World Wars I and II – concerned with both internal psychology and external aesthetics. Dandyism, or the adoption of a fashionable public persona that was an artistic expression in itself, was part of this movement.

"Ravel embodied the decadence in remaining a dandy his whole life," Puri said. "He always stood out for his attire – cravat, hat, suit, handkerchief, and so forth. He wanted to be distinct in and stylish every way: in his verbal and written language, in his person and in his music."

The musical dandyism of the day generally exhibited a lighter attitude toward life than music by composers who grappled in their work with weightier issues such as sin and redemption.

"Ravel's music is more superficial in some ways, but a dandy might say that it's deeply superficial," he said.

The book's examination of Ravel's musical work as a whole originated in his specific investigation of the ballet "Daphnis et Chloé," the composer's magnum opus which will enjoy the 100th anniversary of its premiere on June 8. In that piece, Puri identified three themes that would also shape his understanding of Ravel's music in general: memory, sublimation and desire.

Memory refers to the repetition of musical passages and Ravel's tendency to evoke nostalgia in his music. Sublimation describes his tendency to both elevate certain musical elements and to transform raw emotion into a more cultured or civilized version of itself. In the French society of which Ravel was a part, desire was "sublimated" into socially acceptable vehicles such as courtship rituals, which also appear in Ravel's music, Puri said.

To examine this music, Puri often used a methodology similar to that employed by other humanities scholars, he said.

"They will occasionally stop and look hard at particular passages," he said. "Literary critics, for example, will 'close-read' a few pages or even a few paragraphs within a longer verbal text. I also do close readings of musical passages where appropriate, and try to fit them into the larger interpretive framework formed by the guiding concepts of the book."

"Michael has been in the vanguard of an important re-evaluation of Ravel, and there is no one who interprets music within its cultural contexts with more sophistication than he does," said Richard Will, who chairs the McIntire Department of Music. "I expect that his book will shape the conversation on this important and popular composer for many years to come."

— By Rob Seal