Saturday, November 15, 2014

On the disconcerting klutziness and greatness of Maurice Ravel's Pavane, etc.

Recently, I've woken up and gone to sleep with Ravel's music on my mental music player, (formerly known as one's memory). These memories drove me to seek videos of some of my favorite compositions by Ravel, The Left Hand Concerto in D and Pavane pour une infante defunte. I used to compose left hand piano music and loved some of Ravel's works for many years. At the same time, I have to say I'm no musicologist and I was never even a very good musician though I did sometimes entertain friends and small audiences of strangers on the piano. That said, it has always seemed to me that Ravel lacked a power of musical imagination that one finds far more effusively expressed in Mozart or Debussy—they never seem to run out of great musical ideas, phrases, and sentences. They always have more to say that makes sense, and the ideas follow with a fluidity and inevitability. Such imaginative genius can find or invent new musical ideas everywhere and in everything. On the other hand, Ravel seems to very obviously (even embarrassingly) run out of ideas sometimes.

In his famous Pavane, he works through some profoundly beautiful variations on one simple theme—it is so poignant that it is truly unforgettable. But then after doing that over and over for a while, it feels like he really just runs out of ideas! The B section that follows does not really stick together very well or even make sense. It even sounds klutzy, confused and confusing. I've heard many great pianists struggle to make this B section make sense. At best, it is bearable, but one really just waits for it to end. Fortunately, it doesn't last that long, and then the theme from the first part returns in an even more gorgeous variation. So the greatness is really undeniably there, and it reasserts itself.

One has to wonder why he could not find a more worthy second theme, something at least a little memorable. Perhaps it was wisdom or perhaps it was simple despair to accept the fact that he just could not invent or discover a second theme anywhere nearly as good as the first theme.

In retrospect, to be able to accept that inner failing and to lurch bravely forward is a very humane way to go on. He was kinder to himself than many other composers would have been. Somehow, I think we forgive him as listeners. We don't listen to Ravel for the same reasons we listen to Mozart, whose genius can shine so magnificently all the time that it is awe inspiring. We can still remember and love those parts of Ravel that ring the most true to our feelings.

The Left Hand Concerto in D has a less obvious flaw in its "great" cadenza, and many people may disagree with me on this. But to me it seems as though he spent so much energy trying to make one left hand sound like two hands that he did not really develop the melody very much or very far. He manages to create a very powerful and beautiful series of effects with some of the longest and fastest arpeggiated passages anywhere in piano literature. After he establishes the methods of his techniques, he does make it sound very powerful, convincing, and engrossing. But then it seems like he just runs out of ideas again! So we get all the ingredients for a great cadenza, and then he closes it out with a big orchestral bang. So it is a little disappointing musically, but one cannot deny that there is still greatness there, even if just for a few brief moments.

The story around this concerto may explain why people love it so much—Paul Wittgenstein, the pianist and brother of the very famous philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, lost his right arm in WW I, and this piece was commissioned by him. The fact that Wittgenstein was playing at that level at all with one hand was a triumph, and to keep this almost "magical" series of technical feats going too long might have seemed a little like tempting the fates or torturing a musician who had already seen more than enough suffering. So there is that sense of the humane acceptance of one's limitations again.

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