Maurice Ravel: Rhapsodie Espagnole

Ravel has absolutely nothing to do with William Faulkner, but in my mind the two are linked through the M*** family (a family with kids my age who were all geniuses), I decided that I wanted to be as cultured as they. Indeed, my life’s mission became to turn myself into an intellectual. My plan was simple: to read great books, listen to great music, and pour over the works of great visual artists.

My older brother, Bob, supported my interests, and once told me about a book he had read in college by William Faulkner. It was “As I Lay Dying,” written in 1930, and he had read it in a college English course. He loaned me his copy to read, which I still have.

Anyone who has read this book knows how different it is from anything else. The plot centers around a poor family somewhere on a plantation in Mississippi. The mother, Addie Bundren, has died and the father and children are preparing to transport her in her coffin on a horse-drawn wagon to the family “plot” in “Jefferson.” The children have colorful names like Jewel, Darl, and Cash. And Pa is some sort of emasculated old coot. In short, it’s a sins-of-the father kind of allegory of a severely dysfunctional Southern family. Long before the self-help movement and the “inner-child” gurus on the PBS pledge circuit, people wrote works of literature to try to make sense of these issues.

What makes this book so special, however, was how Faulkner wrote it in stream-of-consciousness, and each chapter was told in the voice of a different character. Faulkner really pushed the limits here, at one point having the old dead lady narrate. Reading this was a real challenge for me, but since Faulkner had won the Nobel prize, I figured it was worth the trouble-it would make me “deep.” This reminds me of a funny story I heard when I lived in Naples, Italy and taught English. A friend told me that in the university of Naples, the English department, knowing that James Joyce was the greatest English novelist, had assigned Ulysses as the required reading for the first year English language courses.

Musicians know that you have to study and master techniques that have been developed through centuries of trial and error before you can become a proficient performer. Serious composers also see themselves not as breaking with the traditions of Western music, but building upon it. They study music theory. This is the way. Those who try to shortcut discipline and technique are doomed to an ephemeral popularity. Who draws a larger crowd these days: Johannes Vermeer or Andy Warhol? So for me to start my study of western literature with Faulkner was a bit of a waste. Still, this book did make an impact on me, and later, after having learned about narrative structure and stream-of-consciousness, it now makes sense.

The reason I associate it with Ravel’s Rhapsodie Espagnole is because I had checked an album of the composer’s works out of the library during the period I was reading As I Lay Dying.

I used to play my classical music records when I read up in an old blue mohair comfy chair in my room. At one point in the book, there is a very vivid description of how the characters struggle with moving the wagon across a shallow, swift-moving river at a ford. It just so happened that the first movement of the Rhapsodie Espagnole started at that point, and it just seemed to fit the scene so well.

The Rhapsodie Espagnole is in four sections. The first, “Prelude to Night,” begins with a four-note descending motif of F, E,D, C played over and over again by the violins. To me that sounded like water, the dark roiling waters of a swift moving stream. Ravel’s music, of course, with Debussy’s was labeled as “Impressionistic.” The subtle oriental sound, the focus on tonal color rather than melody, all of these convey the impressions created by nature. The middle two movements of the Rhapsodie Espagnole are “Malaguena” and “Habanera,” two Spanish dances that captured Ravel’s interest and which he captured using percussive instruments like castanets and tambourines-kind of revolutionary for the time. The last movement is called “Fiera”, which means “festival” and captures the excitement and passion of a festival at night.

You can’t get much further apart in culture than Faulkner and Ravel. Ravel always appeared impeccably dressed and critics describe his music as being meticulous. Faulkner’s characters are harsh, uneducated, and rooted to the earth. Yet Faulkner wrote about them in the narrative style developed by James Joyce and showed the complex human emotions that we all share. What an impression that made.


About kurtnemes
Writer and Education Professional. Specialties include Ethics, Personal Memoir, Classical music, Tai Chi, Stress Reduction, Meditation, Coping, Classical Music, Aging, Love, Joy, Compassion and Equanimity (& what interests me.)

One Response to Maurice Ravel: Rhapsodie Espagnole

  1. It’s a long time since I listened to this properly. Thanks.


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