Modest Mussorgsky-Maurice Ravel: “Great Gate of Kiev” from Pictures at an Exhibition

Writing about music worries me. I have virtually no credentials as a musician or music journalist. My experience studying and producing music amounts to: one year of playing clarinet in sixth grade band, three years of choir in middle school, a semester of piano in college, two years of violin with my first daughter beginning at age 39 and one year of studying guitar with my second daughter in my late forties. Oh yes, I almost forgot–in high school I taught myself to play “Camptown Races,” “Oh, Susannah!,” “Swanee River,” and the Polish national anthem on the harmonica. Truth be told, however, I have trouble naming the notes on the treble clef.

What’s more, I am scared to perform. That fear goes back to my sixth grade band experience and the clarinet. I got stuck with the clarinet, which was a hand-me-down from my sister who had played it in high school. I hated it for a very simple reason-I could not read music. Someone in my family decided I didn’t need private, lessons. “Oh, it’s an easy instrument,” I remember someone saying. “He’ll pick it up in band class.”

Needless to say, I didn’t. Band class became a daily humiliation as my classmates, many of whom did have private lessons, quickly outstripped me. I soon started inventing strategies to get out of playing-forgetting to bring my instrument to school or feigning a head or stomach ache. One particularly humiliating day, when I “forgot” my clarinet, my music teacher told me to substitute for the bass drum player who was out sick that day. The music started. I picked up the drumstick and started beating out a rhythm. Unfortunately, it had nothing to do with the march everyone else played. The teacher furiously tapped the podium with his baton and said:

“Kurt! What are you doing?”

“I don’t know. Following along?”

“Following along?” he asked. “Where? Look at the music.” I squinted at the page on the stand in front of me. It might have been a mess of dots and lines as far as I was concerned. Mark Balin, on the snare drum next to me, came to my rescue. He pointed to the bass line.

“See it?” he asked.

“Yes!” I said, smiling and nodding at the teacher, who picked up the baton and gave the downbeat to start again. I think I was even worse and everyone laughed. Fortunately the teacher, who was a nice man, indicated I could return to my seat. It was degrading, sure, but oddly enough the trauma did not kill my appreciation for all music–just band music. Especially anything with horns, since they were always the best–and noisiest players.

What’s funny for me now, is that I didn’t realize until writing this piece to day that this incident resulted in my dislike for most brass and band music. Baroque trumpet concertos send me up the wall, and I usually walk the other way at Christmas time when some brass quintet sets up in the nearby shopping mall and butchers some sacred carol.

Freudian psychologists say that all you have to do is realize the true root of your neurosis and it will suddenly evaporate. To test that, I tried dusting off a few old disks that I heard in high school to see if the truth had, indeed, set me free. The piece I chose was Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition. In high school this piece was “rediscovered” in a way when the rock group, Emerson, Lake and Palmer did a synthesizer-based version of the Pictures. Though it captivated hordes of screaming adolescents in the early 1970s, thankfully ELP’s version has been allowed to die a quiet death.

While written for piano by the composer, the symphonic version that you hear now was actually orchestrated by Maurice Ravel, about forty years after Mussorgsky’s death. The orchestral piece starts out with a rousing brass section that represents the general impression the composer had walking into an exhibition of paintings by his friend, a little-remembered artist named Victor Hartmann. I am pleased to say that though sometimes a bit brooding, there are some quite memorable melodies in this piece. And though the opening phrase is much quoted, to the point of being a bit hackneyed, it still is good for rousing the spirits.

A couple of weeks ago, I was in Kiev and went to visit the Great Gate, which is the selection above. It’s a reconstruction and sits at the edge of a delightful park with a fountain surrounded by cafe under chestnut trees. He’s a snapshot:



So my little test seems to have proved Freud correct. Mussorgsky has cured me. My fear of brass music, caused by childhood performance anxiety has all but evaporated. I’m a changed man. Still I have to tell you, I’m not going to push my luck, so I’ll leave the Canadian Brass for another day

Maurice Ravel: Bolero

The comedian, Rich Hall, in his book of made-up words, Sniglets coined the term “Deja Video” for that uncanny feeling you have when you turn on a show that you’ve only watched once before and it turns out to be the same episode. Today, I have come up with a term like that for classical radio stations called “Deja Bolero.”

About 10 years ago, The Washington Post ran an article about how the local classical stations have “dumbed down” their play lists to be less experimental and, hence, less challenging to the listener. I think one of the station managers said something like, “who wants to be stuck in Beltway traffic with Stockhausen?” No argument there. Stations programmers have to fill over 100 hours a week, fifty two weeks a year, so there must be repetitions. And they have to hold their audience. But there must exist some kind of happy medium.

By now, Bolero has been etched into the neural pathways of almost every living being, and perhaps that is why you never get tired of it. It is like the air we breathe, and I’m sure I had heard it about a hundred times before learning its name. For a long time, oddly enough, I thought it was called Victory At Sea and here’s why.

My mother was 40 when I was born. After I turned five, she started taking swim lessons. Then she went on to get her Water Safety Instructor certificate, taught life saving and swim lessons, finally becoming an expert in teaching children to swim. She got a job at the YMCA teaching all those plus aerobics and was a life guard to boot.

She worked every day at the Y and every day after work, my father would drive me there for swim team practice. (All of us Nemes’ swam competitively.) On Fridays, we stayed for family swim, which she guarded, and there I’d meet my cousins and play water football for hours.

One of the perks of being the life guard’s son was that you got to dress and shower in the guards’ office. This was a cool room because it had lots of swimming paraphernalia, magazines, and a stereo for playing relaxing music during adult swim. Many of the albums consisted of popular disks like the soundtrack to The South Pacific and early 60s Hawaiian kitsch like Quiet Village which had a fiery track I loved called “Hawaiian War Chant.”

One evening after family swim, Mom let us stay to swim and she put on one record that really caught my attention. The track in question started out with snare drums and percussion imitating the sound of Morse code. It then launched into an almost-hypnotic section that built to a huge climax. The album turned out to be the sound track from Victory at Sea.

Looking back now I see this as a work of kitsch of epic proportions. Imagine a dance of seduction somehow turned into a militaristic war hymn. What was the subtext? Love is war?  War is sexy?  Sex is war?

To act like I was outraged at the time is a conceit of hindsight. As an adolescent, I thought it was dead good. Later as I got started listening to more and more serious music I found that many classical themes had been pirated left and right by popular composers. For example, Tchaikowski’s Piano Concerto Number 1 was warped into “Tonight We Love.” If classical musicians like Copland and Bartok can use popular themes in their music, why can’t the reverse hold true? Of course there are limits: Gilbert O’Sullivan’s “All by Myself” which perverts a beautiful melody from one of Rachmaninoff’s piano concertos.

If the play Amadeus had even a shred of truth in it, Mozart didn’t object to his librettist, Emanuel Schikaneder, using melodies in Die Zauberflote in a spoof of his opera, so why should I object to cross-overs from classical to pop? Cross-overs could also be cross-fertilizations that end up sprouting into new interests and ideas. So here’s a toast to Ravel’s Victory at Sea, er Bolero and please pass the bullets.

Post Script: Recently, I heard this podcast on, which looks into the the repetitive nature of the piece, and suggests it might be because Ravel had what some researchers have suggested was Alzheimers.

Listen to “Unraveling Bolero” on Radiolab


Maurice Ravel. Alborada del Gracioso

I chose today’s piece to accompany a travelogue (continued below) about my hitchhiking trip from Paris to Barcelona in 1977. I thought it was appropriate to chose a Spanish-inspired piece by a French composer. Coincidentally, I just discovered that Ravel was born near the Spanish border to a mother who was Basque. Ravel wrote Alborada del Gracioso in 1912 first for piano, later scoring it for orchestra. The piece comes from a set of five pieces called “Miroirs” (Mirrors).

This piece starts out with a quick dance that sounds so very Spanish that it’s almost a caricature. It has a little dark under-current however that balances the light-heartedness. The second section, becomes more brooding and then launches off into a wonderfully rich and expressive passage that reminds me of his other two works, Gaspard de la Nuit and Le Tombeau de Couperin. Throughout, Ravel manages to intersperse little Spanish-sounding flourishes between these incredibly intricate and complex rhythms and harmonies. At 6 minutes, it’s a mini-tour de force.

Ravel Biography

Making it To Spain

Last week I described the first two days of a hitchhiking trip from Paris to Barcelona, Spain the week before Easter in 1977. There were three of us on this journey-Ingeborg, a dour but cute girl from Germany, Chris, a free spirit from California, and myself, a green soul from northern Indiana.

The first night, we got as far as Lyons, and the second night a trucker gave us dinner and a place to sleep in his house in the town of Avignon. The third day saw the three of us, thumbs out and loaded with backpacks standing on a bridge in Avignon looking over the famous, Pont d’Avignon.
In first grade, I participated in two experiments. The first was a test of fluoridated toothpaste. We got free toot brushes and special red dye pills to chew after we brushed our teeth. The dyes in the pills stuck to and showed off any bits of food we might have missed.

The discovery that fluoridation stops cavities came too late for me however and most of my molars are filled with an amalgam of mercury and silver. My daughters, on the other hand, are 13 and 10 and have never had the pleasure of having a man with a mask spread your jaw and thrust in a whining, high-speed drill. My parent wouldn’t pay for novocaine, and the remembrance of pain past still sends shivers down my spine.

The second experiment was an hour or two a day of French language and culture classes. Children are genetically programmed to learn languages during a developmental window and you can expose them to any language, or any 2, 3, 4, 5, 10 or 20 languages during time period and they’d develop native fluency. By the time they hit their teens however people lose the ability and then it becomes difficult to learn them to that level of proficiency. In my classes, we learned some songs–“Bring a Torch, Jeanette Isabella,” and “Sur le pont d’Avignon.” So as I stood hitchhiking on that cold dreary morning on the bridge at Avignon, that song was running through my head.

We got a series of rides that day that took us through the fertile fields of the south, through the towns of Nimes, Montpellier, Beziers and as far as Perpignan near the French and Spanish frontier. I particularly liked the country-side: the plowed fields, shrouded in late spring fog, the stony brown earth, the long rows of plane trees that lined the driveways up to the old stone farm houses. Once I saw two men, pruning the plane trees along a drive. Over the years, the owners had topped the trees at about 15 or 20 feet and completely cut off all the branches. Every year the trees would send out a set of long straight shoots which would form a perfectly round nimbus of leaves–very symmetrical and very French. Every year, the men would come and snip the previous year’s shoots and pile them up to be made into brooms. The trunks of the trees had become fat from this shaping and looked like huge, pudgy sausages stuck in the ground.

Between Montpellier and Beziers, I saw a sign for the town of Sete. The semester before, I had read a famous poem by the literary hero of that town, Paul Valery. The poem was entitled “Le cimetière marin” or “Marine Cemetery”(read here). It paints an almost impressionistic tableau with words of a view overlooking a field studded with sun-bleached stones and colored by the blood red Mediterranean poppies with the cobalt blue of the sea in the background.

A guy in a BMW sporting a grizzly beard took us as far as the Spanish border and left us there. We walked out of France and found ourselves in a little duty-free city, where the shops sold nothing but cigarettes and booze at ridiculously cheap prices. Somehow we made it to Barcelona that night and found a pension by the train station, near the port. I was quite excited to be in this country of Salvador Dali, Luis Bunuel and, of course, Pablo Picasso. But I was also amazed that we had reached our goal of hitchhiking from Paris to Barcelona and that I had not been eviscerated and left for dead by some axe-murderer.

Maurice Ravel: Pavane Pour une Infante Defunte

Ravel’s Pavane Pour une Infante Defunte is one of his most well known and lovely pieces. There are two versions of it–one for piano and one for orchestra. Pavane means a kind of slow processional dance, and Ravel’s is “for a dead princess.” Ravel did not write the piece for anyone in particular, though he had a patron named, Winaretta Singer, heiress to the Singer sewing machine fortune, and who was a princess by marriage to one Prince Edmond de Polignac. The word “infante,” refers to the child of a Spanish monarch, the French word for child being “enfante.” Ravel wrote the piece while studying music under Gabriel Faure at the Paris Conservatory. At the time, things Spanish were the vogue in Paris, and he wrote it to evoke the pleasant emotions of things Spanish in general and the the sounds that the word infante had on him in specific.

Ravel wrote the Pavane for piano, but it has also been scored for orchestra and string quartet. A search on youtube revealed a version for four harps as well. Though Ravel later thought of this early work as immature and poorly executed, it remains a favorite–its haunting, gentle melody as touching as Debussy’s Claire de la Lune.

When Ravel performed the work on piano, he played it much more slowly than other interpreters. Yet when he heard plodding versions of it, he reportedly quipped: “it’s a pavane for a dead princess, not a dead pavane for a princess.”

I hadn’t heard this piece for a long time, but coincidentally, a friend of mine who is a cellist performed it with his string quartet a couple of nights ago at a fund raiser for the Duke Ellington School for the Performing arts in Washington, DC. What it invokes in me, is the memory of a man named Josef and his daughter, whom I met in 1977 while hitchhiking from Paris to Barcelona (described below).

Pavane for a Truck Driver’s Daughter

Ingebord, Chris and I had left Paris the day before and had only gotten as far as Lyons, just about half way to the Mediterranean. There we had not been received with open arms by the former dorm mate of mine from the French House, where I lived in college. He had acted upset at my calling so late. This was back in 1977, when life in France was a bit slower and people had the luxury of going to sleep at nine o’clock in the evening.

We left Lyons a bit groggy-eyed. Fortunately the rain had let up and the sun warmed us a bit as we stood by the side of the road and stuck our thumbs out. I cannot remember all the rides we had that day, but I do remember the last one. A fairly genial young man, maybe in his late twenties to mid thirties, picked us up in his big moving van. He had fairly long hair, wire-rimmed glasses, and soft features. Back then in France I remember being struck at how people seemed to have a number of well defined class and socio-economic roles. These weren’t necessarily seen as bad. In fact, they gave a well defined structure to ones work and career life, freeing one up to lead enriching interior lives. Our truck driver had a job, a truck, and a house. The state took good care of him. He had all he needed. But I wouldn’t necessarily call him complacent.

He lived in Avignon, and as the day was drawing to a close by the time we got that far, he offered to put us up for the night with his family. After the night before, we tired gypsies rejoiced at our good fortune.

Let’s call our host Josef. Josef lived in a nice two-story house in a small suburb of villas that lay on either side of eucalyptus lined streets. His wife greeted us and did not seem at all put out by his having brought us home. Inside we found a very comfortable place in the Mediterranean style with marble floors and efficient cupboards, shelves and organizers. The place had big windows that on the second floor opened out onto a balcony which commanded a breathtaking view of the mountains. He told me that when the Mistral blew, it would blow debris onto the balcony and it was awesome to watch the force and speed of it in that tight space. On the ground floor on the other side of the house he took us into his ample back yard where he had a sizeable garden. It was there that I first saw an espalier, which is when they train and prune the branches of a fruit tree to run along a low frame or a fence so that the fruit can be easily harvested.

Back inside the house, Josef’s wife fed us a great meal that we shared with their two beautiful children, a boy and a girl about 3 and 5. After dinner, we sat around talking. He was not snobby or impatient with my French and I found myself having a nice conversation with him. We did not watch TV–I’m not sure if they owned one and it would have been an affront I’m sure to put it before one’s guests.

When it was time to turn in, he showed us our rooms. On the way, we passed a family photo. In it I saw there were three children–an older girl who had not sat with us at the table. When I asked him about her, Josef said “Oh. That was my oldest daughter. She passed away last year. She had a bad heart.” And as he said it, he brought his right hand up in a tender gesture and tapped lightly over his own heart. My own heart aches now, 36 years later, as I remember what a sad thing to have happen to such a sweet guy. Yet, he did not seem to have a victim’s mentality or feel outraged at his luck. “Yes, that is life,” he sighed.

When I first got to Paris, there was a big flap in the papers at how the Americans had developed the neutron bomb. This bomb, we were told, would create a blast of sub-atomic particles that would not harm buildings but which would kill all animal life in the vicinity where it was dropped. Somehow that was seen as the perfect weapon. To my mind, it represents the purest of evil. Way back before there were guns, armies fought hand to hand and the terror of that I’m sure made power hungry men think twice before leading their troops into battle. World War II, pretty much dropped the pretense that war was fought by soldiers for noble causes and the civilian population was not to be included in the target. With this bomb, however, you could wage war from afar, never seeing your enemy, which it killed indiscriminately-men, women and children, soldiers and civilians.

Because I did come from America and bought into the victim’s “why me?” mentality, I took every affront by Parisians personally. Therefore, I am ashamed to say, when news of the neutron bomb broke, I joked that Paris was the perfect place to drop the neutron bomb–“get rid of the Parisians and it would be a great place.”

That was before I met Josef, however, who restored my faith not just in the French but in all of humanity. It reminds me of a quote I recently heard by the fiction writer, Scot Turow. “Why do bad things happen to good people?” a character asks. “I’m convinced that God does that to us to bring us together. If everything were perfect and there was no suffering, we’d all just be these individuals doing our own thing.” That pretty much sums up what I learned from Josef. It’s when you meet people who have so much warmth and dignity and take life as it comes, that your really know that life is truly worth living.

Maurice Ravel: Gaspard de La Nuit

I chose today’s piece by Ravel, to accompany a description of my first days in Paris (see essay below). The work, for solo piano, ranks as on of the most challenging works for that instrument and showcases this musical Impressionist at the height of his powers. Influenced by Chopin and his teacher, Faure, and colleague and mentor, Debussy, Ravel chose as his inspiration, three turn of the century, symbolist poems in the style of Edgar Allen Poe. These have ominous names like, “Ondine,” who was a water sprite, “Le Gibet,” (the gallows) and “Scarbo,” which was about an evil, medieval dwarf.

Since the first movement focuses on a water sprite, Ravel pulls out all the stops on the technique invented by Debussy of repeating a cascade of notes in one hand and chords in the other to create the sound equivalent of light shimmering on water. You can imagine what Ravel does with a piece called “The Gallows.” He starts with a simple two beat syncopated rhythm played on the B flat key, which sounds like a demented church bell pealing out a death knell. The chords and progressions that Ravel chose to lay on top of this base line, have a bleak and haunting quality to them that evokes a cart of prisoners, bound for their execution. The last movement depicts the line in the poem, in which the dwarf drops from the ceiling, spins on one foot and then rolls across the floor. It starts out a slow and haunting introduction, before taking off at a break-neck speed. This movement echoes some of Debussy’s works, especially “Homage au Rameau,” but Ravel himself said he was trying to outdo a piece by a Russian composer, Mily Balakirev. The latter’s work, “Islamey,” was considered the most difficult piece ever written. Ravel did the Russian one better and pianists today still say of this piece that you need wrists and fingers of steel to play it.

Ravel Biography

Finding Friends in Paris

Earlier on this site, I implied that it was just me against the world upon my arrival in Paris in January of 1977. In fact, I did have a contact that my friend Thom Klem had given me before I left. He had gone to high school with a friend whose American father had brought back a French bride after fighting in France during World War II. This friend had a sister named Catherine, who had come to study in Paris on her junior year abroad from Sweetbriar College.

My first order of business my second day in Paris, therefore, was to find Catherine. She lived down by Place de l’Italie in the 13th Arrondissement. Now the 13th Arrondissement starts where Rue Mouffetard ends after its long descent down from the Latin Quarter. In 1977, this area was in a transitional state as it moved from an Algerian ghetto, in which old characteristic Parisian shops were being razed into a high density, urban area of apartment towers and shopping malls. This gentrification of Paris had started under the Prime Minister, George Pompidou. That plan, by the way, gave Paris its first sore thumb, the Tour Montparnasse. The was the first and last skyscraper to be built within the city walls, in which no building was supposed to be built taller than the Eiffel Tower.

The Tour Montparnasse was such a blight on the Parisian landscape, that the surrealist film director, Luis Bunuel, lambasted it in his film, The Phantom of Liberty. In that film, a sniper, armed with a high power rifle, goes to the observation deck and starts picking off pedestrians one at a time. Since the tower is so high, no one on the ground can hear the report of the gun. Pictured from the ground, each victim’s death become a grotesque, silent pantomime as their bodies jerk, they realize they’ve been shot, and then fall dead.

Eventually the police rush the sniper and take him prisoner. He is tried and found guilty but then receives a handshake from the judge and is set on his way. This is a beautiful metaphor for the soul-killing that Pompidou’s urban renewal visited on the life of Paris. The tower is a symbol of capitalism and corporate greed and implies the authorities are in collusion with the bankers.

The Place D’Italie in 1977 was a soul-less place, with little green to be found and few pedestrians on the street, since all the old shops had been destroyed. I found the right street. It was small and narrow and overshadowed by two huge apartment towers. On the corner stood a remnant from old Paris: a small, ramshackle bar from which Algerian music–punctuated by the sound of a pinball machine–blared. Following the street numbers, I walked past a garage, a bakery, and another bar.

I realized that the apartment was actually across the street in the apartment towers. The address was a bit vague, and I entered the wrong tower. As the address indicated the thirteenth floor, this was not too fun, especially since the elevator required a few centimes to run and the whole place was dark. This made the person in the apartment I did stop at reluctant to open her door even though I was a fellow American. She did whisper through the crack that I had the wrong tower and sent me on my way.

In the right tower, on the right floor, in front of the right door, I was dismayed to find myself carrying on a conversation in French with a man. This guy looked as French as anyone else I had seen so far and I had no reason to suspect him of not being so. I asked about Catherine, and he seemed a bit embarrassed to find out I was hunting for her. I explained that I was an American friend of a friend, and instantly he started speaking to me in English. He was Catherine’s boyfriend, Jerry, a fellow student at Sweetbriar.

I was a bit crestfallen. I had been fantasizing that I would fall in love with this woman I had never seen before and end up having a wonderful time in Paris. Jerry told me Catherine would be back at 4:30 that afternoon, so after talking to him for about an hour, I decided to go out sight seeing.

It was not too salubrious a neighborhood, but I was surprised to find a huge indoor mall at the base of another towering apartment complex nearby. In the mall, I found that it was an uneasy marriage between American and traditional French shopping styles. It had two levels. The ground floor contained all the clothing stores; the basement housed the traditional butchers, bakers, wine shops, and creameries. It was odd; there was a bookshop down there too. I wondered whether Parisians consider ideas a type nourishment.

Back at the Place D’Italie, I took the subway up to the other side of the river and visited the church, St Eustache. This huge edifice, the largest church in Paris after Notre Dame, sits right next to the stock exchange and the former site of Les Halles. Les Halles, one of Paris’ most characteristic markets, monstrously big from the look of it, had recently been razed to make way for a big underground shopping complex. It made Paris look odd, this gaping hole amid the run down buildings of the area.

St Eustache was a 2nd Century Martyr, and the present church was erected between 1532 and 1640 on the site of an earlier, 13th Century chapel to St. Agnes. Stylistically the church started out in the shape of a Gothic cathedral, but the builders changed their minds part way through and the decoration is classical. Inside the church, I was impressed by its size and beauty. It was odd that I chose to visit this church before Notre Dame. I knew of it, however, from my French professor the semester before who had given a lecture on the bizarre sites of Paris, of which he number this church. Richelieu and Mme de Pompadour had been baptized there, and Louis XIV took his first communion at its altar. Though turned into the Ministry of Agriculture during the Revolution and having been gutted in a fire in 1844, it was restored last century and boasts some wonderful stained glass windows. It also contains the paintingPilgrims at Emmaus, by Reubens. Because of its acoustics, concerts are given here on a magnificent organ, which continues a long musical tradition: Berlioz premiered his Te Deum here in 1855.

After this little cultural diversion, I found a restaurant nearby that had a ridiculously low priced menu. It wasn’t great, but it was filling and it was my first French meal in a French Restaurant. In truth, I later realized it was only a bar that served sit down lunches. I had a rabbit stew of some sort, a salad, bread and wine. I grabbed the mustard that was on the table and put a dollop on my plate. It was then that I realized that this mustard was made the same way as Chinese mustard: mustard powder and water. And my mouth and nostrils were almost seared.

The walk had tired me out and I was still a bit jet lagged, so I walked back to my hotel and took a nap. Around 3:30, I rose and went back to Catherine’s. She was extremely gracious and was really overjoyed to find that I was a friend of Thom Klem’s. As it turned out, Klem had gone to school with her brothers who were several years older than her, but she still counted me as a friend by extension. She made me feel at home.

Jerry was nice too. He offered to let me stay in his room at the foyer (dormitory) where he was officially staying out in a small suburb called Fontenay Aux Roses. Since he lived with Catherine, he never used the room and he was willing to let me stay there until I found a place of my own. I returned to my hotel feeling much better. Not too shabby, I thought. After just one day in Paris I had some contacts, a place to stay for free, and a ready-made community that I could hang out with. Unfortunately, taking this tack would result in a few deleterious repercussions.  But that is for another post.

Maurice Ravel: Le Tombeau de Couperin

Many people have one of those years in which they seem to be firing on all eight cylinders. Being pretty much of an optimist and a “glass-half full” kind of guy, I’ve actually had a number of years like that. I worked my way through college and paid for a semester of study in France; I lived in Algeria and Italy; and I have been blessed with two wonderful daughters. All of these occurred in good years. One of the first years that really stood out, however, was 1975, the year I moved into the dorm at Indiana University called the French House.

Over the past month or so, I have written about the wonderful array of characters who lived or hung out there—singers, musicians, language, literature, and history majors. Some of these people became good friends; some kept aloof; others were friendly enough to me but avoided the other people in the clique to which I belonged—the campy cynics. One person I regret not become better friends with was a guy named Kevin, who was majoring in piano.

Like many musicians, Kevin excelled in languages and that brought him to the dorm. He took his piano and other studies seriously but his affable personality contrasted with another musicians in the house, the sneering British violinist named Tony. Kevin might have been gay—he dressed impeccably, always had well-coifed hair, and spoke with a lisp. The members of my clique made a few overtures toward him at the beginning of the semester. They were a bit too catty for him, however, and he stayed away from them. This turned my clique against him, and I seem to remember some nasty scenes between them.

I had a love for piano music, and Kevin often took the time to chat with me about favorite composers. He loved Debussy and Ravel and I believe it was he who introduced me to today’s piece, Ravel’s Le Tombeau de Couperin. At his senior recital, I believe he played it along with Liszt’s Les Preludes.

I have an overly developed sense of smell and have always been interested in perfumes and colognes. Growing up in a middle class household, the fragrances you get exposed to are strong ones like “Old Spice,” “Brut” and Avon’s “Wild Country.” These are to serious fragrances as country music is to classical music. On one visit with Kevin, he told me about his favorite cologne, Grey Flannel by Geoffrey Beene. That was the first really intricate and complex smell I’d ever encountered. And that was one of the great things about the French House, you could meet people who enthused about things like art, music, foods and smells and no one thought it was weird—no one had yet been beaten down by the drudgery of a nine to five workday and the stereotypical roles imposed by society.

Le Tombeau de Couperin seems to be a good choice for someone who liked Ravel so much, since that composer is well known for his intricate and complex melodies and orchestration. Le Tombeau de Couperin is a work for solo piano in six movement, which has also been transcribed for orchestra and other instruments like guitar. I believe Ravel wrote the piece as an homage to the French composer, Couperin who lived from 1688 to 1733. The first three movements have a kind of somber and sinister feel to them, kind of like you get walking around one of those over-the-top French cemeteries like Pere Lachaise. The third movement “Forlane” has a kind of wry feeling to it, however, almost like a cat slinking among those huge, ornate, wedding cake mausoleums. The perkiest movement however, is the fourth, entitled “Rigaudon”, named after an ancient dance from Provence. It has a playfulness to it that blows away all the cobwebs, despite its stateliness and intricacies.

Kevin did a great job at his recital and then moved to another dorm the next semester. I never saw him again, but I think about him whenever I see the name Geoffrey Beene.

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Maurice Ravel: Rhapsodie Espagnole

Ravel has absolutely nothing to do with William Faulkner, but in my mind the two are linked through today’s work. It happened this way. After meeting the various members of the Mankowski family (see here), 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 classical music 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.


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