“Nothing is more hateful than music without hidden meaning.”

(Rien de plus haïssable qu’une musique sans arrière-pensée.)


Thus Maurice Ravel quotes his great adopted countryman and predecessor, Frederic Chopin, at the head of a 1910 essay meditating on Chopin’s greatness. Ostensibly about Chopin’s imbuing workaday genres – polonaise, mazurka, waltz – with this hidden meaning, taken apart the essay reveals a hidden meaning of its own, a succinct and maybe thinly-veiled description of Ravel’s own art.


How could this sentence, about Chopin’s musicianship as a state of being not profession, be written without self-awareness: “[performers] must be sensitive to rhythm, melody, harmony, to the atmosphere which sounds create, to be thrilled with the linking together of two chords, as with the harmony of two colors.”


Or this, commenting on Chopin’s psychological layering of grand polonaises and marches: “Often he introduces into these dances a dolorous, poignant element, until then unknown… this tragic sentiment reaches the sublime.” Over all of Ravel’s extraordinary virtuosity, a melancholy too hangs, a sublime and dignified sense of the tragic.


Here Ravel confirms, via Chopin, his belonging in the Impressionist set: “It is a property of all true music to evoke, incidentally, feelings, landscapes, characters.”


And how did Ravel come up with his own sparkling pianism, with brilliant cadenzas, huge waves of sound appearing from and disappearing into nowhere, imitations of guitar arabesques, embroideries of bells? He “was not content merely to revolutionize piano technique. His figures are inspired. Through his brilliant passages one perceives profound, enchanting harmonies. Always there is the hidden meaning which is translated into poetry of intense despair.”


Finally, if all that is not clear enough as Ravel’s own art reflected in his vision of Chopin, take at last this almost modern-sounding sentence: “Hints to the artist of genius: write pieces after the manner of Chopin.”


Miroirs, though, are definitely pieces after the manner of Ravel. Even if we see traces of Chopin’s art – the atmosphere, the unexpected harmonies, the dolorous interludes, the landscapes of sound, the enchanting harmonies hidden in fleeting passage-work – they are, s in the essay, filtered thoroughly through Ravel. Years later, he wrote that Miroirs was inspired by a quotation from Shakespeare: “The eye sees itself not, but by reflection, by some other things.”


Just as he trained his eye on Chopin and saw himself reflected there, the expression of this music comes from an incredible empathy with things observed. The fluterring of night moths, a flock of disturbed birds, various waves of the ocean, Spanish guitar, and a landscape of bells are uncannily evoked. He saw these things and saw himself, melding them completely with his art. Movement and sound are united in imagination, constructed as if under a magnifying glass, and given a luxurious veneer.


In these ways, these five pieces really have to be called Impressionist. Both Debussy and Ravel resisted the term, probably because it was based on a misconception. Paul Roberts, a terrific writer on Debussy and Ravel, pointed out that Impressionism in painting is associated with a certain obscurity – water lilies blurred almost to abstract colors, for instance – whereas in music it meant the representation, in sound, of specific things or movements. The representational nature of this music is the genesis of it.


When Ravel composed Miroirs, in 1903, Impressionism in painting was already decades old. It was nascent in music in the previous ten years or so due mainly to Debussy’s orchestral works. The piano style Ravel employed (invented) was his own. Although Debussy was composing Estampes simultaneously, the rest of his major solo works were all waiting to be born. The two composers shared certain aesthetics though, such as an aversion to Wagnerian drama and appreciation of the old French clavecinists, and a strong nationalist tendency to ensure a French art thrived.


At this time, Ravel belonged to an informal social group of artists who called themselves Apaches, or Hooligans, and they had a distinct sense of French art. Each of the five movements of Miroirs is dedicated to a member of this group. Perhaps they were not unlike Schubert and his bohemian group of poets and singers, another group of mutually influential artists. A certain hermetic quality might also be shared – while Beethoven’s nephew wrote in the conversation books that Schubert “hides himself,” Ravel crafted an impeccable public persona of an emotionally inflappable aesthete. He lived through fancy clothes and a love of archaic, even monastic language the life of a true dandy, in Baudelaire’s definition someone who seeks to be “sublime without interruption.”


Another major figure in the Apahces shared this public reticence, the poet Léon-Paul Fargue. He is remembered among those in the know as a true Bohemian, unaccustomed to daily labors but a poet on the level of Mallarmé who nevertheless avoided being published. He hid himself. A line from his poetry read aloud at one of the Apache meetings earned him the dedication of the first piece in Miroirs: “In the shed, the night moths take off, in awkward flight, and circle around other beams.” (Les noctuelles des hangars partent, d’un vol gauche, cravater des autres pouters.)


Noctuelles is a most unusual piece, and partly for its title. The word is apparently a very niche description of moths in French, not at all a commonplace, and reflects Ravel’s taste for the obscure. The piece itself is equally obscure, never settling into regular patterns, as elusive as the moths themselves. Silence punctuates almost every phrase, and Ravel layers simple rhythmic formulas in very complex ways, the unpredictable flight paths of moths.


Oiseaux tristes, Sad Birds, was the first of the set to be composed and it apparently baffled the first listeners, the Apaches. Later Ravel described it as “birds lost in the torpor of a very dark forest during the hottest hours of summer.” Birds in music had mostly been depicted as chatty, upbeat warblers, with the exceptions of Schubert’s crow or Liszt’s nightingale in the Mephisto Waltz, but these birds live in a bleak and humid atmosphere. The music is so brooding as to seem completely free of form, a total immersion into a Rousseau-like surreal forest. Two passages in particular capture my attention, the first where a sudden shriek or caw causes a ruffling disturbance, and all the birds lift off in cacophony:



The second is a strange cadenza, which rises slowly and softly, rhythmically elusive to the ear but coming up like steam from a hot forest bed:



The delicate, articulated single bird call that opens this movement is reminiscient of the Fugue from Tombeau de Couperin, also the second movement of its set.


Une barque sur l’ocean, A Barque on the Ocean, is the central and longest piece. It is one of Ravel’s three “water” masterpieces for solo piano. His love for the archaic shows in the use of “barque” rather than boat, lending a certain baroque atmosphere in the true meaning of the word, an irregular shaped pearl. Irregularity is a servant of Ravel – all of the cascading waves the pianist plays are precisely notated, beat by beat, though it is impossible to tell from listening how strict it really is. His augmentation and dilation of the speed and size of the waves is incredibly evocative of traveling on uneven waters. I suspect that although the barque begins on the ocean, the ocean ends up on the barque at the end of this piece.


The final movement of the set, La vallée des cloches, The Valley of Bells, uses the piano’s sonority to create a three-dimensional space, where the seeming random chimes of bells intertwine in mid-air. It’s an enchanted valley of beauty and something mysterious, something beyond the human experience of time. The ending is veiled in almost total silence, as night descends on the valley and the bells, one by one, drift off to sleep.


NC 2017