The latest installment in the Unlocking the Masters Series from Amadeus Press has arrived: Ravel: A Listener’s Guide by Victor Lederer. The Unlocking the Masters Series, which now features 23 titles, presents the work of classical composers in a user-friendly style that brings the reader quickly and easily in to the world of the greatest composers and their music. Read below for an excerpt of Chapter one!
There’s no question that the beautiful surfaces of Maurice Ravel’s music provide an easy approach, but subterranean strengths are what make it last. So, in one sense, his works hardly seems to need analysis, partially explaining their immense popularity, while the tug of the composer’s sophisticated compositional technique—his tart harmonies and rhythmic playfulness, for example—and his singular way of expressing passion keeps it from superficiality, bringing one back to listen, again and again.
Ravel’s style, gorgeous on the outside but steely underneath, derives its irresistible outward beauty chiefly from long-spun melodies as well as some of the most skillful and effective instrumental and vocal writing by any composer in any era. His structural strength comes from rhythmic freedom, harmonic richness, and daring, and formal patterns that are mostly straightforward but well suited to the job. Ravel’s gifts as a composer also include the related qualities of brevity, concision, and momentum: he says what he has to say and keeps moving, never dragging his material out. Much of the master’s oeuvre is in dance form, most famously perhaps his various essays in the waltz, but he also composed in Daphnis et Chloé one of the great ballets. But in several other cases that we’ll see, he also transcribed or otherwise reworked his music into ballets: he seemed to be thinking constantly in terms of its choreographic possibilities. More difficult to explain but present just the same is his ability to evoke passion at a distance, a peculiar skill at which he may be unmatched.
[…]Ravel’s style always remains clearly and unquestionably his own. Even though you may be able to point at an influence here or there, his integration of them is so complete that there’s never a sense that he’s mimicking or copying—unless, as in a couple of rather minor instances, he wants you to. Finally, within this small output is an unusually high percentage of the composer’s works transcribed from one form to another. There are several reasons for this, and we’ll examine these, as well as the music itself, in chapter 4.
I discovered while working on the book that generalizing about Ravel’s music is unwise. For instance, several late-period works are rich and heavily scored, going completely against the prevailing leaner manner. And, while I tend to prefer the piano versions of many works (usually the originals) to the orchestral transcriptions that the composer made later, I found that with Ma Mère l’Oye, I love both the four-hand piano original and the orchestrated version equally. Everything Ravel published was crafted with the utmost care, and you need to hear every note and to keep an open mind.
Get yourself a copy of Victor Lederer’s book over at Amadeus Press and let us know your thought on it in the comments below!