Ned Rorem on Ravel and Debussy

Have been browsing through one of Ned Rorem’s collections, Other Entertainment. This is from a very brief piece on Ravel and Debussy:

Ravel and Debussy, the mother and father of modern French music, were so alike in esthetic and vocabulary that it’s become fashionable to claim how different they were. In fact, the differences are superficial: like Comedy and Tragedy they are two sides of the Impressionist mask. Good musicians of the same generation often come in pairs wherein both speak one language, but with divergent accents – of optimism and pessimism, for instance, or of concert hall versus opera stage. Witness Mozart and Haydn, Mahler and Strauss, Copland and Thomson, Britten and Tippett, Poulenc and Honegger.

In formal matters everyone agrees that Ravel was a classicist, Debussy a free versifier. Yet the orchestral masterpiece of each one proves the reverse. Ravel’s Daphnis is a loose rhapsody, Debussy’s La Mer a tight symphony. Melodically Debussy was short of breath, like Beethoven, while Ravel spun out tunes that were minutes long, like Puccini. Contrapuntally they were, like all the French, unconcerned. Rhythmically they were, like all the French (because of the unstressed national speech from which their music springs), generally amorphous. Harmonically they dealt in the same material of secondary sevenths, except for the whole-tone scale, which Ravel avoided. And coloristically they both excelled, making rainbows from a lean palette. Their game could be called Sound, sound taking precedence over shape, over language.

Ravel Piano Trio, 1st movement

YouTube will never cease to amaze – there is actually a recording of the Ravel Piano Trio with Sviatoslav Richter of all people, here with Oleg Kagan on violin and Natalia Gutman on cello, live at the Moscow Conservatory in 1983. And what a performance, wow. It’s honestly breathtaking.

The only recording I own of the piece is the justly famous one from the Beaux Arts Trio. This performance has the same immaculate taste and tenderness, but also it brings a truly thrilling realization of that climactic moment starting at around 5:25. You really feel Richter’s sheer power as a pianist there.

Ravel began the piece early in 1914 and finished it a month after the start of the War. “I am weeping over my sharps and flats,” he wrote in a letter as he was nearing the end.

It was his only work in the genre, and a masterpiece.

The first movement’s first subject was inspired by a Basque dance rhythm (Ravel’s mother was Basque) – although written in 8, each measure subdivides 3 + 2 + 3.

The remaining three movements also can be found on YouTube.