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Ravel the Existentialist?


Both during his lifetime, and throughout the years since, audiences of Maurice Ravel’s music have reported several uncanny sensations that scholars have found difficult to explain using traditional modes of musical analysis. Listeners tend to experience a sense of detachment or distance permeating Ravel’s works, as if the composer is intentionally setting up an emotional barrier between himself, the performer, and the audience. Scholars agree that these qualities mirror the composer’s personality and lifestyle, drawing comparison between such traits as his emotionally guarded social comportment and his dandyist sense of style, and the particular sounds and textures of his compositions. However, scholars differ in their presumptions about what underlying principles govern these “Ravel phenomena,” offering up a variety of psychological, aesthetic, and literary contexts as possible ways of seeing “behind the veil” of Ravel’s characteristic artifice. In Chapter One, I examine two of the most recent major books about Ravel, Stephen Zank’s Irony and Sound and Michael J. Puri’s Ravel the Decadent, exploring how each writer’s core theory illuminates the connection between Ravel as he composed and Ravel as he lived. In Chapter Two, using the Valses nobles et sentimentales as a case study, I observe how these theories are expressed in an actual piano composition, both alongside and independently of more traditional music

theory. Chapter Three presents my own proposed conceptual context for surveying Ravel, in which I argue that many Ravel phenomena exhibit and anticipate the existentialist principles that would be outlined by Jean-Paul Sartre only several years after the composer’s death. By comparing Sartre’s seminal texts of existentialism (Being and Nothingness and Existentialism is a Humanism) with Ravel’s own comments on his process of composition, his attitude in social interactions, and his manner of dress and home décor, I demonstrate that Ravel possessed proto-existentialist senses of artistic process, of the nature of the self, and of the fraught relationship between the interior self and the gaze of the Other. Lastly, I conclude in Chapter Four with a discussion for performers, especially concerning the performance of Ravel’s piano music. Here I draw on the work of Carolyn Abbate, whose exploration of “musical automatons” as an influence on Ravel provides further connection to Sartre, who identifies performative, mechanistic behaviors as an inherent part of human existence.

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