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Grieving Through Music in Interwar France: Maurice Ravel and His Circle, 1914-1934


Between 1914 and 1918, the French modernist composer Maurice Ravel was deeply affected by his experiences as a soldier in World War I, the deaths of many friends in combat, and the passing of loved ones on the home front. The aim of this dissertation is to determine how the music that Ravel wrote and performed after 1914 engaged with contemporary French cultures of mourning. Archival research in Paris and the United States has allowed me to examine funeral accounts and obituaries in late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century periodicals, as well as the correspondence, diaries, scrapbooks, and collected materials of Ravel and his grieving friends, in order to ascertain how grief and its display were socially constructed and understood in interwar France within Ravel's social circle. Obituaries and funeral accounts published in Parisian periodicals between 1875 and 1925 reveal that as a result of wartime nationalism and divisions between soldiers and civilians, modes of mourning shifted during the war from personal, descriptive, and direct representations of grief, to emotionally guarded and collectively oriented ones. In response to this stoicism, Ravel and many of his peers sought new ways of managing grief, including keeping the memory of lost loved ones vividly present through celebrating death anniversaries publicly and privately, collecting photographs, obituaries, and other objects that once belonged to loved ones, sharing their grief with other mourners, and performing or composing music that allowed them to recall corporeally the presence of those they mourned. Analysis of the wartime works of Ravel's contemporaries reveals that many of them wrote music that not only offered a space for audiences and performers to mourn, but also justified the sacrifices and grief engendered by the war by framing them optimistically as sources of France's strength and eventual victory. By drawing on archival research, psychoanalytic theory, memory and trauma studies, and cultural history, I show how Ravel engaged with and in some instances subtly resisted nationally-oriented French cultures of mourning through providing his listeners with musical portraits of the psychic difficulty of grief and trauma in Le Tombeau de Couperin (1918), Frontispice (1919), and La Valse (1920). I demonstrate as well how Ravel's specific brand of rhythmically regular and kinesthetically demanding postwar modernism, evident in works like Le Tombeau de Couperin, the Sonata for Violin and Violoncello (1922), the Sonata for Violin and Piano (1927), and the Piano Concerto in G Major (1932), allowed Ravel to convey his own grief, while also providing a musical means for his friends Hélène Jourdan-Morhange and Marguerite Long to physically work through, perform, and share their grief with one another.

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