Maurice Ravel: A Life Hardcover – Aug 1 2000
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From Publishers Weekly
Thoroughly steeped in French culture, poet and translator Ivry has already written studies of Rimbaud and Poulenc. He comes to this brief but tightly compressed biography of Ravel with a thesisAthat the composer was "a very secretive gay man" whose works often displayed a tension between potent creativity and iron control, a duality that was also exemplified by his life. Ravel has always been a mysterious figure, with acquaintances (he had few close friends) willing to swear he was homosexual, heterosexual or simply asexual. This is not simply a matter of prurient interest, as Ivry makes clear, for Ravel's hidden sexuality showed itself in his music, which varied enormously from the early opera L'Heure Espagnole to the famous Bolero, perhaps the most ubiquitous symphonic score of the 20th century. (Ivry explains that Ravel is by far the most financially successful composer, classical or pop, that France has ever produced, with royalties still running at the rate of several million dollars a year.) A fervent belief in sorcery and the primitive powers of the ancient wood god Pan melded with Ravel's determined dandyism and his outspoken conviction that sincerity was the enemy of true art. Artifice, he felt, was all, and though his exquisitely crafted scores do not eschew emotion, a glittering surface seems to have been what he chiefly prized. (He despised Beethoven as "the big deaf one.") Ivry is particularly good at relating Ravel's work to his life, and if at the end of the book the composer remains a remote, somewhat chilly figure, that seems to have been Ravel's choice. Illustrations not seen by PW. (Aug.)
Copyright 2000 Reed Business Information, Inc.
From Library Journal
In this short biography, the author!s thesis is that Ravel, the most popular French composer of our time, was secretly gay. Indeed, the issue of Ravel!s sexuality has been discreetly avoided by previous biographers, who have tended to note his idiosyncratic behavior but have dismissed it as irrelevant to his professional life. Making extensive use of interviews and previously unknown documents, Ivry (Francis Poulenc) tries to make the case that Ravel!s creative output cannot be separated from his sexual persona. There seems to be little question that Ravel was an affected, intensely secretive dandy with gay inclinations (he was clearly attracted to many aspects of the gay Parisian subculture, such as its fascination with the Greek god Pan). Too often, though, the evidence that his homosexuality has any bearing on his artistic output is thin or nonexistent. Nonetheless, this is an enjoyable read, as Ivry!s prose is lively, empathetic, and quite often insightful. Even readers who may be skeptical of the book!s premise will appreciate its refreshingly broad view of the 20th-century socioartistic scene in Paris. Certainly, one comes away with a more complete picture of this enigmatic and elusive composer. Recommended for public libraries."Larry Lipkis, Moravian Coll., Bethlehem, PA
Copyright 2000 Reed Business Information, Inc.
Top Customer Reviews
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
Ivry's book is neither boring nor badly written. Nonetheless, the first and most striking faux pas that one notices upon opening it, is the complete absence or omission of end notes or foot notes. While some people may feel that this is a small point, I believe it is absolutely essential for anyone who wants to make a serious contribution to the documented history of anything. My favourite biographer, Claire Tomalin, frequently emulates fictional literature in her approach. The openings of her books on Samuel Pepys and Thomas Hardy paint very dramatic scenes from an important or poignant part of their lives. Nonetheless, she fills her books with references and citations so as to let us know that if we were to do the same research we would most likely come to the same conclusions. This is not only a more humble approach, but also less secretive and lets us know that we can trust her. If some author says to me that I should just simply trust him or her based on their status as a published author, then I am inclined not to trust them at all, or at least be mightily suspicious that they are hiding something. If you're so confident that what you say is as objective and as factual as possible, then prove it to me that you are offering your information in good faith.
Now, I am not saying that Ivry is lying or making it all up. And certainly, taking the approach that Ravel was a gay man and that this had great import to his life and work is certainly worth investigating and the author makes a good case. But I'm sorry, I am not just going to "take his word for it" because he is a published author. For me, this makes the difference between "Maurice Ravel: A Life" being a three star and a five star book. If this book is published again, it would increase its credibility to give some citations and make me want to believe the author some more.
There are other problems with his research. He does not make it abundantly clear that it is more likely than not that Ravel NEVER conducted anything in a recording studio. My source for this is an article from THE ECONOMIST (p. 76, 1993-08-07) in which The Economist actually cites a source which Ivry talks about in passing as well, namely, Arbie Orenstein. In addition, I personally interviewed L. Douglas Henderson (in THE MISSISSIPPI RAG, p. 14, October 1997, "Debunking Piano Roll Mythology") in which Mr. Henderson (who has been active in the field of player piano roll production for decades) states that it is most likely that almost nobody ever recorded player piano rolls - the piano roll companies would use the names of famous performers or composers to help sell the piano rolls. But these issues are not dealt with satisfactorily or at all in Ivry's book.
But it certainly is a "fun read" despite its, at times, "gossipy" tone. A great deal of the time I found it very enjoyable to read, in spite of its shortcomings. However, I would recommend this book to people who are just learning about Ravel's music, as an introduction. I cannot recommend it to anyone who has a serious interest in either the composer or of re-investigating history. Once citations and other issues are dealt with accordingly, I could then recommend this book whole-heartedly.
The biography's focus on Ravel's sex life means that all other matters scarcely get attention. Ravel's efforts to finish "Le Tombeau du Couperin" are raised, but its actual completion goes without remark. (99) When the music is considered, the focus generally fixes on those involved, rather than on the masterpiece itself, its sources of inspiration, its reception, etc. All we hear about is Marguerite Long's reluctance to play its difficult last movement. (90)
Like glossy magazines at supermarket checkouts, Ivry's claims tend to the scandalous and shaky end of the spectrum of factual. Beyond the lack of references, there's all too much character assassination. Take this, about Ravel's acquaintance Edmond Rostand, author of "Cyrano de Bergerac": he presumably "...lisped, minced, and limped his way through Paris society, resembling 'a fat woman dressed as a bellhop in a review [sic],' according to one observer." This, on p.103, fails to attribute the quotation to any book, letter or other source, and no further remark is made about the unnamed "observer." Ivry goes on: "Rostand's search for sex in public urinals ...shocked even Cocteau." (103f.) Again, no source to this astonishing claim is ever attributed. Just how, beyond insinuation, any of this about Rostand reflects on the composer is another matter entirely.
This book belongs alongside Charles Higham's books on Cary Grant (claiming he was gay), Errol Flynn (that he was a Nazi spy) and his double biography of Olivia de Havilland and Joan Fontaine (on the siblings' supposed mutual loathing). These were best-selling muckrakers that still weigh down valuable library shelf space despite having since been discredited by research and the outraged testimony of those who knew better. Higham's reliability is thoroughly debunked in Tony Thomas's book Errol Flynn: The Spy Who Never Was [see my review]. Thomas compares texts Higham cited to support his claims with passages from the real, recently-declassified documents he claimed to cite. The differences are a remarkable lesson in the dangers of dishonest journalism, especially if penned by an engaging writer.
Yet for all of Ivry's woeful scholarship, few authors are as shameless as Higham. In fact, this book does provide value with some interesting things about Ravel's life that may interest lovers of his music. This includes tidbits such as his attraction to cabaret music, his enthusiasm for some popular crooners, and just who among his pals had the best record collections. (108f.) Much is made of Maurice's strong bonds with his mother, yet it is parlayed mostly to support the book's overarching thesis, so is maybe best noted as a reference point for further reading--preferably, of well-referenced books! This one by Ivry will also not fail those who are after a feel for the times in France and some circumstances in the life of this composer and some of his associates.
Although it is far from established in this book, Ravel may, in fact, have been gay. The back cover claims that "Ivry offers here a convincing solution to the much-discussed `mystery' of Ravel's sexuality." This is publicity, and should be treated as such. Ivry's conjectural leaps fly much too far to shed light on the matter, defeating any sense of gravity about this dimension in the life of one of the most enchanting composers ever.
In any case, let's also not overlook that Ravel's sexuality has about as much bearing on his art as his favourite breakfast menu, or the colour of his eyes.
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