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This behemoth was assembled by a French teacher of Spanish language who is also founding director of the association Les Amis de Maurice Ravel. For three decades, Ravel fans have relied upon the selection of material translated and presented in Arbie Orenstein’s Ravel Reader (Columbia University Press). The French, usually wary about confiding their musical treasures to foreigners, trusted Professor Orenstein’s acumen, translating his scholarly apparatus from English when reprinting Ravel’s writings.

A Ravel Reader amounted to about one third of the present volume’s essays and other writings, and approximately one fifth of the letters. Not all of the added material is of prime importance, nor is it all by Ravel himself. Some letters from others are included, providing useful historical context. Pianists who read French should henceforth find L’Intégrale essential for uncovering insights about specific works.

For years, musicological research about Ravel has lagged behind that about Debussy, due to unavailability of musical manuscripts, immured in a private collection in Monaco. As Ravel finally receives adequate scholarly attention, we are continually reminded how the piano was an essential accompaniment to his creative life.

As a pupil at the Paris Conservatory, Ravel outmedalled in keyboard performance his contemporary Alfred Cortot during two academic years, 1890 and 1891. Just over two decades later, he sat on a jury at the same conservatory. He had composed a Prélude to serve as a sight-reading exercise for female pianists competing for prizes. Among those vying for acclaim were Marcelle Meyer and Madeleine de Valmalète, who would later achieve renown.

In society gatherings and at home, Ravel often played and sang from piano reductions of his compositions, from L’heure espagnole to L’enfant et les sortilèges. On occasion he listened to others doing so, as in 1931, at the salon of the Princess de Polignac, where a four-handed reduction of Ravel’s Concerto in G was performed by Jacques Février and Francis Poulenc. Ravel became such a dab hand at piano reductions that he was hired to prepare one of the opera Margot la Rouge (1901-02) by the English composer Frederick Delius.

Ravel saw keyboard instruments as alluring necessities for his creativity. He stated as much in wry, self-mocking letters to the piano maker Étienne Gaveau. In December 1905 Ravel wrote to thank Gaveau for delivering a piano ‘upon which, I hope, I will be able to compose masterpieces.’ At the time, Ravel was still giving harmony and composition lessons to American students out of economic necessity, so his ability to write such masterpieces was, as yet, little known. Ravel’s sensitivity to keyboard sonorities was expressed again in October 1911, when La maison Erard lent him a baby grand piano. He wrote to the vendor confessing his delight in its ‘velvety sounds,’ making him wish to spend all day playing chords on it, even at the risk of ‘losing [his] reputation.’

In addition to charming wit and modesty, Ravel displayed courage on the battlefield during the First World War, driving trucks in the military supply department. In the summer of 1916, he wrote to a friend, expressing his constant thoughts of music and fantasising about being allowed to commandeer an ‘auto-piano-machine gun’ (auto-piano-mitrailleuse). Back home, as Ravel’s postwar fame grew, he was deluged with notes from aspiring pianists.

One of the latter, a Czech composer, signed a missive from April 1922: ‘Heda Hrušková, piano virtuoso.’ Two years later, Ravel wrote to his friend Robert Casadesus that the Japanese seismologist Mishio Ishimoto was determined to send his wife to Paris to study piano with either Ravel or Casadesus. The composer suggested that the latter would be a ‘more authoritative’ instructor.

Everywhere in Ravel’s writings, candour reigns, as when he informed a concert organiser in October 1926 that he would ‘never be able’ to perform the piano part of his Tzigane in public. His letters and interviews about the Second Viennese School show forward- looking sensibilities, as do his repeated letters to French customs in 1929, insisting that a quarter-tone piano imported to Paris by Ivan Wyschnegradsky, a Russian composer of microtonal works, was a didactic instrument and not a luxury item liable for surcharges.

Among lesser-known interviews with Ravel printed here is one from August 1930 with the pianist Denyse Molié, dedicatee of one of Bohuslav Martinu˚’s Three Czech Dances. About his Concerto in G, Ravel told Molié of the importance of Mozartian ‘lightness,’ because ‘a concerto should entertain and by no means bore to tears.’ Ravel added that in concertos, ‘Beethoven was often heavy-handed and Brahms even more so.’

BENJAMIN IVRY Read the full review on Agora Classica


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