A Sunday Afternoon of Chamber Music at the Salle Erard



by Pierre De Lapommeraye[1]



This past Sunday[2], I stopped by the Salle Erard to take in what would prove to be a simultaneously exciting and troubling afternoon of chamber music commissioned by the American music patron Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge. Though for the most part I enjoyed the other works on the program, including Ernest Bloch’s Suite for Viola and Piano and the Cantique au soleil, for soprano and chamber orchestra by Charles Loeffler, I was most intrigued –and most afflicted– by Maurice Ravel’s titillating three-movment song cycle Chansons madécasses. In listening to the Chansons, I was flung into an exploration of the most explicit and extreme reaches of exoticism and eroticism that I have yet heard from this composer. Ravel also seemed to use this song cycle as an opportunity to hint at his admiration for Schoenbergian harmonic and structural innovations; I noticed such references in the suspension and combination of multiple tonalities and the conception of the voice as an instrument.[3] Throughout, along with exquisite text-painting at every turn, Ravel relied on independent musical lines in each instrument, and especially on ostinati that ignored both the bar lines and the other concurrent instrumental sequences. These techniques created a thinner and more linear texture than we usually find in this composer’s works[4]. In no more than fifteen minutes, all of these novel techniques were –barely– contained within an unconventional dramatic arc built on unsettling subject matter.

Many other critics who attended the premiere have lauded the Chansons as an undeniable success, some even going so far as to call it a “genuine masterpiece.”[5] Yet as thrilling as it was to listen to this piece, I could not help feeling concerned about its problematic construal of a foreign music and the effect that such appropriation had on its audience. At many points during the performance, I found myself fantasizing about the people and music of Madagascar in simplistic, idealized ways. This uninformed imagining of another culture’s music paves the way for the kind of essentialization of other people that allows us to treat them as less sophisticated or even less human than ourselves–the “cultured” Frenchmen and women we believe ourselves to be. That it was so easy for me to engage in this imagining as I listened to Ravel’s music is evidence that Ravel needs to explain to future listeners and performers of the Chansons madécasses why and in what ways he is drawing on Malagasy music in these songs. If he fails to do this, he is in danger of continuing to allow uninformed audience members to indulge in fantasies that romanticize, infantilize, and ultimately disrespect foreign cultures.

“Nahandove,” the first movement of Ravel’s cycle, sensually glorifies the narrator’s lover, a young woman whose company apparently can only be enjoyed when “The night bird has begun its cries, [and] the full moon shines on my head.”[6] Already in this movement I witnessed fellow audience members shifting in their seats and muttering under their breath to their companions: with no warning, Ravel had plunged us into the depths of erotic longing, even scandalously suggesting a relationship between two women by giving the words of this poem to a female voice. “How enchanting your gaze is!” sang the soprano, Jane Bathori, “How lively and delicious is the movement of your breast beneath the hand which presses it! You smile, Nahandove, oh beautiful Nahandove! Your kisses penetrate the soul; your caresses burn all my senses; stop, or I will die! Can one die of pleasure, Nahandove, oh beautiful Nahandove?”[7] Whether or not this was an intentional reference to homosexual relations, Ravel has never before dealt with such explicitly sexual topics.[8] Perhaps he felt safe to do so here because he presents this material within the context of music that we already expect, through its title, to refer to a culture different from our own, something from which we as French audience members can distance ourselves. Ironically, though, this highly charged text is placed after the melodic and rhythmic climax that the flute, cello, and piano create. Instead of infusing with musical tension this especially erotic moment in the text , Ravel actually relaxes the instrumental lines here. Is this a move to disassociate the intent of the music from the subject of sex even in the face of such explicit text?[9] Regardless, because Ravel gave us no extra-musical explanations of his intentions, it is all too easy for the unsuspecting audience member to detach her- or himself from the music by recognizing these expressions of uncontrolled erotic desire as something that only exotic beings living on a faraway African island would be inclined to engage in (or at least willing to express so openly).

I was also surprised by the novel timbres that Ravel demanded from the flute, cello, and piano in the third movement, and wondered what relation they might have to traditional Malagasy music. For example, in the third movement, “Il est doux,” the flute defies its shrill and piercing tendencies by staying in the depths of its low register. The cello, on the other hand, whispers thin strains by exploiting its high range and harmonic fingerings. Later in the movement Ravel disposes of the instrument’s bow and directs the cellist to pluck and strum the strings of the instrument. Meanwhile, the piano interjects only percussively, instead of in the melodic and flowing manner we are so used to hearing from this instrument.[10] Some of my fellow audience members might have found this character and timbral experimentation to be an extension of what some have considered to be a distasteful trend in Ravel’s writing: just last week we saw Pierre Lalo’s claim in Le Temps that Ravel writes as if organizing “‘a collection of examples for a treatise on orchestration, with all sorts of examples of how to alter the timbre of an instrument. For in Ravel’s orchestra no instrument keeps its natural sound; to him, there are no trumpets but muted ones.’” [11] But I wondered whether Ravel might instead have been attempting to evoke Malagasy music. Might the low register flute sound approximate a wind instrument used in a particular Malagasy musical tradition? Could the piano be substituting for a Malagasy pitched percussion instrument? And what about the seemingly odd organization of rhythmic figures, which rarely align with either the underlying meter or the other instrumental lines?[12] Is this a common trend in Malagasy music or an innovation Ravel is undertaking with no explicit intention to reference a non-Western music? Obviously, Ravel has left many questions unanswered. He will have to amend this if his audience is to have any hope of engaging with the Chansons in a respectful and informed manner.

As startling as I found Ravel’s sexual references and color choices in the first and third movements to be, nothing could prepare me for the shock of “Aoua!,” the second movement in the cycle. I jumped in my seat when Bathori let out the ear-splitting yell that opens this movement, a warning call for which other audience members were similarly unprepared. Soon, however, the text revealed the justification for this introduction. Instead of luxuriating in the thoughts of a lover, here the narrator tells of the desecration wreaked by “the whites…[who] descended upon this island.” As I listened to Bathori sing of the lies the whites told and the enslavement and “long and terrible carnage” they imposed, I wondered what this text might reveal about the intentions of the poet who wrote it and those of Ravel, the composer who chose to set it.[13]

The program did at least reference the author of the texts that Ravel employs in Chansons madecasses: Evariste-Desire de Parny wrote the collection in 1787.[14] Who was this poet, though, I wondered? Was he himself from Madagascar? If not, had he lived in the island nation? I knew I had to get to the bottom of Parny’s connection to the African nation in order to better understand whether the poems he wrote represented an authentic, lived experience with the culture or a removed imagining of another people. I did some research on this poet after the concert, and, to my surprise read that “Although Parny claimed to have collected and translated several songs of the Madagascan natives, the fact is that he never set foot in Madagascar and did not speak Malagasy.”[15] And, though the poet alleged “to have collected these examples of native Madagascan poetry directly from their source,” scholars have since confirmed that they have found “no evidence that [Parny] ever visited the island, nor any hint that he spoke the language.”[16]

So what was I to make of this text, which rightly denounces the horrific acts committed by colonists yet does so dishonestly, by inventing words for the Malagasy–even while pretending that these words do in fact came directly from Malagasy people? Is Ravel doing the same as Parny–claiming to be able to speak for the Malagasy instead of hearing them in their own words and music–through the ambiguous and unexplained “exotic” components of his musical writing in this piece?

I left this concert unsure of which of the curious musical components of Ravel’s song cycle were the composer’s own romanticized exotic imaginings of Malagasy culture, which of these unfamiliar techniques stemmed directly from actual Malagasy musical practice, and which were simply new musical experimentations, not meant to evoke any certain culture. Ravel has stated, “There is only one thing which I should find [most] difficult, and that would be to explain my own music or comment upon it.”[17] But in this case, this difficulty cannot override the importance of clarification. By failing to explain himself to the audience, Ravel irresponsibly risks allowing his listeners to perpetuate their all-too-common fascination with non-Western musics as generally “different,” “exotic,” and “dangerous” instead of appreciating such music on its own terms and for its numerous, unique, and complex characteristics.




[1] Though this critic did not report on the premiere of Chansons madécasses, he did hear and review an early performance of this piece. I use De Lapommeraye’s name here only as an example of a historical figure who heard the piece close to the time it was written; in his actual review, De Lapommeraye shows no signs of concern for the ambiguous and unexplained exoticism Ravel employs in the song cycle (in fact, De Lapommeraye encourages it, writing “…le petit nombre d’instruments employes leur confere une saveur de chants primitifs,” and “Chansons Madécasses, c’est tout un monde qui s’eveille et que Parny qui le connaissait bien, et pour cause, a evoque dans des traductions tantot charmantes et melancoliques tantot sauvages…”)

Pierre De Lapommeraye, “Concerts-Colonne,” Le Menéstrel, 18 November, 1927, 472. http://gallica.bnf.fr/ark:/12148/bpt6k5794753z/f6.item.r=Ravel%20Chansons%20Madecasses.zoom

[2] The Paris premiere of Chansons madécasses took place on Sunday, June 13th, 1926 at the Salle Erard. The performers were Jane Bathori, mezzo-soprano; Alfredo Casella, piano; M. Baudouin, flute; and Hans Kindler, cello. The world premiere of the Chansons had taken place in Rome on May 8, 1926. For the Rome premiere, Louis Fleury performed the flute part; he died shortly before the Paris premiere and was replaced by Baudouin.

Arbie Orenstein, Ravel: Man and Musician (New York : Columbia University Press, 1975), 92.

[3] Richard S. James, “Ravel’s ‘Chansons madécasses:’ Ethnic Fantasy or Ethnic Borrowing?” The Music Quarterly   74 (1990): 370-372. Accessed November 18, 2015. http://www.jstor.org/stable/741937?pq-origsite=summon&seq=2#page_scan_tab_contents

Orenstein, Man and Musician, 196.

[4] James, “Ethnic Fantasy or Ethnic Borrowing?” 370.

Orenstein, Man and Musician, 92.

[5] Henry Prunieres quoted in Orenstein, Man and Musician, 92.

[6] Anna M. Sutheim, “Colonizing Voices in Maurice Ravel’s “Chansons madécasses”” (2008). Honors Projects (Macalester College). Paper 5: 37. http://digitalcommons.macalester.edu/musi_honors/5

[7] Sutheim, “Colonizing Voices,” 19-21, 37. On pages 19-21 Sutheim discusses the possibility that the use of a soprano voice reflected a conscious attempt on Ravel’s part at “a kind of vocal drag,” which, she claims, could be reflective of Ravel’s own sexuality. However, Sutheim also suggests that the use of a female voice may instead have been used in a heteronormative way: instead of the female voice as subject, she is merely a detached commentator. This allows Ravel to play down the intense eroticism of the text while enabling the audience to distance itself from the sexual encounter presented in the song.

[8] Sutheim, “Colonizing Voices,” 23.

[9] Sutheim, “Colonizing Voices,” 19-23.

[10] James, “Ethnic Fantasy or Ethnic Borrowing?” 355-356, 362, 374-375. In these pages, James outlines typical Malagasy instruments and their sounds, the unique timbres that Ravel uses in the Chansons, and the ways in which these timbres resemble the Malagasy instruments he has discussed.

[11] Pierre Lalo quoted in Orenstein, Man and Musician, 137.

[12] James, “Ethnic Fantasy or Ethnic Borrowing?” 374-375.

[13] Sutheim, “Colonizing Voices,” 38.

[14] Orenstein, Man and Musician, 195.

[15] Arbie Orenstein, ed. A Ravel Reader: Correspondence, Articles, Interviews, 37.

[16] Sutheim, “Colonizing Voices,” 11-12.

[17] Bohdan Pilarski and Maurice Ravel, “Une conférence de Maurice Ravel a Houston (1928).” Revue de Musicologie 50 (1964): 211. Accessed October 15, 2015. http://www.jstor.org/stable/927879.