Le Souvenir de Maurice Ravel
For piano, flute, oboe, clarinet and string trio
The starting point for this piece was the following poem by George Seferis:
The garden with its fountains in the rain
you will see only from behind the clouded glass
of the low window. Your room
will be lit only by the flames from the fireplace
and sometimes the distant lightning will reveal
the wrinkles on your forehead, my old friend.
The garden with the fountain that in your hands
was a rhythm of the other life, beyond the broken
statues and the tragic columns
and a dance among oleanders
beside new quarries –
misty glass will have cut it off from your days.
You won’t breathe; earth and the sap of the trees
will spring from your memory to strike
this window struck by rain
from the outside world.
The ‘M.R.’ in question turned out to be Ravel and the image of the isolated composer sitting in later life cut off from the garden by the clouded glass seemed an extraordinarily poignant metaphor and one which was more than simply biographical. (As Ravel grew older he gradually fell prey to a rare form of mental and physical decay whereby he would suddenly find he could not remember how to speak or how to move a limb.)
In his music, too, Ravel sometimes seemed to be searching for the unattainable or at least looking forwards towards a time when music completely different from his own would be written. Works like the Mallarmé Songs or the Sonata for Violin and Cello are far more challenging and forward-looking than Ravel is usually given credit for, not to mention the ‘minimal’ Bolero.
In my own work I wanted to highlight this progressive tendency in Ravel’s music by taking aspects of his style and leading them on into musical situations which Ravel himself could not have contemplated. I call this technique of stylistic manipulation ‘surrealistic pastiche’. In it, frequent use is made of the blurring or ‘going in and out of focus’ alluded to in Seferis’s poem. But there are moments of clarity and precision too.
The ‘dance among oleanders’ is abrasive and angular, but it, too, eventually fades back into the mist of memory. This ‘souvenir’ of Ravel is therefore at the same time an embodiment of the faculty of memory and a tribute to a great composer.
© 1984 Tim Souster