Ravel and George Gershwin

Ravel, Roger Nichols
Yale University Press, 352pp, £25

George Gershwin, Larry Starr
Yale University Press, 256pp, £30

George Gershwin and Maurice Ravel are connected by a common year and cause of death. Scrape a little deeper, though, and you will discover two musicians who defined their nations and did so by similar means, an affinity that has, for some reason, gone almost unnoticed.

Both were outsiders - Ravel a gritty Basque in Paris, Gershwin a child of Russian Jews in New York. Both embraced street cultures to express a multiculturalism aeons ahead of its time - Gershwin drawing African-American rhythms into the mainstream, Ravel flirting with folk and gypsy melodies before, again like Gershwin, alighting on jazz as a possible continuum for western classical music.

Gershwin, technically insecure, applied to Ravel for lessons. Ravel declined, saying there was nothing he could teach without damaging his unique gift. Both were universally celebrated yet at the same time unknown, their sexuality remaining a matter for musicological supposition to this day. Gershwin, evidently straight, fell in love with unattainable women and never formed a viable relationship; Ravel, who was probably gay, never fell in love. Both died of brain disease in 1937.

More remarkably, both had an unmistakable musical thumbprint. Hear two bars of Ravel or Gershwin, and you know it could be no other composer. Yet, individualists as they were, both conveyed in their music an unerring sense of what it was to be French or American in the first third of the 20th century.

Two new studies from Yale University Press adumbrate that paradox without greatly illu­minating it. Roger Nichols has reworked his long-serving Master Musicians biography with up-to-the-minute research and made it three times as long. No matter: it is just as reliable and agreeably readable, although sometimes too immersed in the day-to-day.

Born in the Basque fishing village of Ciboure in March 1875, Ravel was taken to Paris as a baby. Humiliated in Conservatoire competitions, trapped between Fauré's convention­ality and Debussy's astringency, he walked a creative tightrope until, in the last years of the century, he found his voice with Pavane for a Dead Princess. Neck-and-neck with Debussy as they wrote parallel string quartets, he fell out with the older man over which of them had first made use of Hispanic elements, trumping his rival's Ibéria with Rapsodie espagnole.

International fame dawned in the 1920s with Boléro, which every conductor wanted to beat (though a faulty metronome could do it better). Critics acclaimed as symphonic jazz for its rhythmic propulsion and minimal melody, but not until Ravel's return from a triumphal tour of America in 1928 did he begin to assimilate elements of jazz in his music - most effectively in two piano concertos that are, for my money, his masterpieces. Set beside all French concertos of the 20th century (or the 21st), this pair stand out like Everest and K2 in a Lego village.

Gershwin, deceptively more gregarious, was also a man apart. In a brisk chapter of biographical snapshots, Larry Starr describes him as an "aggressive assimilationist" who longed to be "a quintessential American . . . a musical spokesman for his country". His dream began on a brownstone stoop and found its materials on Tin Pan Alley, where he plugged his songs until, with two piano concertos, he was ready to launch an assault on the symphony hall and, summit of social summits, the opera house.

That is where Starr's thesis falls apart. If all Gershwin wanted for himself was easy assimilation, he would have chosen more acceptable material than the music and morals of black folk from the boondocks. He could have written virtuoso concertos like Edward MacDowell, or sweet-nothing operettas like Victor Herbert.

Thankfully the rest of Starr's book avoids theory and trains its cross hairs on three milestones of musical theatre - the fascinating rhythms of Lady Be Good, written in the same year, 1924, as Rhapsody in Blue; his 1931 production Of Thee I Sing, which won the debut Pulitzer Prize for Drama; and the inimitable Porgy and Bess (1935). None of these is the work of a crowd-pleaser. Lady Be Good breaks every rule in the book with an obtuse love plot and no obvious show-stopper. Of Thee I Sing was a comic celebration of the democratic process in the darkest year of the Depression. Porgy and Bess, the great American folk opera, is so subversive that it wasn't staged at the Met for half a century.

In a life barely longer than Mozart's, just 38 when he died, Gershwin did so much and changed so many cultural attitudes, in America and around the world, that the values he added to Broadway are all too readily overlooked. Starr corrects that omission. Without building on his success in the theatre, however, Gershwin was soon off again - to Hollywood, where he played tennis with the exiled Arnold Schoenberg and, once again, begged for music lessons. Schoenberg reiterated, almost word for word, Ravel's respectful rejection.

“I Got Plenty o' Nuttin" is what Gershwin seemed to be saying, when faced with "real" composers, most of whom wished they could have a fraction of the talent, the attitude and the courage, not to mention the money, that George Gershwin brought to musical composition. He was a one-off, an uneducated iconoclast to the last, a trailblazing pioneer of multicultural possibilities.