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.

Youtube Screengrab
Show Hide image

Shell-shock symphony: Berg’s Wozzeck – opera’s take on post-traumatic stress disorder

Begun in 1914 and premiered in 1925, Wozzeck has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects.

When I was 12 years old, I made a devastating discovery. The arias from my favourite operas – Rigoletto, Turandot, The Barber of Seville – which I played over and over again, winding and rewinding the cassettes ­until they ceased to work, did not ­necessarily have words that matched the beauty of the music. Intense study of a book I had received for Christmas called Stories from Opera taught me that although some of the soaring melodies I adored carried words about love, death, horror and tragedy, other lyrics, in translation, proved to be people agreeing where to meet later, or misremembering each other’s names.

This crushing disappointment came to mind again recently while I was listening to an edition of Radio 3’s Building a Library, a segment of its regular Saturday-morning CD review, in which new releases are compared and contrasted with archive recordings to find the best listening experience. The reviewer Gillian Moore was surveying the available recordings of Alban Berg’s Wozzeck. She gave credit to several English-language recordings for the clarity they offer newcomers to this work, but eventually concluded that she must recommend a version using the original German, because there were crucial aural elements that could not be reproduced without it.

Moore, now director of music at the Southbank Centre, chose to kick off a series of semi-staged concert performances of operas with Wozzeck. Although undoubtedly an opera, it was a far cry from the fairy stories and doomed romances that filled my pre-teen ears, but it worked surprisingly well stripped of scenery, costumes and other theatrical accoutrements.

Zurich Opera’s presentation placed importance on the orchestral score above all else, allowing its jagged and insistent lines to remind us that this is music born of the dark years between the world wars. Begun in 1914, but delayed while Berg served in the Austro-Hungarian army (it premiered in 1925), it has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects. The score owes much to Berg’s fellow Viennese composers Gustav Mahler and Arnold Schoenberg (Mahler’s widow put up the money for the initial publication of the score). At times in this production, the orchestra was so utterly central that it felt like a symphony with singing, rather than vocal melodies with accompaniment.

The Wozzeck of the title is a poor soldier, flawed and dogged by madness and visions we would probably now see as signs of post-traumatic stress disorder. He scrapes a living for his girlfriend, Marie, and their son by humiliating himself before his military and class superiors (the Captain, the Doctor, the Drum Major) and by participating in degrading medical “experiments”. The star of the show, the German baritone Christian Gerhaher, had to withdraw at the last minute for health reasons, so the British singer Leigh Melrose stepped in to reprise his Wozzeck from the widely acclaimed 2013 ENO production. Despite performing from behind a music stand, Melrose acquitted himself well, handling the transitions between Berg’s three singing styles: “half-singing”, Sprechgesang (or “spoken singing”) and full vocalisation to great effect.

Gun-Brit Barkmin, with a severe Twenties bob and a flowing scarlet dress, was a superb Marie – alternately harsh and soft as the music demanded it, flirting destructively with the Drum Major while conveying how little choice she had in the matter. Of the ensemble, Lars Woldt’s Doctor particularly stood out, using the German libretto to drag every ounce of black comedy out of his character’s fascination with Wozzeck’s bodily functions. The high vocal standard proved Moore’s point about the necessity of the original German libretto – it is a difficult language to sing, because of all the harsh consonants and modified vowels, but when used expertly can be unendingly expressive. We hear this in the way the double “zz” of the title character’s name becomes a derisory bitten-off “tz” in the mouth of the Captain; and Wozzeck’s exclamation in Act I that “Du, der Platz ist verflucht!” sounds so much more accursed and deranged with all those consonants in such close proximity.

The German sociologist Theodor Adorno once called Berg “the foreign minister of the land of his dreams”, much to the composer’s amusement; but, hearing the score for Wozzeck laid so bare, you understand what Adorno meant. The incredible double crescendo on a single B from the orchestra after Wozzeck murders Marie – raised by the conductor Fabio Luisi in this performance to an unbearable volume before being allowed to die away – feels like music from an other-worldly nightmare. Yet, for the war-battered men who inspired Wozzeck, his tragic half-life was all too real.

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis