A Sharp Note on Musical Biography

While re-reading, after an interval of some years, the translation of Igor Stravinsky’s 1939-40 Charles Eliot Norton Lecture (Poetics of Music), delivered at Harvard, in French, I returned to Maurice Ravel’s 1912 ballet for Diaghilev, Daphnis et Chloé, which Stravinsky praised and which was mounted the season before Le Sacre du Printemps.

I have been carting around Ernest Ansermet’s recording of the Ravel for some 50 years, for, though I cannot seem to love this ballet, I cannot seem to let it go, either.

So this led to me Vladimir Jankélévitch’s biography of Ravel, a book that goes out of its way to demonstrate the value of the sobriety of Stravinsky’s Lecture. Its first chapter is a disastrous tedium on the apparent relationships between every composition more or less then current and Ravel’s music, right down to a few notes in the bar. And then one comes to discussion of Ravel’s early work. Writes the author: “The fact is that F sharp minor will not tolerate E sharp (and accepts even a G natural), and C-sharp will not tolerate B-sharp.”

Now, this is how Beethoven’s Op. 131, in C-sharp minor, opens:

Beethoven, String Quartet 14 in c#, Op. 131, opening

Beethoven, String Quartet 14 in c#, Op. 131, opening

This was composed over half a century before Ravel put notes on staves. Note the B-sharp, and, in the second entry of the fugue, the E-sharp. It is the string quartet that Schubert asked to be played at his bedside, five days before he died. The pretensions of musical biography perhaps have not much improved. In our day, in the same city where Stravinsky spoke, we have a major, ostensibly knowledgeable, periodical showcasing a terrorist who has murdered and maimed.

In that regard, readers may be interested in a recent Norton Lecture, given by Daniel Barenboim, and published as Music Quickens Time. It deals at some length with the Palestinian reality: “Only twenty-four hours. To change the world you must stick to this timetable.”

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