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In the introduction to his study of Ravel’s music in the context of French decadence, Michael Puri suggests that ‘serious attempts to get to the heart of his music – how it works and what it means’ have been rare. Highlighting the dynamism of Ravel’s music, ‘its vacillation between lust and lassitude, rawness and refinement, sentimental reminiscence and unsentimental oblivion’, the author claims that his three chosen terms – memory, sublimation and desire – ‘open up novel and productive perspectives on Ravel’. The subject of memory inevitably connects with Proust, who is cited many times, while other literary figures – Verlaine, Huysmans, Baudelaire, etc – also appear throughout the book.

In chapter one Puri looks at memory in the form of thematic cyclicism in works such as the Sonatine and the Rapsodie espagnole. Some of the finest writing in the book is found here – for example (p37): ‘In the finale of the Duo, the past returns to besiege the present, whereas the present conjures up the past in the Violin Sonata in order to consume it, dancing jubilantly on its ashes.’ In chapter two Puri turns to memory as ‘the miraculous reanimation of the past’ – as in the Introduction and Allegro and Daphnis and Chloe. Much of the book is devoted to various aspects of Daphnis.

In chapter three the author discusses the dandy as the embodiment of sublimated desire, before in the next chapter considering the dialectic of the idyll and the bacchanal in Ravel’s music. Chapters five and six are concerned with the composer’s different uses of memory in Valses nobles et sentimentales and La valse and offer new interpretations of both works. In the conclusion, Puri looks at Ravel pieces which ‘seem to pay homage to … L’après midi d’un faune’ – both Mallarmé’s poem and Debussy’s prélude.

Beautifully produced and inexpensive, this is a most valuable addition to Ravel scholarship, but any potential reader should be prepared with scores and a healthy appetite for close, concentrated study.

PHILIP BORG-WHEELER Read the full review on Agora Classica

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