Re-interpretation of Robert Gartside's book "Interpreting the songs of Maurice Ravel"

Research Paper (undergraduate), 2010

14 Pages, Grade: none


Re-interpretation of Robert Gartside's book "Interpreting the songs of Maurice Ravel"

French composer Ravel, “a notorious student” of Faure, at the beginning of his academic and music career had a hard time making his name in the musical arena. During his academic years at The Paris Conservatory he failed Harmony three consecutive years, and tried five times to win Prix de Rome but luck was not with him so he did not succeed. In spite of these anguished moments in his life he did not give up and continued his work with strong commitment and determination which brought him to the spotlight later on. His era stats at the end of Romanticism, goes through the Impressionism and ends in the modern period. The French language directly and, the French culture indirectly have deep impact on his style and work. Great music has universal language. It does not matter in which language it has been performed as long as it leaves deep throbbing, thrilling and emotional impression on the audience and the listeners it is considered great. Each listener interprets the music in accordance with his or her own talent, understanding and wisdom, thus there is no single interpretation of music. The performance of the artist, his or her emotions, his or her style, language in which he or she performs and the aesthetic taste of the listeners play an important role in making opinion about great music. We have heard very often some audience saying, “I don’t know the meaning of the song but whatever she/he said, has been very inspiring and heart moving. That was great music”. That is what great music is all about. Ravel’s songs have the quality of inspiring audience. His innovative, intellectual, elegant and fashionable personality has contributed to refine and glitter his work. His contemporary Debussy criticized Ravel’s work and called him a “trickster” on the other hand Ravel found faults in Debussy’s works, this peer rivalry is common nature of human beings. Ravel’s work has tried diverse types of poetry and produced songs of diverse content and meaning. In Ravel’s own words about his work, “My objective is technical perfection… art no doubt has other effects but the artist should have no other aim”.

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Table 1.

Three main factors play an important role to determine the quality of the music (whether it is great or not). Those three factors respectively are performer, listener and analyst. All three of them are interlinked and interrelated. To explain this theory I have used music triangle. With the absence of one of three factors the triangle falls apart and will not only create a gap among them but also make it difficult to assess the quality of the music.

First and the top most position in the triangle of music I have given to the performer. The performer has a whole lot of responsibility in making a simple piece of music a heart moving master piece of art. How will a performer be able to do this? The answer to this question could be described in these words: a talented performer needs to take three steps to make his/her performance great and inspiring. First of all, he/she should understand and discover the total contents of the music. He should do this like a “detective” as Robert Gartside describes in his book. Secondly, he/she must interpret and feel the contents and turn them into emotions. Finally, he/she must be able to transfer those emotions into the listener’s heart through his/her voice. In other words the artist should “communicate the meaning of the music to the listener.” After performer the listeners are the second factor which is as much important as the first factor. The first and second factors are interrelated. Without the presence of listeners the performer wouldn’t be able to assess his/her performance. The listeners consciously or unconsciously look into the performance and make judgments at the performance. So the performer needs to be very careful because listeners examine him/her performance. Actually listeners and audience are the one who hold the key of measuring the value and quality of the music, they are the one who decide whether music is great or not.

The third and last factor in the music triangle which helps to determine the quality of the music includes analysts who comprise mostly of composers, scholars and teachers. They analyze and criticize the performance, music itself and taste of the audience. By adding their constructive comments they contribute to make the music refined and understandable. They also help the performer to improve his/her performance and as well reflect audience point of view in their analyses.

According to my understanding performer, listeners and analysts all three play an essential role in determining whether the music was great or not. Robert Gartside in his book, according to his own understanding, talent and experience, has tried his best to interpret the style and songs of Ravel. His illustrations and analyses of Ravel’s songs and his suggestions on how and why a performer should follow some specific music rules reflect his expertise and full command on the topic. His book contains five chapters. In these five chapters Gartside has knitted information so will that personally I have found this book very helpful, informative and knowledgeable as far as Ravel’s songs themes have been concerned, besides that it also provides a clear view of musical rules that a performer must follow to improve his/her performance. I would like to throw a short over view of his book in the next few paragraphs which would help the reader to understand the writer’s purpose of writing this book.

In the first chapter the writer has made a good effort to throw some light on the use of symbols in different languages and their complications to have them apply in French language. The pronunciation of vowels, ambiguity of nasal sounds, the rules of elisions and the schwa are some of the symbols worthy of mention here. He illustrates them in a precise manner with examples which is very helpful to understand.

In chapter two and three he describes constraints and uniqueness of the French language in music and its influence on Ravel’s work. By explaining the merits and demerits of the French language the writer has made it much easier and understandable to grasp the whole scenario of his interpretation of the Ravel’s songs.

In his book Gartside describes the unique qualities the French language has in music. He says that although the limited vocabulary of French language put some constraints on it, it makes this language unique from other languages. Another quality of the French is its lack of falling cadence which tends to lift the inflection of the sound at the end of the sentence rather than drop it. In French vocal music this tendency prevails and is found constantly in the songs of Ravel. The third factor which makes French unique is that words have very little tonic accent which poses problems in setting words to music with bar lines. Translating songs from English or German into French become problematical and, any French text to music with bar lines produce problems as well. The use of the natural rhythm of the words in the vocal music broke down the “tyranny of the bar line” which created varied and uneven rhythms. Ravel was master at setting the French language to music, he enjoyed constraints and challenges it posed. The French language forces the composers to build a very formal musical structure confining him/her in a limited circle of worlds. These qualities of French language make the French musical composition unique, different and somewhat difficult from other languages.


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Re-interpretation of Robert Gartside's book "Interpreting the songs of Maurice Ravel"
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Re-interpretation, Robert, Gartside, Interpreting, Maurice, Ravel
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Myunghwa Jang (Author), 2010, Re-interpretation of Robert Gartside's book "Interpreting the songs of Maurice Ravel", Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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