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Music in the Early Twentieth Century


CHAPTER 2 Getting Rid of Glue
Richard Taruskin

The case of Maurice Ravel (1875–1937), who for at least a dozen years after Debussy’s death was widely regarded as the foremost French composer, gives reassurance that a positive response to these questions need not be a foregone conclusion, and that national character can be pursued and achieved without insane appeals to “racial sanity.”

Ravel, a pupil of Fauré, wrote in a colorful and sensuous style marked by a deep affinity for Russian music. He, too, was perfectly capable of platitudinous generalization when asked for it. In an interview published in The Musical Leader, a British journal, in 1911, Ravel told a reporter that

The work done in France today is by far more simple than the music by Wagner, his followers, or his greatest disciple, Richard Strauss. It has not the gigantic form of Beethoven and Wagner, but it possesses a sensitiveness which other schools have not. Its great qualities are clearness and order. It is intensely rich in musical matter. There is more musical substance in Debussy’s Après-Midi d’un Faune than in the wonderfully immense Ninth Symphony by Beethoven. The French composers of today work on small canvases but each stroke of the brush is of vital importance.40

But Ravel’s remark does not attribute the differences between nations, even when cast invidiously, to biological or spiritual essences, only preferences and practices that can be explained historically or socially rather than “racially.” Moreover, when speaking of himself rather than his “school,” Ravel blithely contradicted himself, claiming now to “find beauty in all things; the great and the small, the humble and the powerful.”

He might have added “all nations.” In later interviews, including some that followed the World War, Ravel even admitted to admiring the work of his German contemporaries, albeit with reservations. In one such interview, he called it “curious and a shame that an all but solid wall separates their goals from those of French musicians.” Ravel’s greater tolerance may have had something to do with his heritage. Born in the Pyrenees to a French father and a Basque mother, he thought of himself as ethnically exotic and was drawn to other manifestations of national or ethnic exoticism, even Jewish ones, which he treated with unusual sympathy. Three of his songs were composed to texts in languages associated with the Jews. This is something one cannot imagine Debussy doing, or even Dukas—for precariously assimilated Jews, as we have already seen, were often reluctant to call attention to, or even to admit, their differences from the surrounding culture.

The Exoticized Self

fig. 2-7 Maurice Ravel, by Achille Ouvre (b. 1872).

One of Ravel’s Deux mélodies hebraïques (1914) was a setting of the kaddish (sanctification), the most hallowed of all Jewish liturgical texts. Its language is Aramaic, the ancient colloquial language of Jews in the Holy Land (hence the language spoken by Jesus). The other song in the 1914 set, and also an earlier “Chanson hébraïque” that formed part of a set of Chants populaires (1910), were harmonizations of Yiddish folk songs. These were far more unusual and significant, since they signaled acceptance by a non-Jew not only of the culture of the biblical Hebrews, but also of the recent popular culture of diaspora Jews—the Jews European gentiles encountered in their everyday lives and often despised—as a valid source for serious contemporary art. (Not even all Jewish composers of art music were that tolerant: the most famous of them, Ernest Bloch (1880–1959), was very much a purist on this score, preferring to invent an artificially “biblical,” orientalist style of his own rather than draw upon contemporary Yiddish culture.) The 1910 set was written as an invited entry in a folk-song harmonization contest sponsored by a Moscow organization called Dom pesni (House of Song). For this purpose the composer was furnished with song melodies, including a Yiddish one that had been collected by the Russian composer and critic Joel Engel in Vilna (now Vilnius, Lithuania), a large town in Russian Poland that had become a center of Jewish culture. The opportunistic circumstances in which the song was composed might seem to minimize its significance, and that of Jewish culture generally, as a source of inspiration for Ravel.

But the 1914 set was composed on Ravel’s own initiative, for which purpose Ravel procured a large collection of Jewish folksong arrangements collected and edited by the Russian-Jewish ethnographer Zinoviy (or Süssman) Kisselgof and published the year before in St. Petersburg by the Society for Jewish Folk Music. Unlike his first attempt, Ravel’s second Yiddish song—“L’énigme éternelle” (“The eternal riddle”) on its French title page; “Alte kasche” (“Old question”) in the original—was sufficiently representative of his personal style to draw censure from Abraham Zvi Idelsohn, an authoritative scholarly historian of Jewish music, for disfiguring the melody by harmonizing it “in ultra-modern style, without regard for its scale and the nature of the mode.”

Ex. 2-22a contains roughly half of Ravel’s setting, while Ex. 2-22b shows the harmonization made by Alexander Zhitomirsky, a member of the St. Petersburg Society, for Kisselgof’s collection, which according to Idelsohn represented a “correct” harmonization of the mode and scale in question. Since artistic harmonizations of monophonic folk songs are based on esthetic rather than scholarly considerations, Idelsohn’s strictures against the Jewishness of Ravel’s setting were no more legitimate or dispassionate than Debussy’s against the Frenchness of Dukas. Both were examples of what is now called “identity politics.” Both were motivated by intransigence.

The Exoticized SelfThe Exoticized Self

ex. 2-22a Maurice Ravel, Deux mélodies hébraïques (1914), no. 2, L’énigme éternelle, mm. 1–26

The Exoticized Self

ex. 2-22b Alexander Zhitomirsky’s harmonization in “Ahavoh-rabboh” mode

Meanwhile, Ravel’s setting of the melody, while as arbitrary as any artistic harmonization of folklore had to be, and dissonant in a manner that no doubt struck the ear of a traditional scholar like Idelsohn as willful, was by no means “without regard for its scale and the nature of the mode.” Indeed, the most constant factor in the accompaniment is the distinctive augmented second of the Jewish “Ahavoh rabboh” mode (to adopt Idelsohn’s spelling). The augmented second, perpetually oscillating as the lower voice of the piano’s “right-hand” staff, seems to illustrate the song’s subject: the perpetual imperturbable spinning of the world and its indifference to mankind’s concerns. Together with the piano bass, the same augmented second makes up the ostinato whose brief disruption and reinstatement define the song’s ABA form.

Behind the decorative harmonic surface, the song’s tonal trajectory is a pristine I–V–I in E minor (with V coming at the midpoint, where Ex. 2-22a ends, the song’s most plainly articulated cadence). At the beginning, and at the reprise, Ravel cleverly accommodates the “modal” or “Hebraic” A♯ to the key of E minor by embedding it in a harmonic configuration borrowed from the “octatonic” scale, an eight-note alternation of tones and semitones that can be traced back from Ravel’s immediate sources in what was then the latest Russian music, through Liszt, and ultimately to Schubert, all of them composers who at various times Ravel acknowledged as models. This stylistic patrimony somewhat distinguishes Ravel’s harmonic idiom from those of his French contemporaries, making it a little more astringent than theirs, a little more dissonant, perhaps a little more accommodating toward semitones, but just as sensuous and luxuriant once a taste for it has been acquired.

The elusive harmonic trajectory of “L’énigme éternelle” can be described as an “octatonic-diatonic interaction,” to use a term coined in the 1970s by the American music theorist Pieter van den Toorn.41 Much of the terminology we now use to describe the style and technique of early-twentieth-century music was coined long after the fact, but so is the terminology we use to describe earlier music; most theoretical generalizations follow practice at a respectful distance, and this has been particularly true in the case of modernist music, which often strove hard on principle to keep its technical bases secret, the better to stay “ahead of its time.” Ex. 2-23 shows how the opening chords in Ravel’s setting derive from the background scale, and also the well-disguised fact that the two chords are actually a single harmony (one that we will reencounter many times and eventually give a name to) and its inversion.

The Exoticized Self

ex. 2-23 Octatonic analysis of Maurice Ravel’s L’énigme éternelle

Ravel was surely drawn to the “Ahavoh rabboh” mode, and to this melody in particular, when he noticed the congruence of its first thirteen bars with the notes of the tone-semitone scale, and devised his harmonic accompaniment accordingly. The first diatonic intrusion in the melody is the B in m. 17. Prefigured from the very beginning in the left hand’s off-beat eighth note, it will shortly assert itself cadentially (as we have seen), only to be resuppressed from the melody in m. 30 when the original tune (and words) are reprised. Thus the whole setting takes its shape from the tonal (or “modal”) interaction of octatonic and diatonic scales. Also noteworthy is the manner in which Ravel altogether suppresses the note A natural from the setting until m. 25 (the tail end of the example), when it is suddenly asserted by the melody (and as the apparent root of Ravel’s harmony) to form an effective Far Out Point from which a retransition to the opening harmony becomes especially meaningful. In short, all the most distinctive and seemingly personal (or “original”) aspects of the harmonization can be characterized as “deductions” from the borrowed tune, the Hebraic mode, and their perceived harmonic implications.


(40) “Maurice Ravel’s Opinion of Modern French Music,” The Musical Leader (16 March 1911); in A Ravel Reader, ed. Arbie Ornstein (New York: Columbia University Press, 1990), p. 410.

(41) See Pieter Van den Toorn, The Music of Igor Stravinsky (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1983).

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 2 Getting Rid of Glue." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 5 Dec. 2019. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-div1-002008.xml>.
Citation (APA):
Taruskin, R. (n.d.). Chapter 2 Getting Rid of Glue. In Oxford University Press, Music in the Early Twentieth Century. New York, USA. Retrieved 5 Dec. 2019, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-div1-002008.xml
Citation (Chicago):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 2 Getting Rid of Glue." In Music in the Early Twentieth Century, Oxford University Press. (New York, USA, n.d.). Retrieved 5 Dec. 2019, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-div1-002008.xml