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Music in the Early Twentieth Century


CHAPTER 2 Getting Rid of Glue
Richard Taruskin

Ravel’s eclecticism was more innocent and accommodating than Debussy’s probably because it proceeded from a more optimistic, even hedonistic, view of art and its purposes. If Debussy’s primary poetic counterpart was Mallarmé, and Fauré’s was Verlaine, then Ravel’s was surely his friend Henri de Régnier (1864–1936), one of the most prominent younger Symbolists, whose verses abound with the imagery of joyful sensuality. Ravel only set one poem of Régnier’s to music, Les grands vents venus d’outremer (“The great winds that come from over the sea”; 1907); but on two occasions he used lines by Régnier as epigraphs for instrumental pieces. Jeux d’eau (“Fountains”; 1901), dedicated “to my dear master, Gabriel Fauré,” is prefaced by a quotation from Régnier’s Fête d’eau (“Water holiday”), entered in the manuscript in the poet’s own hand: Dieu fluvial riant de l’eau qui le chatouille, “A river god laughing at the water that is tickling him.” And the piano suite Valses nobles et sentimentales (“Noble and sentimental waltzes”; 1911), with its title borrowed from Schubert, is headed by a line from one of Régnier’s novels in praise of le plaisir délicieux et toujours nouveau d’une occupation inutile, “the delightful and ever-renewed pleasure of a useless occupation.”

This last could be taken not only as Ravel’s artistic credo, but also—to the extent that it was uttered with bravado, in defiance of Germanic importance (or self-importance)—as that of France itself. The very precocious Jeux d’eau, written early in the composer’s career (just after leaving the Conservatory, in fact), makes the point clearly, but with an ironic fillip. Seemingly all ear-tickling texture and color, and for that reason often looked upon as a programmatic assertion of Frenchness in the face of all that Germany held dear, the piece is actually hung on a frame that turns out to be as pristine a “sonata form” as any German pedagogue could have required. The title is borrowed from Liszt—the third book of pieces in Liszt’s series Années de pèlerinage (“Years of pilgrimage”) contains a famous fountain piece called “Les jeux d’eaux à la Villa d’Este”—and so is the brilliant piano style, slightly “maximalized” by the use of double notes to be played by the thumb, a predilection that the composer could freely indulge within a harmonic idiom that so often treated seconds as stable chord components (in other words, one that treated seventh chords, including inverted ones, as consonant). The form, however, seems to have come right out of a textbook, as comparison with the score will verify.


1st theme m. 1

2nd theme m. 19

Development (mainly of 2nd theme) m. 49


1st theme m. 62

(Cadenza m. 67)

2nd theme m. 77

But as usual, the form diagram leaves out what is most interesting; and as usual (for an up-to-date French composer), what is interesting about the music is its soft tonal focus and the ways in which that softness is achieved. As always, dominant chords and leading tones are rare as hens’ teeth. The key seems to be unmistakably E major; yet its leading tone, D♯, is most likely to be found (as at the very beginning of the piece) as an ornament to the tonic triad, turning it into a piquant major-seventh chord. The only dominant chord on the first page of the music (Ex. 2-24a), in fact, hence the only cadential confirmation the tonic will ever get, comes on the last eighth-note of m. 6 in the form of a French sixth chord with F in the bass, but with B (presented in the right hand only) arguably functioning as the root. (Typically, however, the chord is filled in by a soft-focus whole-tone scale.)

The Sensual Surface

ex. 2-24a Maurice Ravel, Jeux d’eau, first page

The Sensual Surface

ex. 2-24b Maurice Ravel, Jeux d’eau, mm. 4–5, reduced

Much more prominent on the surface of the music are symmetrical “rotations” by major and/or minor thirds. It is necessary to use the clumsy “and/or” in describing the phenomenon because the major- and minor-third cycles are often superimposed, as in mm. 4–5 (see Ex. 2-24b). Reducing the second half of m. 4 to four block chords, we may observe a sort of interlocking pair of augmented triads, a construct of major thirds comprising five out of the six notes of the whole-tone scale, transposed four times by descending minor thirds. In conjunction with parallel progressions by whole tones and semitones, these third cycles—/048 (12)/ for major and /0369 (12)/ for minor—will govern much of the short-range harmonic motion. At the short range, circle-of-fifths progressions are a strange special effect.

They remain in effect, however, behind the scenes, and assert their traditional rights over the long-range tonal trajectory, as a comparison of the “second themes” as heard in the exposition and the recapitulation will show. The first time around (Ex. 2-25a), B (=V) dominates the harmonic background (top of the right hand in m. 19, bottom of the left hand in m. 21), but never functions as a triadic chord root for the simple reason that triads have been banished from the scene: the scales in use are pentatonic, and the only intervals sounding as “harmony” are seconds, fourths, and fifths. The melody (left hand in mm. 19–20, right hand in mm. 21–23), while seeming to maintain a sharp tonal focus, in fact cannot come to a cadence in the absence of half steps: none of its notes has clear “priority” over the others. In the recapitulation (Ex. 2-25b), by contrast, the B is first approached by an exceptional circle-of-fifths progression that identifies it unequivocally as a functioning dominant, and, caught by the pedal in m. 77, it anchors the otherwise anhemitonic and ambiguous restatement of the theme that follows like a traditional “organ point.” The explicit subdominant in the bass at mm. 80–81 descends so decisively to the tonic that not even the typical withholding of the leading tone on the last quarter of m. 81 can compromise the clarity of the final cadence. (And then, of course, the fugitive D♯, very much in character, reappears as a very stable decoration of the tonic in the last four bars, which take on the character of a coda.)

The Sensual Surface

ex. 2-25a Maurice Ravel, Jeux d’eau, mm. 19–21

The Sensual SurfaceThe Sensual Surface

ex. 2-25b Maurice Ravel, Jeux d’eau, mm. 75–82

Harmonically the most far-out (or at least the tangiest) moment comes in the “cadenza,” as it is somewhat arbitrarily designated in the little form diagram above—more precisely in m. 72 (Ex. 2-26), which contains a long passage in small notes signaling the equivalent of a fermata or “time-out.” At this vividly climactic moment, surely meant to invite the listener to visualize the spouting, spurting fountain at full disport, the /06/ tritone relationship that elsewhere governs harmonic successions is telescoped into a “simultaneity.” Triads on F♯ and C—the former (all on the black keys) consistently confined to the left hand, the latter (on the white keys) to the right—seem to coexist within a six-note “polychord.”

The Sensual Surface

ex. 2-26 Maurice Ravel, Jeux d’eau, m. 72

There are two ways this chord might be analyzed, both historically and in terms of its functional status. Both involve maximalizations of existing practices. The first, more traditional, explanation would be to regard the harmony as a functional French sixth chord on F♯, the supertonic (II) in E major, in which the two thirds that make up the chord (F♯–A♯ and C-E) have each “sprouted a fifth.” This interpretation finds its confirmation at the end of m. 76, when the progression is sorted out into its constituents, the C-major harmony (now sporting a seventh) giving way to the F♯ (now sporting a ninth) within the circle-of-fifths progression already shown in Ex. 2-25b, the F♯ proceeding along the same circle of fifths to the dominant pedal on B.

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. 29 Sep. 2020. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-div1-002009.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 29 Sep. 2020, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-div1-002009.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 29 Sep. 2020, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-div1-002009.xml