This book seems well researched and offers some new insight into the life of Maurice Ravel. However, the main premise of this book is the assertion that Ravel was homosexual. It is true that little is known about Ravel's personal life and it is also true that many fine biographies have been written about Ravel without delving into this subject. The problem is that Mr. Ivry offers little, in my opinion, to substantiate the claim. Still, this book offers much to Ravel fans. Besides, it really doesn't matter what Ravel's sexual preferance was. Mr. Ivry presents some interesting angles on Ravel's creative output. Though I have read at least 7 or 8 Ravel biographies prior to this one I still learned a few new things and for this I am grateful.
No other composer of Ravel's stature has been so badly done-by as far as biographies are concerned. His music is not taken seriously in the academy, probably because of its "accessibility" (let's face it, it's not as fun to analyse as Berg's or Webern's permutations of various tone rows they have used). There is also probably always going to be a great deal concerning Ravel about which we will simply never know. However, most books on him are usually either boring or badly written. Orenstein has a good rep, but in my opinion, the best is by Nicols (in the "Master Musicians" series) even though he was not a Ravel specialist.
Ivry's book is neither boring nor badly written. Nonetheless, the first and most striking faux pas that one notices upon opening it, is the complete absence or omission of end notes or foot notes. While some people may feel that this is a small point, I believe it is absolutely essential for anyone who wants to make a serious contribution to the documented history of anything. My favourite biographer, Claire Tomalin, frequently emulates fictional literature in her approach. The openings of her books on Samuel Pepys and Thomas Hardy paint very dramatic scenes from an important or poignant part of their lives. Nonetheless, she fills her books with references and citations so as to let us know that if we were to do the same research we would most likely come to the same conclusions. This is not only a more humble approach, but also less secretive and lets us know that we can trust her. If some author says to me that I should just simply trust him or her based on their status as a published author, then I am inclined not to trust them at all, or at least be mightily suspicious that they are hiding something. If you're so confident that what you say is as objective and as factual as possible, then prove it to me that you are offering your information in good faith.
Now, I am not saying that Ivry is lying or making it all up. And certainly, taking the approach that Ravel was a gay man and that this had great import to his life and work is certainly worth investigating and the author makes a good case. But I'm sorry, I am not just going to "take his word for it" because he is a published author. For me, this makes the difference between "Maurice Ravel: A Life" being a three star and a five star book. If this book is published again, it would increase its credibility to give some citations and make me want to believe the author some more.
There are other problems with his research. He does not make it abundantly clear that it is more likely than not that Ravel NEVER conducted anything in a recording studio. My source for this is an article from THE ECONOMIST (p. 76, 1993-08-07) in which The Economist actually cites a source which Ivry talks about in passing as well, namely, Arbie Orenstein. In addition, I personally interviewed L. Douglas Henderson (in THE MISSISSIPPI RAG, p. 14, October 1997, "Debunking Piano Roll Mythology") in which Mr. Henderson (who has been active in the field of player piano roll production for decades) states that it is most likely that almost nobody ever recorded player piano rolls - the piano roll companies would use the names of famous performers or composers to help sell the piano rolls. But these issues are not dealt with satisfactorily or at all in Ivry's book.
But it certainly is a "fun read" despite its, at times, "gossipy" tone. A great deal of the time I found it very enjoyable to read, in spite of its shortcomings. However, I would recommend this book to people who are just learning about Ravel's music, as an introduction. I cannot recommend it to anyone who has a serious interest in either the composer or of re-investigating history. Once citations and other issues are dealt with accordingly, I could then recommend this book whole-heartedly.
Bert vanC Bailey
Some reviewers have praised this book for the way its author, Benjamin Ivry, removes the fog surrounding Ravel's sexuality, apparently showing that he was gay. Yet when he is not being speculative Ivry makes his case either indirectly or by innuendo, never backing his views and quotations with references.
The biography's focus on Ravel's sex life means that all other matters scarcely get attention. Ravel's efforts to finish "Le Tombeau du Couperin" are raised, but its actual completion goes without remark. (99) When the music is considered, the focus generally fixes on those involved, rather than on the masterpiece itself, its sources of inspiration, its reception, etc. All we hear about is Marguerite Long's reluctance to play its difficult last movement. (90)
Like glossy magazines at supermarket checkouts, Ivry's claims tend to the scandalous and shaky end of the spectrum of factual. Beyond the lack of references, there's all too much character assassination. Take this, about Ravel's acquaintance Edmond Rostand, author of "Cyrano de Bergerac": he presumably "...lisped, minced, and limped his way through Paris society, resembling 'a fat woman dressed as a bellhop in a review [sic],' according to one observer." This, on p.103, fails to attribute the quotation to any book, letter or other source, and no further remark is made about the unnamed "observer." Ivry goes on: "Rostand's search for sex in public urinals ...shocked even Cocteau." (103f.) Again, no source to this astonishing claim is ever attributed. Just how, beyond insinuation, any of this about Rostand reflects on the composer is another matter entirely.
This book belongs alongside Charles Higham's books on Cary Grant (claiming he was gay), Errol Flynn (that he was a Nazi spy) and his double biography of Olivia de Havilland and Joan Fontaine (on the siblings' supposed mutual loathing). These were best-selling muckrakers that still weigh down valuable library shelf space despite having since been discredited by research and the outraged testimony of those who knew better. Higham's reliability is thoroughly debunked in Tony Thomas's book Errol Flynn: The Spy Who Never Was [see my review]. Thomas compares texts Higham cited to support his claims with passages from the real, recently-declassified documents he claimed to cite. The differences are a remarkable lesson in the dangers of dishonest journalism, especially if penned by an engaging writer.
Yet for all of Ivry's woeful scholarship, few authors are as shameless as Higham. In fact, this book does provide value with some interesting things about Ravel's life that may interest lovers of his music. This includes tidbits such as his attraction to cabaret music, his enthusiasm for some popular crooners, and just who among his pals had the best record collections. (108f.) Much is made of Maurice's strong bonds with his mother, yet it is parlayed mostly to support the book's overarching thesis, so is maybe best noted as a reference point for further reading--preferably, of well-referenced books! This one by Ivry will also not fail those who are after a feel for the times in France and some circumstances in the life of this composer and some of his associates.
Although it is far from established in this book, Ravel may, in fact, have been gay. The back cover claims that "Ivry offers here a convincing solution to the much-discussed `mystery' of Ravel's sexuality." This is publicity, and should be treated as such. Ivry's conjectural leaps fly much too far to shed light on the matter, defeating any sense of gravity about this dimension in the life of one of the most enchanting composers ever.
In any case, let's also not overlook that Ravel's sexuality has about as much bearing on his art as his favourite breakfast menu, or the colour of his eyes.
As the dean of Ravel studies, Professor Arbie Orenstein, states on the book cover, this book offers lots of new research and insights into the very famous composer of "Bolero" and other works. This volume is an essential companion to Prof. Orenstein's own works. It offers lots of previous unpublished items and facts about Ravel's creative milieu, in addition to the most plausible explanation of the relation between Ravel's life and music.