Monday, August 01, 2005
Ravel's Greatest Treasure
This little golden cage, watched intensely by my eldest daughter, contains a tiny bird that is singing passionately, very sweetly, while beating its wings and turning its head to look at all of us standing watching, entranced. The guardian of Ravel's house told us that this bird, a beautifully produced automaton, was Ravel's greatest treasure. It used to sit on the piano where he composed at one end of his tiny house. It's easy to imagine how he never grew tired of listening to it sing.
The composer Maurice Ravel moved to the country in 1921 to escape the distractions of Paris. He bought a little house called Le Belvédère situated on the edge of a quiet town called Montfort L'Amaury in the countryside to the south-west of Paris. The house is little bigger than a train carriage, although it does have two floors, with his small bedroom downstairs, close to the tiny garden which is laid out in a Japanese style with fountains and a circular path. Manuel Rosenthal, the conductor, called the house "a pavillion in the form of a badly-cut slice of camembert". In France, knowing how to cut the camembert is an important part of dinner table etiquette. Never cut off its nose. Always slice towards the centre.
Ravel is supposed to have been a very small man and it is difficult to imagine otherwise, walking around the tiny rooms which feel about 3/4 scale, as if the builder had taken the measurements off the plan incorrectly. How else would he have felt at home? No more than six people are allowed to visit at any time. The house just isn't big enough, and it is full of tiny delicate treasures: under a bell-jar, in the piano room, is a tiny glass galleon that has sunk to the bottom of the sea and is now surrounded by tiny mermaids, starfishes and seashells; there is a little wooden box which grows arms and legs and puts out its tongue when you turn the handle; there is a miniature carved cat that is smaller than a fingernail and which lives in a tiny jar; and there is a charming porcelain monkey dressed like Marie-Antoinette and waving a fan.
Everything about the house suggests a woman's touch, however, he was never married, preferring the company of his dog Jazz. He said he did not want to marry because it would have been unfair to whoever he asked to be his wife, given his obsession with his own creativity. The house remains as he left it after dying of a brain tumour in 1937. He suffered a long illness that lasted several years and eventually died undergoing treatment in Paris. The bathroom next to his bedroom suggests a somewhat narcissistic nature, lined with brushes and implements of every imaginable manicuring purpose. He dressed as a dandy, using his appearance as a kind of mask to protect himself from the world.
When critics called his work 'artificial', he responded: "Mais est-ce qu'il ne vient jamais à l'idée de ces gens-là que je peux être 'artificiel' par nature?" ("But doesn't it ever dawn on those people that I may be 'artificial' by nature?")
Ravel was also an atheist. The local priest visited every year to try and poach Ravel for his congregation, and although the stained glass windows in the church of Montfort L'Amaury are some of the most beautiful in France, he never succeeded. Ravel believed more in the magic of fairies, nature and far away places. He was buried without religious ceremony.
I have been listening to Ravel's music this evening. It is as delicate and sensitive as the house and the things he kept around him, especially the adagio from his Concerto in G Major, a beautiful piece. It is not so much a piece of cheese I think of when I look at the photograph of his house, perched precariously between the road at the front door and the steep drop of the hill below, but of a locomotive engine, its odd little tower in the middle sticking up like the driver's cabin, waiting to leave for far away places, carrying its odd cargo of secrets and delicate beauty.