Details of Consequence: Ornament, Music, and Art in Paris.
In a famous 1878 letter to his patroness Nadezhda von Meck, Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky referenced the "capricious arabesques" inhabiting the third movement of his recentlycomposed Fourth Symphony, "fugitive images which pass through one's mind when one has had a little wine to drink and is feeling the first effects of intoxication" (cited in Music in the Western World, 2d ed., ed. Piero Weiss and Richard Taruskin [New York: Schirmer Books, 2007], 339.) Nearly three decades later, a performance of Maurice Ravel's "Noctuelles" led critic Auguste Mangeot to evoke the sensation of "taking opium or hashish" (p. 3). In attempting to understand how these very different works could evoke parallel reactions of disorientation and fantasy, Gurminder Kaur Bhogal argues for each composer's use of musical adornment. Often dismissed as mere decoration, ornament enjoys a long history in musical and philosophical writing extending from Plato through Immanuel Kant, Eduard Hanslick, Edgar Allen Poe, Stephane Mallarme, Jacques Derrida, and Vladimir Jankelevitch, before reaching an apex in France at the turn of the twentieth century.
Following an introductory chapter laying out the basic premise of the book as a corrective to previous neglect of the topic, the remaining chapters are devoted to case studies demon strating the breadth of ornament during the fin-de-siecle period. Bhogal foregrounds the arabesque, a twisting decorative pattern originating in Europe during the Moorish conquest of Spain and used in reference to painting and architecture as well as music (see, for example, Maurice J.E. Brown and Kenneth L. Hamilton, "Arabesque", in the New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, 2d ed., ed. Stanley Sadie and John Tyrell [London: Macmillan, 2001], 1:794-797; for a discussion of the term as related to the visual arts, see Hans Ottomeyer, "Arabesque", in The Dictionary of Art, Vol. 2, ed. Jane Turner [New York and London: Macmillan, 1996]). Although the most famous nineteenth-century example is Robert Schumann's piano character piece Arabeske, Op. 18 (1838), the book centers almost exclusively on music composed and performed in Paris. While the author is not the only musicologist to recognise the importance of the arabesque, she is the first to study it in depth (for other examples of scholarship on the topic, see Ralph P. Locke, Musical Exoticism: Images and Reflections [Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009], 217-222; and Jann Pasler, Composing the Citizen: Music as Public Utility in Third Republic France [Berkeley: University of California Press, 2009], 533-537.) A difficult term to define with precision, Bhogal notes that even works with arabesque in the title--for example, Debussy's Deux Arabesques for piano (1888-1891)--may not conform to her interpretation of this ornament, a point I shall return to below.
The first two chapters, devoted to establishing an historical and aesthetic foundation, reveal why profuse ornamentation found a home in the French beaux arts around 1900. Paintings, tapestries, furniture, and designs from artists including Auguste Racinet and Eugene Grasset provide representative examples. Grasset receives special attention for his work as an illustrator, decorator, and author, evoking comparisons to England's William Morris and Russia's Nicholas Roerich. Arguing for ornament as a "French national icon" (p. 48), Bhogal shows how the adept use of decoration allowed for the fusion of fantasy and reality, while retaining an aura of mystery and associations with femininity. On the specific topic of the arabesque, Bhogal writes:
"Depending on its context and the theoretical standpoint from which it was viewed, the arabesque could be perceived as charming or unsettling; it could mean something or nothing; it could absorb the viewer's attention and be seen; or it could remain peripheral on account of its status as 'mere' ornament" (p. 64).
A discussion of Edouard Vuillard's painting Le Piano (1896) highlights the "sheer variety of pattern and color" while referencing a hazy black and white image, one of more than a dozen by Pierre Bonnard, Maurice Denis, Henri Matisse, Gustave Moreau, and others scattered throughout the book. While acknowledging the exorbitant cost of reproducing color plates, it would have been preferable to allow access to the original images through a companion Web site or links to high-quality Web versions. The chapter concludes with a detailed examination of the best-known musical arabesque, the opening flute solo to Debussy's Prelude a l'apres-midi d'un faune (1891-1894). This ornament as Bhogal defines it features a narrow range, flowing movement, short note values, and an ambiguous metrical profile.
The third chapter, centered on piano music by Faure, Debussy, and Ravel, emerges as a pivotal section. With Debussy's ornaments influencing Ravel and vice versa, a new paradigm emerged, where decoration is often indistinguishable from structure. Here, Faure's Third Barcarolle (1885-1886) and Ravel's Jeux d'eau (1901) played significant roles in the future trajectory of French keyboard repertoire. The dichotomy between musique cerebrale (cerebral music) and musique sensorielle (sensual music), to use Michel Calvocoressi's terms, became increasingly apparent. In a series of nuanced analyses, Bhogal uncovers ornament's diverse, interrelated functions: it may temporarily interrupt meter, as in Debussy's Reflets dans l'eau (1905); subsume melody altogether as in Jeux d'eau; or alternate between moments of stability and instability, as in "Noctuelles" from Gaspard de la nuit (1908). To fully appreciate analytical excursions found throughout the book, ready access to scores is recommended.
Bhogal reminds us that, unlike other composers, Debussy referenced the arabesque in letters, reviews, and articles, celebrating its purity and fluidity with examples ranging from plainchant to Palestrina to the Javanese gamelan, all without ever providing a concrete definition. In a 1958 article for La Revue musicale, critic Francoise Gervais cites the ornament's conjunct motion, independence from harmony, and the prevalence of triplets. Bhogal takes this one step further, stating that while such melodies may be played on the piano or sung, they "are more often than not performed in a soft dynamic by a solo woodwind instrument" (p. 174), as in the Faune example. She goes on to cite more than a dozen Debussy excerpts, distinguishing (not always convincingly) between decorative melodies and true arabesques while extending the discussion to composers outside France, chiefly Russians--Borodin, Glinka, and Rimsky-Korsakov are given special emphasis.
The chapter closes with a probing analysis of ornamental features in Ravel's ballet Daphnis et Chloe (1912), where she identifies six arabesque melodies connected to aspects of plot, mood, and structure. This section expands upon Bhogal's previous work on the ballet, where she identifies seven examples of arabesque, subdivided into "arabesques of action" and "arabesques of feeling" ("Debussy's Arabesque and Ravel's Daphnis et Chloe," Twentieth-Century Music 3, no. 2 : 171-199.) For the role of Chloe especially, Ravel's deft use of ornament coupled with metric instability foregrounds her as a "fragile and vulnerable" character (p. 200). By the time Stravinsky's Le Sacre du printemps (1913) had its notorious premiere, the arabesque had ostensibly run its course, replaced by a leaner style depouille (stripped-down style) associated with neoclassicism. In the final chapters, Bhogal demonstrates why the story is richer and more nuanced than the current literature suggests. Simply put, the rise of new approaches did not imply the elimination of ornament, but rather its transformation and reinterpretation.
Starting her discussion of Sacre with designer Nicholas Roerich's decorative approach to costuming, she reveals how the opening bassoon melody contradicts the composer's own designation as an "aubade" (p. 235). Rather, this may be the last important example of an arabesque. In a lengthy discussion of the "Augurs of Spring" section of Sacre, she draws on the work of Jonathan Kramer and James Hepokoski to demonstrate how the composer's ornaments create a sense of suspended time through conflicting meters, multiple layers of activity, and "rhythmic/metric pandemonium" (p. 255). By organising the motivic content into eight groups, we discern the subtlety and interconnectedness of Stravinsky's motivic language.
In "Ornament and Disenchantment During World War I and Beyond", the author argues that after 1914 the concept of ornament was again revised, subsumed, and redefined. Reflecting a broader reduction of extraneous material, works such as Schoenberg's Sechs kleine Klavierstucke (1911) show a highly restrained use of embellishment. The arabesque also made a brief return in paintings by Matisse, including The Piano Lesson (1916) with its curvaceous shapes. For Debussy, late compositions including Syrinx for solo flute (published 1927) and the Cello Sonata (1915) reveal bolder gestures than were common in his earlier music.
Although Ravel never used the term arabesque and was generally wary of excessive ornamentation, Bhogal recognises moments of "decorative interruption" (p. 290) in works such as the Trio (1914) and Le Tombeau de Couperin (1914-1917). Art depouille (stripped-down art) found a welcome reception with Satie, even though his Gnossiennes (1890-1913) reveal prominent decorative elements. At the same time, he parodied the effusiveness of Debussy and Ravel in Sports et divertissements (1914).
Taken as a whole, Details of Consequence is a discerning, elegantly-written examination of a topic frequently relegated to the margins of musicological study. A model of interdisciplinary work, the author draws on the visual arts, philosophy, fashion, textile, and dance to uncover significant connections between the French arts. While the analyses give short shrift to vocal music--compact references to Debussy's Chansons de Bilitis (1896-1898) and Ravel's L'heure espagnole (1907-1909) notwithstanding--Bhogal's nuanced observations enable us to hear familiar works with new ears. (Bhogal has previously extended her work into the realm of opera; see "Lakme's Echoing Jewels", in The Arts of the Prima Donna in the Long Nineteenth Century 1800-1920, ed. Rachel Cowgill and Hilary Poriss [Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012], 186-205.) More should have been made of the essential differences between decorative melodies and true arabesques and the gendered context of ornamentation overall, and I wished for a broader selection of repertoire. What, for example, would the author make of the winding gestures in melodies such as Reynaldo Hahn's neo-Baroque A Chloris (1916) and Faure's Mandoline (1891)? And what about Debussy's friend Paul Dukas, who, in a moving tribute to his departed colleague titled La plainte, au loin, du faune (1920), used arabesque-like gestures in reference to Debussy's early orchestral masterpiece composed more than twenty years prior?
These are, however, minor concerns that in no way detract from an impressive scholarly contribution. By moving ornament from background to foreground, Bhogal provides a solid foundation for further work. Perhaps Debussy, the purveyor of ornament par excellence, best crystalised the timelessness of the phenomenon in a 1901 review for La Revue blanche, where he wrote concerning Bach's music that "it is not the character of the melody that moves us, it is its curve" (p. 164).
Keith E. Clifton
Central Michigan University
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|Author:||Clifton, Keith E.|
|Publication:||Fontes Artis Musicae|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Oct 1, 2016|
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