Time Signature: 1903
"No, just look at this, Pierre. This is his second movement. It's got the same key signature, the same pulsing tone on C sharp in its introduction. The melodies are practically identical rhythmically, too."
"That's superficial. They both wrote habaneras, Louis. How different are they going to be? Bizet and Massenet have the same rhythm, too. Claude's our greatest composer. Why would he need to copy someone like Maurice?"
"Bizet wasn't writing for the piano. I'm telling you, look at this. It's not the rhythm he copied. It's the technique. That continuous pedal tone in the backdrop is straight out of Ravel's Habanera."
"I hear you. I'm listening and I'm telling you you're making too much out of it. Maurice worships Claude. Even if the technique is similar, he's not going to make any trouble unless you egg him on. Drop it, Louis. Please."
Time Signature: 1901
Maurice Ravel keeps a piano in his bedroom "to entertain the ladies." This is a lie he's never actually had to tell, though when the piano was installed he worked in front of the mirror for an hour on how he might deliver it to friends. Should he wink as he says it or is that too much? What if they want to hear more details? "Non, Monsieur, a gentleman never betrays a confidence." What if they're getting suspicious? "Oui, Monsieur, despite appearances I am quite the lover of the ladies." Or is it better just to tell the truth: "Sometimes I sit on the piano bench and masturbate to the music of Debussy or," snarl of revulsion that stays no matter how much he tries to eradicate it in the mirror, "Wagner." No, that would never do. Even the Apaches would avoid him after such a revelation. But he's never been asked why he keeps a piano in his bedroom and so he's never had to tell them about "the ladies". Perhaps they just assume he likes to compose in private. This is true. It's how he prevents his struggles with the work from ruining the illusion. ('Musicians are like magicians," Master Faure told him when he was younger. 'They must never reveal their secrets to outsiders.')
He sits at the piano bench with the Sarabande from "Pour le Piano" on the stand and doesn't play a single note. He just stares at the notes in awe. It's so spontaneous (You're so rigid, Rara), so casual (You're so formal, Rara), so unexpected (You're so reliable, Rara), so unerringly wrong (You always know the right thing to say, Rara). The great musical geniuses are the ones who know when breaking the schoolbook composition rules is the right thing to do. Debussy writes like he doesn't even know there are composition rules to break. It is exhilarating and sensual. There is something heroic about the arrival of a new Debussy composition.
The pace builds. He reads the notes faster and faster, freed from their rhythms by the conductor in his head. His heart rate accelerates, he can feel the notes, digging into his skin. There is an exotic hint, something brought back from Java perhaps? Finally he reaches the conclusion, the hemiola that tries to slow him down, but he's come too far for that. It is like a whole orchestra is playing it in his head. He leans back in satisfaction, new trousers ruined.
Time Signature: 1910
Mon dieu, Emma Bardac. She was not young when I first met her, you know. Raoul had already been my student for several years, and was nearing the end of his time at the Paris Conservatory. But she’s still stunning well into her forties. Here, look at this portrait. Look at that skin, so white and smooth. Look at those eyes, so fierce and demanding. My towering Queen.
She keeps you on your toes. She was with Gabriel before me, and maybe even during as well. Any day she could turn to me and say au revoir. That's why it never loses its excitement the way it did with Lilly or Therese or Gaby. I’m not in control. All it took was one look in those mesmerizing eyes and I'd do whatever she told me to. She’s a most demanding muse.
There’s only one woman who inspires me to greater heights of creativity than Emma, and that’s Chou-Chou. When I sit at the piano and Emma’s in the room, every single one of my little grey cells is dedicated to making those brilliant eyes light up.
And oh, being in bed with Emma is an experience you never forget. Her body could not possibly have been a match for Lilly's, but sleeping with Lilly was no more than what it seemed. She was Juliette to Emma's Rosina, fatally simple in her love. Ever since I discovered the fountain of love that was Emma Bardac, there could be no other woman.
Time Signature: 1902
It looks like so much less on paper. Ecstasy theme, linking together Pelleas and Melisande (or Claude and Maurice?):
Horn part: Slur three quarter notes, then sound out five eighth notes where six should go, stretching them out ever so slightly. Sing a dotted half note, then another one, till it fades away. Another dotted half note becomes three quarter notes, then hold a whole note as long as you can.
Flute part: Wait patiently until it's time. Float two quarter notes behind the horn, then tie two more together, as tight as possible. Play two more quarter notes until you spill over into the next measure, then three more quarter notes. Sound out five eighth notes where six should go, a distant echo as you try to catch up with the horn. Then hold a whole note as long as you can.
That's just the rhythm. That's nothing without the pitches. It's like sitting outside the room listening to the thump of the headboard against the wall, an inept voyeur, and wondering why they're being so quiet if they're enjoying themselves. We're talking about Maurice wondering why it's so easy for Claude to skip from mistress to mistress in public and Claude wondering why Maurice won't open the damn door if he wants to watch.
Time Signature: 1921
"Bonjour, Monsieur Ravel!" when he hears it in that voice, is enough to turn his head around. He hasn't heard that voice since the funeral, and even before that they didn't really talk, but it's not something he could forget. He turns on his heel to greet her with a stolid half-bow.
"Bonjour, Madame Bardac. It has been some time." She shows the age in the tanning of her skin, the folds beneath her eyes, the quaver in her voice. The war, the death of her husband, the death of her daughter: she has not had any easy time of it. Maurice softens the severity of his greeting by smiling broadly.
"Yes, it has. It's good to see you once more. Did you like the performance? It reminded me of your Daphnis." And ah, there it is, the reason she alone could own Claude's heart. Piercing insight and an uncanny ability to know what to say to put you back on your heels. It did sound like his ballet in certain places.
"Monsieur Milhaud was once a student of mine. But I wish we could move away from this language on influence. Certainly Darius has learned things from me and others of his fellow composers, but his voice is all his own. His understanding of harmony is uniquely his own. I could never have composed such a piece."
"You protest too hard, Monsieur Ravel. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. Your bursts of inspiration..."
"Inspiration comes of working every day, as Baudelaire reminds us."
She persists anyway, her dimple growing as she works her way into the conversation. "Your bursts of inspiration have changed the course of our national music several times already. You are our greatest composer now. You must learn to accept the comparisons."
Maurice struggles to find the words to respond to this. He lets the silence grow, trying to speak and then fumbling before he finally answers. "Yes, they're calling me the nation's finest composer, now that Claude is gone. I must tell you, Madame Bardac, I'd rather he were still around."
She grows quiet, too. "Me too. But some of Claude lives on in your compositions. I can hear it quite clearly."
Time Signature: 1902
It is weeks before he can sit through Pelleas all the way. It premieres at the Opera-Comique in April and he's in the audience, of course, and it's the first time he's heard these orchestrations and articulations outside of his head and it's exquisite and it's intense and it's all too much for him to stand and by the first act intermission he has to leave to try to get Pelleas and Golaud out of his head. He walks the streets of Paris in confusion after the show ends. And then the reviews come in and it's a failure and a flop and it's his failure and his flop and as he watches he tries to figure out how he went wrong and that wars with the intensity in his head and he keeps going to performances and sitting in the audience for as long as he can stand and returning only to take a curtain call from the meager crowds. And the only thing keeping him going is that at the end of the night he goes home to Lilly or he visits Emma or Marie or Jacques and he hears a glimpse of Melisande's beauty in their cries of pleasure.
He sits in the audience for Act 1 and sometimes he can listen through to Act 2 if he keeps his eyes closed to avoid overstimulation. If he just listens he can hear his melodies almost objectively, recognizing where the horn part is too insistent or the strings needs to be played with greater delicacy. But soon the critical part of his brain is shut off and all he can hear is his characters, the men and women who have lived only inside his head for the past nine years, moving closer and closer to their destruction. All he can hear is Melisande's sadness and Golaud's jealousy and Pelleas's simple, desperate loneliness. When he flees the theater, he can hear them in his head and not even the reliably raucous applause of the young Apaches at the end of the night can drown them out.
When he meets Emma or Maurice or Therese at parties the song in his head intensifies. He attempts the raconteur, badly, when all he wants is to be able to pull them close to him and say, "I'm looking for nothing more in life than to find someone who understands why music is like love." He doesn't know why he's not allowed to just say that and then let the music speak for him.
But then with time the crowds start coming and the show comes into its own and he watches in real time as each audience takes a little bit of Pelleas and a little bit of Melisande and a little bit of Golaud home with them. Several weeks into the run, he realizes that he can sit through the whole thing now because it isn't only his. Lilly owns a big part now, and so does Emma, and so do Maurice and Ricardo and the rest of the Apaches. He breathes a sigh of relief and moves on with his life.
Time Signature: 1903
Add in a she. She has a pair of ears, too. The rest of her body doesn't matter. No, that's not true. If she has ears without a brain, and a tree falls in a forest, what's the point? She has ears and a brain, and nothing else matters. Her breasts, lips, toes, thighs, cheeks and buttocks are besides the point. They carry none of the erotic.
The only way to excite her is to play the piano. Then she gets locked into a feedback loop, spooky attraction at a distance. Fingers and ears, and the piano as an intermediary. With each bar of the score, the piano gets deeper and deeper.
Time Signature: 1905
Seated next to Claude at the piano bench, it's all too much for Maurice. He slides a few centimeters to the right and feels better about it.
"The critics don't like my string quartet," he says. "They say it sounds too much like yours."
Claude looks at the young man sitting next to him, fresh-cheeked and positively boiling over with intensity. How do you preserve that youth, he wonders. "Don't listen to that nonsense. Your quartet is astonishingly original."
Maurice's cheeks grow red. He turns his face to the piano, and his fingers unconsciously stroke a chord. "Thank you, Claude. Director Faure agrees with the critics. He called the piece stunted, and offered to help me rework the final movement."
“In the name of the gods of music and in my own, do not touch a single note you have written in your Quartet." His voice lowers slightly. "And if it makes you feel better, Emma has told me about Monsieur Faure. If I were him, I wouldn't throw around the word stunted so easily."
Maurice plays the theme from the first movement, trying to look careless but keeping his ears focused on the sound of every note.
The notes ring out in the spacious parlor. To his surprise, Claude hums along. It jars his focus enough that he stops playing. "It really isn't anything like yours. Maybe I learned some specific techniques from your quartet, like the pizzicato section, but I took the quartet's structure straight from Haydn."
"'Like Debussy' is code these days for 'too innovative and clever to be trusted.' The conservatives need to remind us that they still exist," he says grimly. "You shouldn't worry about anything but the music, and the music needs no defense. When I listen to your quartet, it is like an entry into the deepest part of your mind. I hear your tender beauty, your sensuality, your quick intelligence."
Maurice sits as still as possible, plays another theme from the quartet, and prays Claude never figures out how much work it took him to create the persona that Claude wanted to hear in that quartet. Prays Claude never really gains entry into the deepest part of his mind, the part that wants to edge those two or three centimeters closer to Claude and see what happens.
Time signature: 1900
His left shoulder slumps against the far wall, but he remains standing. He barely moves. All of his body's energy concentrates in his ears.
The piano is by the doorway and Debussy sits at the bench, a look of concentration occasionally stealing across his ovoid face despite his studied informality. His eyebrows arch, his goateed cheeks puff, his sharp eyes narrow, relax, and then narrow again.
"This is where Pelleas sings 'One would think that your voice had come over the sea in the spring/ I believe I never have heard it till now.' Melisande and Pelleas have finally confessed their love for each other and here is Pelleas expressing his bewilderment. He never expected her to love him back. It was sufficient that she exist for him to fixate his attention on."
Raoul, perched on a chair behind the piano bench, yawns and tries to look interested. Debussy doesn't seem to notice. He barely seems to notice anything in the room. He looms above the physicality of the piano and the room and his two young guests. He and his ethereal music flow intertwined into every empty space in the parlor.
Maurice tunes out the piano notes and focuses on Debussy's pedal work. The notes still floating in the distance, he hears only the clicks and squeals as Debussy's stubby legs churn beneath the keyboard.
Time Signature: 1905
One shaky leg stumbles after its partner through the doorway, dragging a torso behind it. A moment passes, a palpable, no longer inchoate moment that everyone feels as it scrapes across their skin. Nobody moves. The other leg moves ahead again, pulled by the unbalancing force of the bobbing torso. Rubbery arms rise from the torso's side and attempt to form themselves into some semblance of John Sullivan's favorite pose.
A blurry taunt comes from above the torso, flying toward Claude on the far couch. Its three word claim sounds like three separate sentences, spoken slowly as if the speaker is trying to make sure each word comes out clearly. "You. Bastard. Copycat." Claude kisses Emma, which seems to incite the rubbery arms into a furious churn, then he separates himself from his wife and walks until he stands no more than 2 meters from his drunken accuser. His shoulders are straight. His eyes are merry. His smile is placatory.
The first swing should have been expected, but somehow it seems to take Claude by surprise. The awkward half-slap lands on his bearded left cheek, turning him around. Then the moment ends and everyone is back in motion, shouting at each other or jumping around or leaping in to pull Maurice away from Claude or pulling aside into separate arguments about the merits of the accusation or the quality of the punch or running for another tumbler of brandy. With time the party drifts away from the moment in search of other pleasures. And in the middle of the chaos, Claude is having his own palpable moment. He is still, his finger rubbing his left check, looking vaguely at the spot where Maurice had been trying to stand straight.
Time Signature: 1900
I met a very interesting young man last evening, Gaby. One of Raoul Bardac's friends. He was very funny! He looked the part of the dandy right out of Baudelaire. His bowtie was so stiff!
He's a promising composer and a very talented pianist, too. His fingers, ah, for fingers with his dexterity I would trade many things. I imagine you would trade many things for me to have fingers with his dexterity too, Gaby? Oh the things I would do with those long, slender fingers. I would stroke the ivory... skin of your back until you screamed out in ecstasy. You should meet him, dear. I think you would be impressed with him. He has a sense of orderliness about him that is almost German, yet he speaks French like a Spaniard.
Time Signature: 1922
The orchestration is his last chance at hand to hand combat, and he is surprised at his reluctance: he has grown soft in his old age. Ravel can still remember the day twenty years ago when he first played this Sarabande. When Jean Jobert had asked him to orchestrate it, he hadn’t known what to say. Jean had taken that for a yes, and perhaps it was, at that.
The deadline for his Sonata for Violin and Cello is sooner, but he works on the orchestration project when he needs a break from that. It helps to step outside the chamber work and seize the full power of the symphony for a while. As he imposes rhythmic solidity on the elusive spontaneity of Debussy, he feels the music push back against him, which may be what he’s seeking. When the piece is finished, he turns his attention back to his sonata with renewed clarity. He knows exactly what he wants out of the cello, now, from the aching solo opening to the slow third movement to the vibrant pizzicati of the second movement.
He finishes it in a rare burst of inspiration and throws one final punch at the master. With fury, he signs the piece “To the memory of Claude Debussy.”