Ravel’s choices for interior design and landscape in fact are analogous to his inventive musical textures, which reflect his response to diverse European and Asian Pacific and Japanese sources as well as North American blues, jazz, and ragtime.
Guest post by Walter Witt
As a pianist and admirer of Ravel, my visit to Ravel’s house and museum in Montfort L’Amaury several years ago could be considered a sort of pilgrimage.
Ravel purchased the house on the outskirts of Paris, called “Le Belvédère,” in 1921, as a respite from frenzied Parisian social life, a place to entertain his friends, to seal himself off from the world to meditate and to compose. He lived there until his death in 1937. Ravel carried out extensive design work on the house throughout the 1920s.
A deeper understanding of Ravel as a composer, as a master of colour counterpoint, an ornamentalist with miniaturist inclinations, the non-Impressionist and non-European allusions that he employed in his music, can be gleaned from Ravel’s own decorative practices at his home and garden at Le Belvédère. Ravel’s choices for interior design and landscape in fact are analogous to his inventive musical textures, which reflect his response to diverse European and Asian Pacific and Japanese sources as well as North American blues, jazz, and ragtime.
Le Belvédère is what you might call a confidential address, accessible only on certain days and in small groups. Once inside, you can see why. Though the house is picturesque, it’s no chateau. A panorama of hills and forest stretches out beyond the cobbled streets of Montfort-l’Amaury. For Ravel, it was the view from the balcony that first sold him on the house.
The composer was in his mid-40s and at a low ebb when he bought Le Belvédère. He had failed to win the coveted Prix de Rome three times, losing out each time to composers whose names are hardly known today. Determined to serve his country in the first World War, he had tried to sign up for the air force, but was refused on grounds of height. (Ravel’s brocade waistcoats are displayed near the entrance – at 5 foot 2, he was every inch the dandy).
Finally, he was allowed to drive trucks at the Front. He caught dysentery. His beloved mother died in his absence and he felt he had abandoned her. For months, he never touched a manuscript.
Instead, he threw himself into the design and decoration of this house – his first – re-shaping it to reflect his highly individual tastes and personality. He created his own Art Deco wallpaper. He arranged his collection of singular objects, arranging them for harmony or piquancy, creating patterns for the eye. He immersed himself in gardening books, tended to his orchard and turned the sloping garden behind the house into a Japanese style garden.
Ravel was an inveterate antique hunter. He’d invite friends to admire the latest treasures in his sitting room, before revealing how much – or rather, how little – he’d paid for them. The cabinet of Creil et Montereau picture plates, the antique Chinese cups, the drapes, the furniture …everything feels curated, elegant – and personal. Often, homes of famous people feel as if they have been reconstituted from the original. Not this one. It feels as if the owner has just stepped out to buy a baguette or a pack of Gauloises.
Upon entering the house, the first impression is that of a doll-like miniaturism. The stairway and hallways are tight. Throughout the house, the rooms are snug. There’s even a small, secret annex off the music room behind a cabinet (handy for Ravel to whisk manuscripts away from prying eyes).
In the music room, Ravel’s rosewood piano, an Érard which I played during my visit, is still in good condition and kept in tune. The piano fills most of the space. His mother’s portrait hangs above the piano. A portrait of Ravel as a young boy hangs across the room, facing the pianist. Surrounded by portraits of his family and silhouettes of composers, this is where Ravel composed Boléro, the Piano Concerto for the Left Hand, the Concerto in G and L’enfant et les sortilèges. On the piano are more of his treasures – a collection of snuff boxes, butterfly wing art and a rare 19th-century scene made of spun glass, a speciality of Nevers.
While it was here that Ravel wrote his most famous work, Boléro, the work most embedded in the property to my mind is the opera L’Enfant et les Sortilèges. To walk around the house and garden is almost to step into the magical arc of the opera – its first act featuring teapots, armchairs and wallpaper that come to life, its second moving to a night-time garden brimming with cricket calls and croaking frogs – as well as to feel its unforced mix of playfulness and profound seriousness.
In fact, the longer one stays in the house the more one begins to sense the “small wonder” of Ravel: the connoisseur’s mind, the watchmaker’s heart, the eye for beauty and detail, the feeling for pathos. The suggestion of a hidden interior that is bigger than it appears from the outside.
There is a small room full of Asian objects. The collection seems like a mix of objects from China, Japan and Indonesia as well. The extent of his collection is quite impressive, and what was immediately obvious is the almost obsessive way he placed the objects symmetrically in the room. This symmetrical pattern is evident in almost every other part of Le Belvédère.
Ravel in fact gave us a small opening onto Le Belvédère’s aesthetic, as reported in the Dutch tabloid De Telegraaf in 1931. According to the journalist, Ravel asks, “Don’t you think that it slightly resembles the gardens of Versailles, as well as a Japanese garden?” Then the correspondent connects the composer’s question to the idea of miniaturism: “Doesn’t this remark reflect upon the entire man, on the one hand, filled with memories of the stately, joyous century of Couperin and Rameau, yet on the other coupled with a refined sensitivity and miniature workmanship which conjure up Japan?” (quoted in Orenstein, Arbie, ed. 1990. A Ravel Reader: Correspondence, Articles, Interviews, p 475). It is safe to say that Ravel’s decorations in Le Belvédère were themselves a latent allusion to the miniaturism connected with France’s eighteenth-century musical past and the twilight of the ancien régime subtly entwined with the art nouveau aesthetic recognized as “le Japon.” Or, as the Ravel scholar Roger Nichols, stated in his biography of Ravel: “In his life this manifested itself in the division between bouts of socializing, at home or in Paris, and periods of hermetically sealed composition; in his music, between tradition and innovation, between knowing the rules and knowing how to break them. The lifestyle division was no different from that of most composers, for whom long stretches of uninterrupted time are vital (and in the modern world, increasingly hard to achieve). The divisions within Ravel’s music itself are much more interesting, and go to the very heart of its beauty and power” (Nichols, Ravel – A life, 2011, p. 351).
After Ravel’s death in 1937, his faithful housekeeper kept everything precisely as it was. Downstairs, in his smart monochrome bathroom, his toothbrush is still waiting in its beaker.
Walter Witt is an American-born classical pianist and educator based in France. A lifelong student of the works of Chopin, Walter captivates audiences with his innate musicianship and dynamic presence at the piano. Together with his advocacy for classical music and its educational importance, these talents make him one of the most compelling figures in classical music today.