Ravel’s Trois Poemes de Stephane Mallarme : a philosophy of composition

Kilpatrick, Emily (2020) Ravel’s Trois Poemes de Stephane Mallarme : a philosophy of composition. Music and Letters. ISSN 0027-4224


In a 1927 interview Maurice Ravel declared that Stéphane Mallarmé was ‘not merely the greatest French poet, but the only French poet, since he made the French language, not designed for poetry, poetical.’ Around the same period, he twice asserted that in his Trois poèmes de Stéphane Mallarmé (1913) he had sought to ‘transpose’ Mallarmé’s poetry into music. A crucial element of Mallarmé’s allusive poetry is the way it meshes content and form: his chosen forms do not merely contain the sentiment, but make it manifest. How much more complicated is the task of a composer seeking to ‘transpose’ a work from one medium to another, when form and expression are so inextricably intertwined? The present study considers how Ravel’s Mallarmé Poèmes sought to ‘transpose’ imagery and structure, and how tellingly these elements interact with Mallarmé’s reflexive poetic technique. It offers a detailed history and context for his chosen poems, suggesting a rationale for his choices, and outlining the aesthetic ideas that link them as a triptych. Exploring aspects of the songs’ harmonic and proportional design, as well as the symbolic properties of tonality, pitch and timbre, the study argues that Ravel’s Mallarmé Poèmes realize long-held preoccupations with the nature of form and the compositional process

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