Tag Archives: Maurice Ravel

Enlightened Entertainment

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

There is an assumption that art and entertainment are somehow distinct. The two classifications regularly appear side-by-side, simultaneously suggesting a family resemblance and an unbridgeable divide. The all-too-empty content of some commercial entertainment reinforces the dichotomy, as does the abstraction of modernist and post-modernist styles. Especially in this day and age, when market demands push entertainers in the most generic directions and artists rebel into the remotest corners, the middle seems to be the ground least occupied. Still, this broad view ignores instances where art and entertainment converge in seamless harmony: a painting that moves the populace, an artsy film that smashes the box office, a popular song that makes us think.

Among the most profound (and vitriolic) advocates for artistic entertainment was Constant Lambert, an English composer and critic who penned the lively classic Music Ho! A Study of Music in Decline (1934) when he was just twenty-eight. A major theme of that book is the ever-widening gap between “popular” and “serious” (“highbrow” and “lowbrow”) music—a reality that has increased exponentially in the intervening decades. Lambert had a fondness for popular forms and integrated jazz idioms into his compositions, such as The Rio Grande (1927). As such, he occupied something of a center point, with vacant populism to the left and rarefied academicism to the right.

Lambert advocated for “enlightened entertainment”: the joining of sophistication and accessibility. He saw this ideal abundantly displayed in the music of Duke Ellington. “[Ellington] has crystallized the popular music of our time,” he wrote, “and set up a standard by which we may judge not only other jazz composers but also those highbrow composers, whether American or European, who indulge in what is roughly known as ‘symphonic jazz.’” He placed Ellington’s “Hot and Bothered” alongside the most dexterous and dynamic works of Ravel and Stravinsky. Ellington was a “serious” composer who spoke in popular modalities; he had something to say, both musically and lyrically. He refused to cater to the lowest common denominator, or speak a musical language above the average listener’s head.

Over the years, Lambert’s captivating and opinionated tome has garnered both criticism and praise. Some of his warnings and prescriptions have panned out, whilst others have proven too dramatic. Were he alive today, he would undoubtedly condemn the formulaic emptiness of the basest popular music, as well as the unapproachable sounds emanating from the tallest ivory towers. The balance he admired remains a precious paragon. The challenge is bringing art and entertainment together.

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions. 

The Music Instinct

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

In 1933, fifty-eight-year-old composer Maurice Ravel suffered a stroke while swimming. The ordeal left him with aphasia, which robbed his ability to comprehend or express linguistic symbols. Because music composition, like language, utilizes a written system of signs, aphasia also silenced his creative output. Although Ravel retained musical mentation—the capacity to think musically—he was no longer able to translate musical thoughts into sounds. He could recognize tunes, identify errors in performance, and select a score by patterns represented on the page. But his analytical deciphering disappeared: note naming, sight-reading, dictation.

Contrast this with a more recent story of a sixth grader who was forced to give up sports after sustaining a concussion. The boy’s dream of becoming a professional athlete was dashed, but he suddenly discovered a new talent for music. He displayed little aptitude for music prior to the injury, and was even below average when it came to simple functions like matching pitches and predicting phrases. Now a high school student, he plays over a dozen instruments, including guitar, piano, accordion, harmonica and bagpipes—all by ear. It is possible that this talent was dormant before circumstances led to its discovery. But it may also be the result of the brain’s rewiring and overcompensating for capabilities lost in the trauma.

Losing or gaining musical genius in the aftermath of a head injury is exceedingly rare. However, these extreme cases do point to the innateness of music in humanity. Ravel, a once expert and meticulous musician, could still conceive of and enjoy music, though he could no longer create or perform it. The student athlete, once indifferent toward music, became musically hyper-expressive. Latent in both was a musical sense that exists in virtually everyone. An underlying musicality was preserved in Ravel, who was reduced to a passive receiver, and magnified in the boy, who was transformed into an active creator.

It is rarely acknowledged that the absence of musical skill or training does not correspond to a lack of musical capacity. Just as one need not be a writer to appreciate a well-written book, one need not be gifted or educated in the musical arts to be moved by a well-executed piece. Likewise, the musically inclined and disinclined benefit from music in essentially identical ways, the difference being one of degree rather than kind. Whatever our talents or limitations—and whether our musical adeptness increases, decreases or stays stagnant over time—we remain musical creatures.

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.