Ravel's Magic Circle

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If Mallarmé’s poems are notorious ciphers, Ravel’s settings of them are appropriately cryptic—particularly the third song of his Trois poèmes de Stéphane Mallarmé, “Surgi de la croupe et du bond.” Ravel never explained his interest in this hermetic poem, and recent scholarship on its musical setting has been similarly taciturn, focusing on tonal structures (or lack thereof) while avoiding Mallarmé’s admittedly baffling text. But given Ravel’s professed desire to “transpose” Mallarmé’s poetic processes into music, it seems essential to examine musical and textual relationships in “Surgi de la croupe” more closely, especially when they pertain to illusory experiences. Mallarmé was wary of Wagner’s totalizing illusions: music’s acoustical and temporal prolongation might suppress the spectator’s ability to bracket aesthetic experience from reality.

In this paper, I focus on timbre, texture, and musical-textual relationships in “Soupir” (the first song) and “Surgi de la croupe” to show how Ravel was keenly attuned to Mallarmé’s concerns. “Soupir” uses string harmonics to mark the boundaries of poetic (and illusory) experience, but these effects serve a very different function in “Surgi.” In Mallarmé’s poem, the apparent emptiness and immobility of a decorative vase belies its plastic capacity to express meaning. Ravel captures this ambiguity through shifting textural planes and raspy string harmonics that suggest the noise of unrealized creation. Instead of gazing upon the vase, we are drawn inside of it, as if hearing “Soupir” before it has become sound or structure—a kind of unheard harmony, or an illusory premonition of “Surgi.”
Original languageEnglish
Publication year2018
Number of pages9
Publication statusUnpublished - 2018
EventMeeting of the Society for Music Theory - San Antonio, United States
Duration: 1 Nov 20184 Nov 2018


ConferenceMeeting of the Society for Music Theory
CountryUnited States
CitySan Antonio

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