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Deborah Mawer. French Music and Jazz in Conversation: From Debussy to Brubeck. Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 2014.

Mawer is interested in how the relationship between “French music” (i.e. classical or concert music) and jazz throughout the 20th century ended up changing both. One of the driving forces behind changes within musical culture in France and America, Mawer argues, is the interaction and cross-fertilization between French concert and music and jazz.

One of thee interactions occurs at the turn of the century with Satie and Debussy’s embrace of cakewalk and ragtime. Due to his participation in the cabaret scene, Satie seemed to capitalize on the ragtime potential as early as 1900 in his piano overture “Prélude de la Mort de Monsieur Mouche.” Debussy, as Davinia Caddy notes, was introduced to the cakewalk by Sousa’s band at the 1900 Exposition. Mawer looks at “Golliwogg’s Cake-Walk” (1906-08) which she argues reveals a French composer very well versed in the aesthetic and musical characteristics of American cakewalk and ragtime. The opening of the cakewalk is pretty representative of American cakewalks, but during the double-strain CC section and into the DD section, Debussy quotes Tristan: an act Mawer sees as debunking the establishment he was apart of. This does not seem much different from Caddy’s argument, and is in fact a bit regressive.

Her study of Satie focuses on “rag-time du paquebot” from Parade and its near verbatim quotation of Irving Berlin’s That Mysterious Rag. Mawer argues that this ragtime takes over Berlin’s identity to a considerable degree, yet on a larger scale, remains very French (in contrast to Stravinsky’s rag from L’histoire du soldat. Her argument echoes Nancy Perloff’s assessment that it engages in “paraphrase,” which she relates back to Renaissance concepts of Cantus firmus, and an ambiguous and surrealist fusion of fantasy and reality. In other words, a French classicism of ragtime.

Her analysis of Darius Milhaud’s La Creation du Monde argues that Milhaud held particularly primitivist notions about jazz and African-Americans, while also discounting the white contributions and reception of jazz. On a visit to Harlem in 1922 he wanted to see “authentic” jazz not tainted by commercialism or white aesthetics. His Creation du Monde stems as a result of his engagement there which Mawer sees as Milhaud “portraying the creation as suggested by African-American legend and ritual without the innate violence of Le Sacre.” In large part due to his orchestration choices, prioritizing percussion, reviewers heard this primitivism in its opening (as a ballet, even).

But at the same time, within this work, Milhaud became one of the first composers to assimilate successfully and imaginatively a variety of jazz techniques within classical repertory. Thus far, as he himself noted, most had confined themselves to ‘interpretations of dance music’ by recreating the rhythms and formulae of ragtime. Other works that followed, such as Copland’s Concerto for Piano and Orchestra fell more readily into categories of pastiche or parody than that of a developed assimilation.

In her case study of Ravel, Mawer argues that Ravel’s composition stance “the poetic” is not in any way synonymous with our analytic stance “aesthetic” (IS THIS WHAT MICHAEL IS TALKING ABOUT?) stance in understanding his music. The themes in his aesthetics: (i.e. talking about jazz) encourage Americans to appreciate jazz as a cultural asset rather than something to be taken for granted, credit ragtime as a specific entity and precursor to jazz, afford blues a special status, and equate jazz with national identity. At the same time, she notes that his writings and lectures oversimplify, misconceive, and confuse definitions of jazz.

She looks at the slow “Blues” of the Violin Sonata to see how his poetics jives with his aesthetics. According to Ravel, his compositional techniques involve a mixture of adoption (appropriation) and adaptation (distortion), followed by incorporation within individualized forms. Looking at both his Violin Sonata and his Left Hand Concerto, she argues that “since Ravel’s theory generally postdates his practice, extensive correlation is unsurprising, but interestingly elements of his practice are glossed over in theory: in particular several overt cross-references between his music and that of others, as unmediated ‘adoption,’ almost quotation”: specifically comparing the Concerto in G to Max Bruch’s Violin Concerto, and his Violin Sonata to Billy Mayerl’s Syncopated impressions.

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