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Ravel's Pavanne

04/03/07 12:00AM By David Moats
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(HOST) Recently, commentator David Moats was reminded that how we experience art can be complicated - even contradictory.

(MOATS) I was lucky enough to hear a concert by the Vermont Symphony Orchestra a few weeks ago, and they began their program with the luscious, moody piece by Ravel called "Pavanne for a Dead Princess." The program notes said Ravel regretted the title because it made people read a kind of morose, funereal sadness into the piece, which he viewed as a stately dance in the Spanish style.


The piece begins with an inconsolable French horn playing the theme, which, it seems to me, is full of yearning and loss. Over and over, the melody rises and falls, as if nostalgia and regret were the stuff of life. No need to be morose, but Ravel's piece is beautifully sad. And it made me wonder why it is that sad music makes me so happy.

Of course, this idea also underlies the blues and jazz, which are full of joy and life and - full of the blues. But it's not just music. The piece of literature that made an English major of me when I was in college may be the bleakest, most despairing work in all of literature. It was King Lear. I was astonished at its richness and power and also at the courage of the playwright, who was able to venture into the pit and to emerge with something meaningful and true.

A friend of mine wonders why I like the stories of Alice Munro, the Canadian short story writer, whose characters are often blind-sided by life-changing disappointments. The stories often reflect the bleak landscape of rural Ontario and the straitened circumstances of ordinary people, and they often convey a feeling of loss. But as with King Lear, it's heartening to me that a writer can venture into that landscape with such resources of art and spirit and can turn it into an account of plausible reality. It's not the bleakness that's inspiring, it's the example set by the artist who is able to face up to reality so bravely and so unsparingly.

I grew up in a family that was sunny and optimistic, with the attitude that it was morning in America and life was to be enjoyed. It's a great gift - to have an expectation of happiness. But any young man or woman with eyes open as he or she goes into the world had better be ready to encounter lots of ugly stuff. King Lear is about light and darkness, and to me it came as a call to be aware. The blues are a defiant, joyful embrace of pain and loss.

As for the Pavanne, I don't care what Ravel says. It's sad and beautiful both, and so of course, it fills me up with happiness.

David Moats is the editorial page editor for the Rutland Herald and winner of the 2001 Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing. He spoke from studios at Middlebury College.

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