Rodolphe Ragu - 2011-09-08
Le Belvédère, Maurice Ravel’s residence from 1921 until his death in 1937, has been preserved intact over the years. The composer’s whimsical creativity is openly expressed in this home which showcases the fine art of imagination.
‘Be so kind as to inquire about a hut located thirty kilometres from Paris.’ With these words, Maurice Ravel decided to settle in Montfort-l’Amaury in 1921. Already an internationally renowned composer at the time, he had written several of his major works, such as the String Quartet in F Major and La Valse by then, and since the death of Claude Debussy in 1918 he had become the most prominent of the French composers. But recent ordeals, especially his mother’s death, along with the insomnia that had plagued him for years inspired him to leave Paris. Montfort-l’Amaury was virtually rural, and Ravel would find in this little town in the département of Yvelines the quietude he needed to continue composing. He wrote his finest chefs-d’œuvre while living at Le Belvédère: both piano concertos, the opera L’enfant et les sortilèges (The Child and the Spells) and Bolero were all created somewhere between his music room and the footpaths of the Rambouillet forest.
A perfectly preserved residence
When one arrives at the home on Rue St. Laurent, the first impression is not particularly promising. But the house accurately reflects the personality of the composer: reserved and discreet. It truly is something of a ‘hut’. Built of inexpensive materials, it lacks style and even looks rather gloomy. In truth, only the pinnacle turret gives it any character. So why does it sport the name ‘Le Belvédère’ - a name thatpromises sweeping panoramic views of the country and suggests imaginary journeys? In fact, as soon as one enters and crosses through to the dining room balcony where the guided tour begins, one sees that this house built on a platform gives onto a first-rate view of the forest beyond.
Following good Madame Révelot, the governess during Ravel’s time, and Céleste Albaret (yes, the devoted secretary and housekeeper of Marcel Proust), who was employed here well after the composer’s demise, the house is currently managed by Claude Moreau, a certified art restorer. Le Belvédère is indeed in good hands. Amongst the French artists’ homes open to the public, there are few residences that have been preserved exactly as their owners left them. At Le Belvédère, whether it is in the dining room, the library, the drawing room, the music room, or upstairs in the bathroom or bedroom, nothing, or nearly so, has changed. One moves from one room to another, surprised to see that the clock on the Louis XVI commode is still ticking, noting the TSF telly that only lacks the crackling noise of pre-war sets and admiring the Érard piano which is regularly tuned although, of course, no one may play it.
It feels more like a house than a museum, since only the entrance hall, which essentially served as the kitchen in Ravel’s time, has an educational, museum-like purpose. This is where the National Museums board has placed a few personal possessions behind glass: jumpers, parlour games, Citizen Ravel’s polling card…
An imaginary voyage
Le Belvédère feels very alive thanks to the pains the composer took when fitting out and decorating his house; he added two wings between 1921 and 1927. Because of Bolero and L’Heure espagnole (Spanish Time), his music is often associated with Spain, but Asia - even if it was often a fantasy version of the East - played a major role in Ravel’s creative imagination.
First there is the salon japonais (the Japanese Lounge), filled with chinoiseries as well as some tricks and traps. For example, Ravel would invite visitors to contemplate an object on a stand that resembled a smoky crystal ball and encouraged them to guess what, exactly, the strangely coloured thing might be. It inspired scientific explanations, various hypotheses and attempts at determining its period until the host would finally speak up and end the suspense: it was a burnt electric bulb that he had painted. Similarly, there are various touches of humour and fantasy throughout the house, up to and including the library with its thousand tomes. For instance, several wood automatons brought back from Asia are displayed; one of them is sticking its tongue out - a tongue as long as its leg.
At Le Belvédère, one is always just leaving to travel to some imaginary land. The last hallway, which leads to the music room, is as narrow as a ship’s gangway, and the aforementioned piano - even if it did express the secrets of Ravel’s heart adagio - is also a stand upon which a miniature sailboat tossed about by gigantic silk paper waves by means of a hidden crank is on view. Ravel often shows himself to be playful and even a bit mischievous - as with the ashtray in the dining room on which Who burnt the table cloth? is written (in English). He simply likes to surprise. In the bedroom, for example, a row of upside-down Greek columns is stencilled on the wall.
Friends and music
A confirmed bachelor whose life entirely revolved around music, Ravel was nonetheless a sociable chap. The dinners and lunches he hosted at Le Belvédère might be followed with a jaunt to this or that jazz club in Paris. Colette was one prized guest, as were pianist Marguerite Long and violinist Georges Enesco. And even if the poet Léon-Paul Fargue and composer Arthur Honegger had joined the party, the star was always Ravel - he’d become quite the international celebrity between 1921 and 1933. From New York to Vienna, all of his appearances were met with standing ovations; Ravel’s Bolero (an opus ‘sans musique’, as he himself would say) enchanted the public as soon as it was presented in 1928. Soon a global sensation, its popularity has never waned. Despite his success, Ravel never left Montfort-l’Amaury. He fell ill and spent much of his time on his dining room balcony gazing absently at the forest and the Japanese-style garden which he created with his own hands. The guided tour ends in this garden, near the bonsais and cloud tree topiaries, as the melodious strains of his ‘water games’ piano solo, Les Jeux d’Eau, are evoked by the gentle sound of the fountain.
5, rue Maurice-Ravel
Tel: (33) 01 34 86 00 89
Guided tours in French, advance booking required: Saturday and Sunday at 10 am, 11 am, 2.30 pm, 3.30 pm and 4.30 pm.
Tel: (33) 01 34 86 87 96
By car: Take the N12 motorway from Paris and exit at Montfort-l’Amaury.
By train: From Paris-Montparnasse take the N Line, direction Dreux, and exit at the Montfort-l’Amaury - Méré station (3.5 km from the town centre).