WWI @ Widener: Ravel’s Le Tombeau de Couperin

Posted April 17, 2014 by Janine Utell
Categories: English Club Cool Stuff, News, Professoring, Upcoming Events

Tags: , , , , ,

Maurice Ravel’s Le Tombeau de Couperin will be performed at Widener on April 26th.  We are pleased to feature the program note as part of our ongoing series of posts commemorating the centenary of the First World War.  Thanks to Professor Mara Parker for sharing!  You can learn more about the chamber music program at Widener here.  And check out Ravel’s piece here:

Maurice Ravel, Le Tombeau de Couperin

By Professor Mara Parker, Chair of Fine Arts and Director of String Performance

Maurice Ravel (1875-1937) was devastated by the events of World War I.  Although exempted from military service years earlier, he was determined to get involved.  So in 1914, at age 39, he enlisted. He was sent to the front and experienced, first-hand, the terror.  Writing to his friend, Jean Marnold, Ravel described what he saw: “… a hallucinating thing: a nightmarish city, horribly deserted and mute.  It isn’t the fracas from above, or the small balloons of white smoke which line the very pure sky; it’s not this formidable and invisible struggle which is anguishing, but rather to feel alone in the center of this city which rests in a sinister sleep, under the brilliant light of a beautiful summer day.  Undoubtedly I will see things which will be more frightful and repugnant; I don’t believe I will ever experience a more profound and stranger emotion than this sort of mute terror.”[1]

The war brought other problems.  Ravel’s health deteriorated.  He suffered from frequent insomnia and ate little.  Following an operation for dysentery in 1916, he arrived home just in time to see his mother die.  He returned to the hospital, depressed and alone.  He was released, then hospitalized again soon after, this time for frostbite.

The entire period was musically unproductive.  Ravel composed almost nothing.  He did, however, finish his six-movement piano suite Le Tombeau de Couperin (1914-1917) that he had started before the war.  It is a tragic work although the sound is disguised under a deceptively objective surface.  Each movement (Prelude, Fugue, Forlane, Rigaudon, Menuet, and Toccata) was dedicated to a friend who had died in the war.  Fittingly, Marguerite Long, widow of the final movement’s dedicatee, premiered the work on April 11, 1919. Long had an emotionally difficult time playing this piece due to its connection with her husband and subsequently ceased public performance for two years.  Ravel felt no one else was capable of interpreting the piano suite and refused to give the score to anyone else.  He did, however, orchestrate four of the movements in June of 1919, omitting both the fugue and toccata.  Tombeau, in its “new” version, was first performed in February of 1920.

The word “Tombeau” means “tomb.”  During the musical Baroque Era (1600-1750), composers used the term to denote a piece written as an elegy for a particular person.  Unfortunately, we do not know to whom Ravel was referring in the title.  All he would say was that he was making a tribute to the music of eighteenth-century France and to the French composer Couperin.  Beneath the seemingly pleasant music is a series of painful laments for both those killed in the war and for Ravel’s own mother.

The piece to be performed on April 26th, the Menuet, is an arrangement for piano trio (piano, violin, cello).  With its transparent texture and classical simplicity, it mimics the refined sound and intimacy of Ravel’s composition in its original form.  Laid out in a clear, three-part structure, we hear the haunting melody first in the violin, then in the cello.  The middle trio section, harmonically more dissonant than the opening, merges the three instruments in a series of chord progressions, beginning almost inaudibly and building continuously to a thunderous peak.  A return to the placid chordal section concludes the trio and heralds the reappearance of the minuet.

[1] Written on a postcard, dated April 4, 1916; housed in the Music Division of the Bibliothèque Nationale.

Widener Prof Tara Friedman Blogs about Humor

Posted April 15, 2014 by Janine Utell
Categories: News, Professoring, Recommended (Internet) Reading

Tags: , , , , ,

We’ve just learned that Professor Tara Friedman of Widener English has joined the blog Humor in America as a contributing writer.  Here she is talking a bit about her research, writing, and teaching:

While now a focal point of my academic interests, humor was relatively unknown to me until I was first introduced to Sherman Alexie in grad school through a Native American lit seminar, where I immediately fell in love with his combative comedy. It wasn’t until years later that I discovered the extensive work and field of Humor Studies, but was encouraged to steer clear of it due to its perceived lack of academic rigor.

In his review of Walter Blair’s book Native American Humor (1800-1900), Kenneth B. Murdock addressed this concern: “One of the most absurd of the many absurd academic superstitions is that the study of humorous literary material is somehow less respectable than the study of writings, however unimportant, which can amuse no one” (644). For those who doubt the rigor of Humor Studies, Blair’s book, his extensive research methodology and clear prose, as Murdock argues, should be a starting point for quieting their cries.

I now incorporate Alexie, Blair, and many other authors, commentators, and critics in Humor Studies into my scholarship and my classroom. At Widener, I teach a literary genres course and a short fiction course dedicated to the study of humorous works, and I am currently revising a forthcoming article focusing on Alexie’s brand of humor in his short fiction. If anyone has interest in the field, I encourage them to email me, stop by my office for a chat, and/or visit the HA! Blog at humorinamerica.wordpress.com.

The taking on of this role provides Professor Friedman with a lively outlet and wider audience for her scholarly interests, and we look forward to reading her posts!

Liberal Arts: Best Education for the Business World

Posted April 14, 2014 by Janine Utell
Categories: Recommended (Internet) Reading

Tags: ,

According to executives at companies like Coca-Cola and Havas, a degree in one of the liberal arts is your best preparation for work in the business world.

Andrew Benett, global CEO at Havas, says:

“I know a lot of liberal arts graduates. I have hired a bunch of them. And I am one myself, having studied both psychology and art history. What I have found is that people with degrees in subjects such as history and literature — and, yes, even philosophy — tend to possess many of the qualities, skill sets, and aptitudes that are in highest demand in my own industry (marketing communications) and in others that rely on creative thinking and foresight.”

Read the whole post here.

The Return of the Soldier: Book Group Next Week!

Posted April 11, 2014 by Janine Utell
Categories: English Club Cool Stuff, News, Upcoming Events

Tags: , , , ,

Next week we’ll hold the concluding event of our WWI @ Widener series:  a book discussion of Rebecca West’s The Return of the Soldier (1918).  We’ll gather Thursday, April 17, at 4pm in KLC 139.  All are welcome — even if you haven’t read the book, come and learn about West and her novel, and gain some insight into how the Great War affected women, and how they responded on the Home Front and on the battlefield.West 2

West’s short novel tells the story of a shell-shocked soldier coming home to three women who have shaped his life:  his wife, his cousin, and a mysterious woman from his past.  It provides a fascinating psychological perspective on the tolls of war, and the effects war has on personal relationships.  Within the novel we see the elements of West’s career that still make her an important and interesting figure:  her feminism and her pacifism.  Throughout her life she responded to current events and conflicts with a progressive stance, including traveling to a Yugoslavia on the brink of war in the 1930s — a trip which resulted in one of the most important books of the 20th century, Black Lamb and Grey Falcon.

If you’re interested in attending and would like to read the book, you can find it here for free from Project Gutenberg.  Hope to see you there!


Digital Skimming vs. Real Reading

Posted April 9, 2014 by widenerenglishadmin
Categories: Recommended (Internet) Reading

from The Washington Post:

Serious reading takes a hit from online scanning and skimming, researchers say

click to read story

Lowe Creative Writing Prize Winners Announced!

Posted April 9, 2014 by widenerenglishadmin
Categories: News

Congratulations to the winners of the Mervin R. Lowe Creative Writing Prizes! The prizes in four genre-specific categories are awarded to students each year. This year’s winners are as follows:

Jillian Benedict

“The Scrap Yard”
Michael Corey

“Shadow’s Son”
Taylor Jones

“Rapunzel, My Love”
Chara Kramer

Three of the above students–Jillian Benedict, Taylor Jones, and Chara Kramer–will be presenting their Creative Writing capstone projects Wednesday, April 16th from 4-5:30 pm in the Drost Room, second floor of the library. Come out and see what the buzz is all about!


Professor Utell Delivers Keynote Address at Northwest Undergraduate Conference on Literature

Posted April 3, 2014 by widenerenglishadmin
Categories: News, Professoring

NUCL2-300x199This weekend Professor Janine Utell, chair of the English department, will travel across the continent to deliver the Keynote Address atthe 11th Annual Northwest Undergraduate Conference on Literature. The conference will be held at the University of Portland, where Professor Utell will speak on Saturday. The conference is sponsored in part by the English department there. The Northwest Undergraduate Conference on Literature creates a professional atmosphere to promote student criticism and challenge student critics. NUCL gives undergraduate and advanced high school students an opportunity to present their own scholarly papers or creative works in organized panels of their peers. Students are able to share and discuss their knowledge through these presentations, and are encouraged to participate in the discussion of fellow NUCL papers. Aside from presenting their papers, and listening to papers written by their peers, students are invited to attend NUCL’s keynote speakers, who are noted academics and writers in the field of literature.

Our own Professor Utell will be delivering a multimedia lecture that purportedly involves the music of Barry Manilow while also addressing the importance of literary study in higher education and in society at large. Utell believes that literary criticism can be intellectually playful as well as profoundly ethical. She says,

I’m interested in the question of why literary criticism matters, especially in a time when, in the humanities and English particularly, we talk a lot about ‘crisis’: the ‘crisis in the humanities.’ I want my comments to affirm the good work and passion of every person in that audience; I want to give the audience some ideas for how to respond to the question of why literature matters; and I want to articulate for others and for myself what literary criticism is supposed to do. Ultimately, I think it’s a combination of a desire to play and a desire to understand others that draws us to literature, and good criticism is both a space for those desires to come together, and a guide for how to uncover the potential for those impulses in what we read.



Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 1,305 other followers

%d bloggers like this: