When Claude Debussy called Ravel an “enchanting fakir” in 1907, he anticipated a critical approach typified by Vladimir Jankélévitch's 1939 Ravel biography. In it, Jankélévitch evoked the rich language of theatrical magic, comparing Ravel to a sorcerer, conjurer, and illusionist. Contemporary critics used similar terms to describe the composer's music as early as 1909, around the same time that a parallel narrative emerged: Ravel as a master of mechanism and artifice. A contextual study of theatrical magic, which has yet to be applied to Ravel criticism, provides a substantive connection between these narratives of mechanism, enchantment, and artifice.
I begin with the French illusionist Robert-Houdin (1805–71), whose enduring legacy furnishes a forgotten background for Ravel criticism. Robert-Houdin claimed that he was not a mere juggler but “an actor playing the part of a magician,” which resonates with accounts of Ravel's Baudelairean artifice in life and work. For magicians, “illusion” was interchangeable with “effect.” The word “effect” recurs in both Ravel's writings and “The Philosophy of Composition,” a theoretical-didactic essay by Edgar Allan Poe, whom Ravel cited as one of his most important artistic influences. Ravel's appreciation of Poe has a much richer grain than has been imagined, extending beyond compositional artisanship to include literary and theatrical stratagems.
Robert-Houdin, who started his career as a clockmaker, featured automata at his Soiréé fantastiques—but sometimes, like von Kempelen's Turk, these automata were illusions themselves. Ravel's fascinations with enchantment and mechanism converge in the presence of these trick machines. In the opera L'Enfant et les sortilèges (1925), Ravel uses techniques known to both magicians and cognitive neuroscientists, exploiting the aural equivalent of an afterimage and manipulating the spectator's attentional frames.