University of Virginia, College and Graduate School of Arts and Sciences

Michael Puri

Associate Professor, Music


“Mimetic Musical Modernism: The Case of Maurice Ravel”

“If human beings suddenly ceased imitating, all forms of culture would vanish.” This striking statement by René Girard not only ascribes to mimesis the ability to generate culture, but also implicitly challenges scholars to determine how mimesis operates within the cultural field they study. Many have risen to this challenge, but the question still remains: How does mimesis operate within western music, especially during the modern era?


The music of the French composer Maurice Ravel (1875–1937) can help us to answer this question. Mimesis manifests itself variously in this music, but most pointedly in two contrasting modernist forms that I refer to as “genealogical” and “commercial.” Genealogical mimesis involves modeling new works on old, and conceives of composition as craft. Commercial mimesis involves the replication, circulation, and transformation of mass-market artistic idioms, such as exoticism. In commercial mimesis, music is a commodity.


The first step in my project is to examine the interaction of these categories within Ravel’s music. I then widen the investigation to include a broader swath of modernist music. Finally I situate this body of musical practice within the emergent cultural-intellectual discourse on mimesis at the turn of the twentieth century. Guided by figures such as Tarde, Nietzsche, Frazer, Mauss, and Freud, this discourse gradually pivoted from conceiving mimesis as a threat to western civilization to advancing it as a foundational principle.


Michael J. Puri is Associate Professor of Music at the University of Virginia. He is the author of Ravel the Decadent: Memory, Sublimation, and Desire, published by Oxford University Press, and is currently completing another monograph that explores some fascinating but hitherto unrecognized relationships between Ravel and German music. His research into French and German music of the long nineteenth century has been published widely and has received support from a variety of institutions, including a year-long residential fellowship at the National Humanities Center and the Alfred Einstein Award from the American Musicological Society.