Joseph Maurice Ravel 1875 – 1937
February 10, 2009
Joseph Maurice Ravel 1875 – 1937 was a French composer and pianist of Impressionist music.
Ravel was born in Ciboure, France, near Biarritz, close to the border with Spain, in 1875. His mother, Marie Delouart, was of Basque descent and grew up in Madrid, Spain, while his father, Joseph Ravel, was a Swiss inventor and industrialist from French Haute Savoie. Both were Catholics and they provided a happy and stimulating household for their children.
Some of Joseph’s inventions were quite important, including an early internal-combustion engine and a notorious circus machine, the “Whirlwind of Death,” an automotive loop-the-loop that was quite a hit until a fatal accident at the Barnum and Bailey circus in 1903. Joseph delighted in taking his sons on trips to factories to see the latest mechanical devices, and he also had a keen interest in music and culture. Ravel stated later, “As a child, I was sensitive to music—to every kind of music.”
Ravel was very close to his mother, and her Basque heritage was a strong influence on his life and music. Among his earliest memories are folk songs she sung to him. The family moved to Paris three months after the birth of Maurice, and there his younger brother Édouard was born. He became his father’s favorite and also became an engineer.
At age seven, Maurice began piano lessons with Henry Ghys and received his first instruction in harmony, counterpoint, and composition with Charles René. His earliest public piano recital was in 1889 at age fourteen.
Though clearly talented at the piano, Ravel demonstrated a preference for composing. He was particularly impressed by the new Russian works conducted by Rimsky Korsakov at the Exhibition Universalle in 1889. The foreign music at the exhibition also had a great influence on Ravel’s contemporaries Eric Alfred Leslie Satie, Emmanuel Chabrier, and most significantly Claude Debussy.
That year Ravel also met Ricardo Vines, who would become one of his best friends, one of the foremost interpreters of his piano music, and an important link between Ravel and Spanish music.
Ravel’s parents encouraged his musical pursuits and sent him to the Conservatoire de Paris, first as a preparatory student and eventually as a piano major. He received a first prize in the piano student competition in 1891. Overall, however, he was not successful academically even as his musicianship matured dramatically. Considered “very gifted”, Ravel was also called “somewhat heedless” in his studies.
Around 1893, Ravel created his earliest compositions, and he was introduced by his father to bohemian café pianist Eric Alfred Leslie Satie, whose distinctive personality and unorthodox musical experiments proved influential.
Ravel was far from a bohemian and evidenced little of the typical trauma of adolescence. At twenty, Ravel was already “self possessed, a little aloof, intellectually biased, given to mild banter.” He dressed like a dandy and was meticulous about his appearance and demeanor. Short in stature, light in frame, and bony in features, Ravel had the “appearance of a well dressed jockey”.
His large head seemed suitably matched to his great intellect. He was well read and later accumulated a library of over 1,000 volumes. In his younger adulthood, Ravel was usually bearded in the fashion of the day, though later he dispensed with all whiskers. Though reserved, Ravel was sensitive and self critical, and had a mischievous sense of humor. He became a life long heavy smoker in his youth, and he enjoyed strongly flavored dishes, fine wine, and spirited conversation.
After failing to meet the requirement of earning a competitive medal in three consecutive years, Ravel was expelled in 1895. He turned down a music professorship in Tunisia then returned to the Conservatoire in 1898 and started his studies with Gabriel Faure, determined to focus on composing rather than piano playing.
He studied composition with Fauré for a remarkable fourteen years. Ravel found his teacher’s personality and methods sympathetic and they remained friends and colleagues. He also undertook private studies with André Gédalge, whom he later stated was responsible for “the most valuable elements of my technique.”
Ravel studied the ability of each instrument carefully in order to determine the possible effects, and was sensitive to their color and timbre. This may account for his success as an orchestrator and as a transcriber of his own piano works and those of other composers, such as Mussorgsky, Claude Debussy and Robert Alexander Schumann.
His first significant work, Habanera for two pianos, was later transcribed into the well-known third movement of his Rapsodie espagnole. His first published work was Menuet antique (dedicated to and premiered by Viñes). In 1899, Ravel conducted his first orchestral piece, Shéhérazade, and was greeted by a raucous mixture of boos and applause…
Around 1900, Ravel joined with a number of innovative young artists, poets, critics, and musicians (but not women) who were referred to as the Apaches (hooligans), a name coined by Viñes to represent his band of “artistic outcasts”. The group met regularly until the outbreak of World War I and the members often inspired each other with intellectual argument and performances of their works before the group.
For a time, the influential group included Igor Stravinsky and Manuel de Falla. One of the first works Ravel performed for the Apaches was Jeux d’eau (Fountains), his first piano masterpiece and clearly a pathfinding impressionistic work. Viñes performed the public premiere of this piece and Ravel’s other early masterpiece “Pavane pour une Infante défunte” in 1902.
During his years at the Conservatoire, Ravel tried numerous times to win the prestigious Prix de Rome, but to no avail, likely because he was considered too radical by the conservative leadership under Director Theodore Dubois.
One of Ravel’s pieces, the String Quartet in F, likely modeled on Debussy’s Quartet (1893), is now a standard work of chamber music, though at the time it was criticized and found lacking academically. After a scandal involving his loss of the prize in 1905 to Victor Gallois, despite being favored to win, Ravel left the Conservatoire.
The incident - named the “Ravel Affair” by the Parisian press - engaged the entire artistic community, pitting conservatives against the avant garde, and eventually led to the resignation of Dubois and his replacement by Fauré, a vindication of sorts for Ravel. Though deprived of the opportunity to study in Rome, the decade after the scandal proved to be Ravel’s most productive, and included his “Spanish “period”.
Ravel met Debussy in the 1890’s. Debussy was older than Ravel by some twelve years and his pioneering “Prélude à l’Après midi d’un faune” was highly influential among the younger musicians including Ravel, who were impressed by the new language of impressionism. In 1900, Ravel was invited to Debussy’s home and they played each other’s works.
Viñes became the preferred piano performer for both composers and a go-between. The two composers attended many of the same musical events and were performed at the same concerts. Ravel and the Apaches were strong supporters of Debussy’s stormy public debut of his revolutionary opera “Pelléas et Mélisande”, which energized the new music movement and garnered Debussy both fame and scorn.
The two musicians also appreciated much the same musical heritage and operated in the same artistic milieu, but they differed in terms of personality and their approach to music. Debussy was considered more spontaneous and casual in his composing while Ravel was more attentive to form and craftsmanship.
Even though they worked independently of one another, because they employed differing means to similar ends, and because superficial similarities and even some more substantive ones are evident, the public and the critics linked them more closely than the facts bear out…
By 1905, factions formed for each composer and the two groups began feuding in public. Disputes arose as to questions of chronology about their respective works and who influenced whom. The public tension led to personal estrangement…
In 1914, just as World War I began, Ravel composed his Trio (for piano, violin, and cello) with its Basque themes. The piece, difficult to play well, is considered a masterpiece among trio works. Although he considered his small stature and light weight an advantage to becoming an aviator, and he tried every means of securing service as a flyer, during the First World War Ravel was not allowed to enlist as a pilot because of his age and weak health. Instead, he became a truck driver stationed at the Verdun front.
With his mother’s death in 1917, his closest relationship ended and he fell into a “horrible despair”, adding to his ill health and the general gloom over the universal suffering endured by his country during the war. However, during the war years, Ravel did manage some compositions, including one of his most popular works, Le Tombeau de Couperin, a look back to the musical ideals of the early 18th century composer, which premiered in 1919.
Each movement is dedicated to a friend of Ravel who died in the war, with the final movement dedicated to the deceased husband of Ravel’s favorite pianist Marguerite Long. At the height of the war, a National League for the Defense of French Music was formed but Ravel, despite his strong antipathy for the German aggression, declined to join…
Ravel was utterly exhausted and lacking any creative spirit at the war’s end in 1918. With the death of Debussy and the emergence of Eric Alfred Leslie Satie, Arnold Schoenberg, and Igor Stravinsky, modern classical music took on a new direction to which Ravel would shortly re-group and make his contribution.
Around 1920, Diaghilev commissioned Ravel to write La Valse, originally named Wien (Vienna), which was to be used for a projected ballet. The piece, conceived many years earlier, became a waltz with a macabre undertone, famous for its “fantastic and fatal whirling”. However, it was rejected by Diaghilev as “not a ballet. It’s a portrait of ballet”. Ravel, hurt by the comment, broke the relationship. Subsequently, it became a popular concert work and when the two men met again in 1925, Ravel refused to shake Diaghilev’s hand. Instead, Diaghilev challenged Ravel to a duel (friends talked Diaghilev out of it). The men never met again.
In 1920, the French government awarded Ravel the Légion d’honneur, but he refused it. The following year, he retired to the French countryside where he continued to write music, albeit even less prolifically, but in more tranquil surroundings.
He returned regularly to Paris for performances and socializing, and increased his foreign concert tours. Ravel maintained his leadership in the SMI which continued its active role of promoting new music, particularly of British and American composers such as Arnold Bax, Ralph Vaughn Williams, Aaron Copland, and Virgil Thomson.
With Debussy’s passing, Ravel ascended to the perceived leadership of French classical music. As Fauré stated in a letter to Ravel (October, 1922), “I am happier than you can imagine about the solid position which you occupy and which you have acquired so brilliantly and so rapidly. It is a source of joy and pride for your old professor.” In 1922, Ravel completed his Sonata for Violin and Cello. Dedicated to Debussy’s memory, the work features the thinner texture popular with the younger postwar composers.
The English, in particular, lauded Ravel, as the Times reported in 1923, “Since the death of Debussy, he has represented to English musicians the most vigorous current in modern French music. In reality, however, Ravel’s own music was no longer considered au courant in France. Eric Alfred Leslie Satie had become the inspiring force for the new generation of French composers known as Les Six. Ravel was fully aware of this, and was mostly effective in preventing a serious breach between his generation of musicians and the younger group.
In the ferment of the post-war Paris cultural scene, music was being carried along by many currents. American influences played a strong part. Jazz particularly found its way into the cafes and into the public taste, and French composers including Ravel and Darius Milhaud were applying jazz elements to their work.
Also in vogue was a return to simplicity in orchestration and a move away from the mammoth scale of the works of Gustav Mahler and Richard Strauss. Igor Stravinsky and Sergei Prokofiev were in ascent, and Schoenberg’s experiments were leading music into atonality. These trends posed challenges for Ravel, always a slow and deliberate composer, who desired to keep his music relevant but still revered the past. This may have played a part in his declining output and longer composing time during the 1920’s.[
Around 1922, Ravel completed his famous orchestral arrangement of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exposition, commissioned by Serge Koussevitzsky, which through its widespread popularity brought Ravel great fame and substantial profit.
The first half of the 1920’s was a particularly lean period for composing but Ravel did complete successful concert tours to Amsterdam, Milan, London, Madrid, and Vienna, which also boosted his fame. By 1925, by virtue of the unwelcomed pressure of a performance deadline, he finally finished his opera L’Enfant et les sortileges, with its significant jazz and ragtime accents. Famed writer Colette provided the libretto. Around this time, he also completed Chansons madécasses, the summit of his vocal art.
In 1927, Ravel’s string quartet received its first complete recording. By this time Ravel, like Edward William Elgar, had become convinced of the importance of recording his works, especially with his input and direction. He made recordings in nearly every year from then until his death.
After two months of planning, in 1928 Ravel made a four month concert tour in North America, for a promised minimum of $10, 000. In New York City, he received a moving standing ovation, unlike any of his stormy premieres in Paris… Ravel conducted most of the leading orchestras in the U.S. from coast to coast and visited twenty five cities.
Ravel then visited New Orleans and imbibed the jazz scene there as well. His admiration of American jazz, increased by his American visit, led him to include some jazz elements in a few of his later compositions, especially the two piano concertos. The great success of his American tour thrust Ravel to the peak of his international fame.
After returning to France, Ravel composed his most famous and controversial orchestral work Boléro, originally called “Fandango”. Ravel called it “an experiment in a very special and limited direction”…
Remarkably, Ravel composed both of his piano concertos at the same time, one dark and powerful, the other bright and buoyant.” He completed the Concerto for the Left Hand first. The work was commissioned by Austrian pianist Paul Wittgenstein, who had lost his right arm during World War I… In 1933, Wittgenstein played the work in concert for the first time to instant acclaim.…
The other piano concerto was completed a year later and its lighter tone follows the models of Mozart, Domenico Scarlatti, and Camille Saint Saëns, and also makes use of jazz like themes. Ravel dedicated the work to his favorite pianist Marguerite Long, who played it and popularized it across Europe in over twenty cities, and they recorded it together in 1932. EMI later reissued the 1932 recording on LP and CD. Although Ravel was listed as the conductor on the original 78-rpm discs, it is possible he merely supervised the recording…
In 1932, Ravel suffered a major blow to the head in a taxi accident. This injury was not considered serious at the time. However, afterwards he began to experience aphasia like symptoms and was frequently absent minded. He had begun work on music for a film, Adventures of Don Quixote (1933) from Cervantes’s celebrated novel, featuring the Russian bass Feodor Chaliapin and directed by G. W. Pabst.
When Ravel became unable to compose, and could not write down the musical ideas he heard in his mind, Pabst hired Jacques Ibert. However, three songs for baritone and orchestra that Ravel composed for the film were later published under the title Don Quichotte a Dulcinée, and have been performed and recorded…
In late 1937, Ravel consented to experimental brain surgery. One hemisphere of his brain was re-inflated with serous fluid. He awoke from the surgery, called for his brother Edouard, lapsed into a coma and died shortly afterwards at the age of 62.
Ravel probably died as a result of a brain injury caused by an automobile accident and not from a brain tumor as some believe. This confusion may arise because his friend George Gershwin had died from a brain tumor only five months earlier. Ravel was buried with his parents in a granite tomb at the cemetery at Levallois Perret, a suburb of northwest Paris…