Joseph-Maurice Ravel (March 7, 1875 – December 28, 1937) was a French composer known especially for his melodies, masterful orchestration, richly evocative harmonies and inventive instrumental textures and effects, who, along with Claude Debussy, was one of the most prominent figures associated with Impressionist music. Ravel was born on March 7, 1875, in the Basque town of Ciboure, France, near Biarritz, near the Spanish border. His mother, Marie Delouart, was Basque and had grown up in Madrid, Spain, while his father, Joseph Ravel, was an educated and successful engineer, a Swiss inventor and industrialist from French Haute-Savoie. Both were Catholics and they provided a happy and stimulating household for their children. Joseph delighted in taking his sons to factories to see the latest mechanical devices, and he also had a keen interest in music and culture. Ravel substantiated his father’s early influence by stating later, “As a child, I was sensitive to music—to every kind of music.”
Ravel was very fond of his mother, and her Basque-Spanish heritage was a strong influence on his life and music. Among his earliest memories are folk songs she sang to him. The family moved to Paris three months after the birth of Maurice, and there his younger brother Édouard was born. At age six, 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 obviously talented at the piano, Ravel demonstrated a preference for composing. He was particularly impressed by the new Russian works conducted by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov at the Exposition Universelle in 1889. Two years earlier Ravel had met Ricardo Viñes, 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. His teachers included Émile Descombes. He received a first prize in the piano student competition in 1891. Around 1893, Ravel created his earliest compositions, and he was introduced by his father to the café pianist Erik Satie, whose distinctive personality and unorthodox musical experiments proved influential. After failing to meet the Conservatoire 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 Fauré, determined to focus on composing rather than piano playing. He studied composition with Fauré until he was dismissed from the class in 1900 for having won neither the fugue nor the composition prize. He remained an auditor with Fauré until he left the Conservatoire in 1903. He also undertook private studies with André Gedalge. 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, Debussy and Schumann.
His first significant work, Habanera for two pianos, was later transcribed into the well-known third movement of his Rapsodie espagnole, which he dedicated to Charles-Wilfrid de Bériot, another of his professors at the Conservatoire. His first published work was Menuet antique, dedicated to and premiered by Viñes. In 1899, Ravel conducted his first orchestral piece, Shéhérazade. Around 1900, Ravel joined with a number of innovative young artists, poets, critics, and musicians who were referred to as the Apaches, a name coined by Viñes The group met regularly until the beginning of World War I and 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, his first piano masterpiece. Viñes performed the public premiere of this piece and Ravel’s other early masterpiece Pavane pour une infante défunte in 1902.
Ravel’s String Quartet in F, probably modeled on the Quartet (1893) by Debussy, whom Ravel had met in the 1890s, is now a standard work of chamber music. In 1905, Ravel’s final year of eligibility for the Prix de Rome, Ravel did not even pass the preliminary test, despite being favored to win one of the two first prizes available. Alfred Edwards, editor of Le Matin, who had taken particular interest in Ravel, took the young composser on a seven-week canal trip on his yacht Aimée through the Low Countries in June and July 1905, the first time Ravel traveled abroad. Though deprived of the opportunity to study in Rome, the decade after proved to be Ravel’s most productive, and included his “Spanish period.” The next of Ravel’s piano compositions to become famous was Miroirs (Mirrors, 1905), five piano pieces which marked a harmonic evolution. Next was his Histoires naturelles (Nature Stories), five humorous songs evoking the presence of five animals. Two years later, Ravel completed his Rapsodie espagnole, his first major “Spanish” piece, written first for piano four hands and then scored for orchestra. Then followed Ravel’s music for the opera L’heure espagnole (The Spanish Hour), with libretto by Franc-Nohain.
Ravel further extended his mastery of impressionistic piano music with Gaspard de la nuit, based on a collection by the same name by Aloysius Bertrand, with some influence from the writings of Edgar Allan Poe, particularly in the second part. Also unhappy with the conservative musical establishment which was discouraging performance of new music, around this time Ravel, Fauré, and some of his pupils formed the Société musicale indépendante (SMI). In 1910, the society presented the premiere of Ravel’s Ma mère l’oye (Mother Goose) in its original piano duet version. In 1912, Ravel’s Ma mère l’oye was performed as a ballet (with added music) after being first transcribed from piano to orchestra. Looking to expand his contacts and career, Ravel made his first foreign tours to England and Scotland during 1909 and 1911. Ravel began work with impresario Sergei Diaghilev during 1909 for the ballet Daphnis et Chloé commissioned by Diaghilev with the lead danced by the famous ballet dancer and choreographer Vaslav Nijinsky. So exhausting was the effort to score the ballet that Ravel’s health deteriorated, with a diagnosis of neurasthenia soon forcing him to rest for several months. During 1914, just as World War I began, Ravel composed his Piano Trio (for piano, violin, and cello) with its Basque themes. The piece, difficult to play well, is considered a masterpiece among trio works.
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. However, during the war years, Ravel did manage some compositions, including Trois Poemes de Mallarmé (1913), Trois Chansons (1915), one of his most popular works, Le tombeau de Couperin (1917), a commemoration of the musical ideals of François Couperin, the early 18th-century composer, which premiered in 1919. Each movement is dedicated to a friend of Ravel’s who died in the war, with the final movement dedicated to the deceased husband of Ravel’s favorite pianist Marguerite Long. Ravel was exhausted and lacking creative spirit at the war’s end in 1918. With the death of Debussy and the emergence of Satie, Schoenberg, and Stravinsky, modern classical music had a new style to which Ravel would shortly re-group and make his contribution.
Around 1920, Diaghilev commissioned Ravel to write La valse (The Waltz), originally named Wien (Vienna), which was to be used for a projected ballet. In 1920, the French government awarded Ravel the Légion d’honneur, but he refused it. The next 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 influential participation with the SMI which continued its active role of promoting new music, particularly of British and American composers such as Arnold Bax, Ralph Vaughan Williams, Aaron Copland, and Virgil Thomson. 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.
In post-war Paris, American musical influence was strong. Jazz particularly was played in the cafes and became popular, and French composers including Ravel and Darius Milhaud were applying jazz elements to their work. Around 1922, Ravel completed his famous orchestral arrangement of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, commissioned by Serge Koussevitzky, which through its widespread popularity brought Ravel great fame and substantial profit. The first half of the 1920s 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 sortilèges, 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. That same year, he completed and premiered his Sonata for Violin and Piano, his last chamber work, with its second movement (titled “Blues”) gaining much attention. Ravel also served as a juror with Florence Meyer Blumenthal in awarding the Prix Blumenthal, a grant given between 1919 and 1954 to young French painters, sculptors, decorators, engravers, writers, and musicians. 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 standing ovation, unlike any of his unenthusiastic premieres in Paris. His all-Ravel concert in Boston was equally acclaimed. He also met the American composer George Gershwin in New York and went with him to hear jazz in Harlem, probably hearing some of the famous jazz musicians such as Duke Ellington. Ravel then visited New Orleans and imbibed the jazz scene there as well. His admiration of jazz, increased by his American visit, caused 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 made Ravel famous internationally.
After returning to France, Ravel composed his most famous and controversial orchestral work Boléro, originally called Fandango. Remarkably, Ravel composed both of his piano concertos simultaneously. 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. Its lighter tone follows the models of Mozart and 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.
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. It is also possible he had begun experiencing the early stages of Pick’s disease. He had begun work on music for a film, Don Quixote (1933) from Miguel de 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 à Dulcinée, and have been performed and recorded. In late 1937, Ravel consented to experimental brain surgery, evidently with some hesitation. On December 17, he entered a hospital in Paris, following the advice of the well-known neurosurgeon Clovis Vincent. Vincent assumed there was a brain tumor, and on December 19 operated on Ravel. No tumor was found, but there was some shrinkage of the left hemisphere of his brain, which was re-inflated with serous fluid. Ravel awoke from the anesthesia, but quickly sank into a deep coma, from which he never recovered and died on December 28, 1937, at the age of 62, in Paris. .
Ravel never married and had no children. He is not known to have had any intimate relationships at all, and his personal life remains a mystery. Ravel made a remark at one time suggesting that because he was such a perfectionist composer, so devoted to his work, he could never have a lasting intimate relationship with anyone. However, according to close friend and student Manuel Rosenthal, Ravel once asked violinist Hélène Jourdan-Morhange to marry him, although she dismissed him, saying “No, Maurice, I’m extremely fond of you, as you know, but only as a friend, and I couldn’t possibly consider marrying you.” He is quoted as saying “The only love affair I have ever had was with music.” From around 1900 until his death, Debussy was considered France’s greatest living composer. Ravel assumed the mantle only after Debussy’s death. Today, Debussy and Ravel are often thought of together, but they were very different composers. Ravel’s elegant and lyrically generous body of work was not large in comparison with that of some of his contemporaries, but his compositions are notable for being meticulously and exquisitely crafted. He was especially gifted as an orchestrator, an area in which he remains unsurpassed.
In spite of leaving one of the richest and most important bodies of work of any early twentieth century composer, one that included virtually every genre except for symphony and liturgical music, Ravel is most often remembered for an arrangement of another composer’s work, and for a piece he considered among his least significant. His orchestral arrangement of Mussorgsky’s piano suite Pictures at an Exhibition has been wildly popular with concertgoers. Much of his piano music, chamber music, vocal music and orchestral music is part of the standard concert repertoire. The piano compositions, such as Jeux d’eau, Miroirs, Le tombeau de Couperin and Gaspard de la nuit, demand considerable virtuosity from the performer, and his mastery of orchestration is particularly evident in such works as Rapsodie espagnole, Daphnis et Chloé, and the arrangement of Modest Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition. Ravel is perhaps known best for his orchestral work Boléro (1928), a 15-minute Spanish dance in which a single theme is repeated in a variety of instrumental guises; he once described it as “a piece for orchestra without music,” and it has been ridiculed for its insistent repetitiveness, but it is also a popular favorite and one of the most familiar and frequently performed orchestral works of the twentieth century. According to SACEM, Ravel’s estate had earned more royalties than that of any other French composer.
The following works by Maurice Ravel are contained in my collection:
Bolero, Ballet for Orchestra (1928
Daphnis et Chloe, Choreographic Symphony in three parts, with chorus, based on a scenario by Mikhail Fokine (1912).
Introduction and Allegro.
La Valse, Choreographic Poem for Orchestra (1920/1928).
Le Tombeau de Couperin (1917/1919).
Ma Mere L’Oye (1911).
Menuet Antique (1895).
Miroirs (1905): Alborado del Gracioso or Morning Song of the Jester, for large orchestra (orch. 1918); #3, Une Barque sur l’Ocean (orch. 1906).
Pavane pour une Infante Defunte (1899/1910).
Piano Concerto in GM.
Piano Concerto in DM, For the Left Hand.
Rhapsodie Espganole (1907/1908).
Sheherazade: Ouverture de Feerie (1899).
Tzigane, Rhapsodie de Concert for Violin and Orchestra.
Valses Nobles et Sentimentales (1911/1919).
—material selected, adapted, and edited from several different sources