Maurice Ravel: Wikis

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Maurice Ravel in 1912

Joseph-Maurice Ravel (March 7, 1875 – December 28, 1937) was a French composer of Impressionist music known especially for his melodies, orchestral and instrumental textures and effects. Much of his piano music, chamber music, vocal music and orchestral music has entered the standard concert repertoire.

Ravel's piano compositions, such as Jeux d'eau, Miroirs and Gaspard de la Nuit, demand considerable virtuosity from the performer, and his orchestral music, including Daphnis et Chloé and his arrangement of Modest Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition, uses a variety of sound and instrumentation very effectively.

Ravel is perhaps known best for his orchestral work, Boléro (1928), which he considered trivial and once described as "a piece for orchestra without music."[1]

According to SACEM, Ravel's estate earns more royalties than that of any other French musician. According to international copyright law, Ravel's works are public domain since January 1, 2008 in most countries. In France, due to anomalous copyright law extensions to account for the two world wars, they will not enter the public domain until 2015.[2]

Contents

Biography

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Early life

Birthplace of Maurice Ravel in Ciboure

Ravel was born in in the Basque town of Ciboure, France, near Biarritz, close to the border with Spain, during 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.[3] 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 success until a fatal accident at the Barnum and Bailey circus during 1903.[4] 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.[5] Ravel stated later, “As a child, I was sensitive to music—- to every kind of music.” [6]

Ravel was very fond of his mother, and her Basque heritage was a strong influence on his life and music. Among his earliest memories are folk songs she sang to him.[7] 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.[7] 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 during 1889 at age fourteen.[8]

Though obviously 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 Exposition Universelle in 1889.[9] The foreign music at the exhibition also had a great influence on Ravel’s contemporaries Erik Satie, Emmanuel Chabrier, and most significantly Claude Debussy. That year Ravel also 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.[10] The students shared an appreciation for Richard Wagner, the Russian school, and the writings of Edgar Allan Poe, Charles Baudelaire, and Stéphane Mallarmé.[11]

The Conservatoire and early career

Théâtre du Conservatoire, Paris: in Ravel's day, home to the Conservatoire de Paris

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.[12] 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.[12] 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.[11]

Ravel was not a "bohemian" and evidenced little of the typical trauma of adolescence. At twenty years of age, Ravel was already "self-possessed, a little aloof, intellectually biased, given to mild banter."[13] 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".[14] His large head seemed suitably matched to his great intellect. He was well-read and later accumulated a library of over 1,000 volumes.[14] 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.[13] He became a life-long tobacco smoker in his youth, and he enjoyed strongly flavored meals, fine wine, and spirited conversation.[15]

After failing to meet the requirement of earning a competitive medal in three consecutive years, Ravel was expelled during 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.[16] 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.[17] 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."[18] 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.[19]

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).[20] During 1899, Ravel conducted his first orchestral piece, Shéhérazade, and was greeted by a raucous mixture of boos and applause. The critics were somewhat unfavorable, e.g. reviling him as "a jolting debut: a clumsy plagiarism of the Russian School" and terming him a “mediocrely gifted debutante ... who will perhaps become something if not someone in about ten years, if he works hard.”[21] As the most gifted composer of his class and as a leader, with Debussy, of avant-garde French music, Ravel would continue to have a difficult time with the critics for some time to come.[22]

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".[23] The group met regularly until the beginning 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.[24] One of the first works Ravel performed for the Apaches was Jeux d'eau, 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 during 1902.[25]

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 conservatives, including Director Théodore Dubois.[26] 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.[27] After a scandal involving his loss of the prize during 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 caused the resignation of Dubois and his replacement by Fauré, a vindication of sorts for Ravel.[28] 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".[29]

Ravel and Debussy

Ravel met Debussy during the 1890’s. Debussy was older than Ravel by some twelve years and his pioneering "Prélude à l’Après-midi d’un faune" was influential among the younger musicians including Ravel, who were impressed by the new language of impressionism.[30] During 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 controversial public debut of his unconventional opera "Pelléas et Mélisande", which garnered Debussy both fame and scorn.[26]

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.[31] 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 associated them more than the facts warranted.[32]

Ravel wrote that Debussy’s “genius was obviously one of great individuality, creating its own laws, constantly in evolution, expressing itself freely, yet always faithful to French tradition. For Debussy, the musician and the man, I have had profound admiration, but by nature I am different from Debussy.”[33] Ravel further stated, “I think I have always personally followed a direction opposed to that of the symbolism of Debussy.”[16]

They admired each other’s music and Ravel even played Debussy’s work in public on occasion. However, Ravel did criticize Debussy sometimes, particularly regarding his orchestration, and he once said, “If I had the time, I would reorchestrate "La Mer"”[31]

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 caused personal estrangement.[34] As Ravel said, “It is probably better after all for us to be on frigid terms for illogical reasons.”[32] Ravel stoically absorbed superficial comparisons with Debussy promulgated by biased critics, including Pierre Lalo, an anti-Ravel critic who stated, “Where M. Debussy is all sensitivity, M. Ravel is all insensitivity, borrowing without hesitation not only technique but the sensitivity of other people.”[34] During 1913, in a remarkable coincidence, both Ravel and Debussy independently produced and published musical settings for poems by Stéphane Mallarmé, again provoking comparisons of their work and their perceived influence on each other, which continued even after Debussy’s death five years later.[35]

Early major works

Ravel in 1906 (photograph by Pierre Petit)

The next of Ravel’s piano compositions to become famous was "Miroirs" (Mirrors - 1905), five piano pieces which marked a “harmonic evolution” and which one commentator described as “intensely descriptive and pictorial. They banish all sentiment in expression but offer to the listener a number of refined sensory elements which can be appreciated according to his imagination.”[36] Next was his "Histoires naturelles" (Nature Stories), five humorous songs evoking the presence of five animals.[37] Two years later, Ravel completed his Rapsodie espagnole, his first major “Spanish” piece, written first for piano four hands and then scored for orchestra. Though it employs folk-like melodies, no actual folk songs are quoted.[38] It premiered during 1908 to generally good reviews, with one critic stating that it was “one of the most interesting novelties of the season.”, while Lalo (as usual) reacted negatively, calling it “laborious and pedantic”.[39] Next followed Ravel’s music for the opera "L’Heure espagnole" (The Spanish Hour), full of humor and rich in color, employing a wide variety of instruments and their characteristic qualities, including the trombone, sarrusophone, tuba, celesta, xylophone, and bells.[40]

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.[41] Viñes, as usual, performed the premiere but his performance displeased Ravel, and their relationship became strained from then on. For future premieres, Ravel replaced Vines with Marguerite Long.[42] Also unhappy with the conservative musical establishment which was discouraging performance of new music, around this time Ravel, Faure, and some of his pupils formed the Société Musical Indépendante (SMI). During 1910, the society presented the premiere of Ravel’s Ma Mere l’Oye (Mother Goose) in its original piano version.[43] With this work, Ravel followed in the tradition of Schumann, Mussorgsky, and Debussy who also created memorable works of childhood themes. During 1912, Ravel’s “Ma Mere l’Oye” was performed as a ballet (with added music) after being first transcribed from piano to orchestra.[44] Looking to expand his contacts and career, Ravel made his first foreign tours to England and Scotland during 1909 and 1911.[45]

Daphnis et Chloé

Ravel began work with impresario Sergei Diaghilev during 1909 for the ballet Daphnis et Chloé commissioned by Diaghilev with the lead danced by the great Vaslav Nijinsky. Diaghilev had taken Paris by storm the previous year in his Parisian debut opera Boris Godunov.[44] “Daphnis et Chloé” took three years to reach final form with conflicts constantly arising among the principal artists, including Leon Bakst (sets and costumes), Michel Fokine (libretto), and Ravel (music).[46] In frustration, Diaghilev nearly cancelled the project. The ballet had an unenthusiastic reception and lasted only two performances, only to be revived to acclaim a year later. Stravinsky called “Daphnis et Chloé” “one of the most beautiful products of all French music” and author Burnett James claims that it is “Ravel’s most impressive single achievement, as it is his most opulent and confident orchestral score”.[47] The work is notable for its rhythmic diversity, lyricism, and evocations of nature. The score utilizes a large orchestra and two choruses, one onstage and one offstage.[48] 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.[49] During 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.[50]

War years

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.[51] Instead, he became a truck driver stationed at the Verdun front.[52] At one point Ravel's unit engaged a German unit that included a young Adolf Hitler.[53] With his mother’s death during 1917, his fondest relationship ended and he began a “horrible despair”, adding to his ill health and the general gloom over the suffering endured by the people of 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 commemoration of the musical ideals of the early 18th century composer, which premiered during 1919.[54] Each movement is dedicated to a friend of Ravel who died by the war, with the final movement dedicated to the deceased husband of Ravel’s favorite pianist Marguerite Long.[54] During 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 stating:

“it would be dangerous for French composers to ignore systematically the works of their foreign colleagues, and thus form themselves into a sort of national coterie: our musical, so rich at the present time, would soon degenerate and become isolated by its own academic formulas.”[52]

Ravel was exhausted and lacking creative spirit at the war’s end during 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.[55]

1920s

Ravel's house in Montfort-l'Amaury, where the composer lived from 1921 until his death

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, ended the relationship.[56] Subsequently, it became a popular concert work and when the two men met again during 1925, Ravel refused to shake Diaghilev's hand. Diaghilev challenged Ravel to a duel (friends persuaded Diaghilev to recant). The men never met again.[57]

During 1920, the French government awarded Ravel the Légion d'honneur, but he refused it.[58] The next year, he retired to the French countryside where he continued to write music, albeit even less prolifically, but in more tranquil surroundings.[59] 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.[60] With Debussy’s passing, Ravel became perceived popularly as the main composer 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.”[61] During 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.[61]

The English, in particular, lauded Ravel, as the Times reported during 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. Satie had become the inspiring force for the new generation of French composers known as Les Six.[62] Ravel was fully aware of this, and was mostly effective in preventing a serious breach between his generation of musicians and the younger group.[62]

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.[19] Also in vogue was a return to simplicity in orchestration and a transition from the great scale of the works of Gustav Mahler and Richard Strauss. Stravinsky and Prokofiev were in ascent, and Schoenberg's experiments were leading music into atonality.[63] 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 1920s.[63]

Around 1922, Ravel completed his famous orchestral arrangement of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, commissioned by Serge Koussevitzsky, which through its widespread popularity brought Ravel great fame and substantial profit.[19] 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.[64] Around this time, he also completed Chansons madécasses, the summit of his vocal art.[65]

During 1927, Ravel’s string quartet received its first complete recording. By this time Ravel, like Edward Elgar, had become convinced of the importance of recording his works, especially with his input and direction. He made recordings nearly every year from then until his death.[66] 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.[67]

American tour

Ravel at the piano, accompanied by Canadian singer Éva Gauthier, during his American tour, March 7, 1928. At far right is George Gershwin.

After two months of planning, during 1928 Ravel made a four month concert tour in North America, for a promised minimum of $10,000.[66] 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.[68] The noted critic Olin Downes wrote, “Mr. Ravel has pursued his way as an artist quietly and very well. He has disdained superficial or meretricious effects. He has been his own most unsparing critic.”[69] Ravel conducted most of the leading orchestras in the U.S. from coast to coast and visited twenty-five cities.[70]

He also met the American composer George Gershwin in New York and went with him to hear jazz in Harlem, likely hearing some of the famous jazz musicians such as Duke Ellington.[71] There is a story that when Gershwin met Ravel, he mentioned that he would like to study with the French composer. According to Gershwin, the Frenchman retorted, "Why do you want to become a second-rate Ravel when you are already a first-rate Gershwin?"[72] The second part of the story has Ravel asking Gershwin how much money he made. Upon hearing Gershwin's reply, Ravel suggested that maybe he should study with Gershwin. This tale may well be apocryphal: Gershwin seems also to have told a near-identical story about a conversation with Arnold Schoenberg, and some have claimed it was with Igor Stravinsky. (See George Gershwin.) In any event, this had to have been before Ravel wrote Boléro, which became financially very successful for him.

Ravel then visited New Orleans and imbibed the jazz scene there as well. His admiration of American 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.[73]

Final years

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”.[74] He stated his idea for the piece, “I am going to try to repeat it a number of times on different orchestral levels but without any development.”[75] He conceived of it as an accompaniment to a ballet and not as an orchestral piece as, in his own opinion, “it has no music in it”, and was somewhat taken aback by its popular success.[75] A public dispute began with conductor Arturo Toscanini. The Italian maestro, taking liberties with Ravel’s strict instructions, conducted the piece at a faster tempo and with an “accelerando at the finish”. Ravel insisted “I don’t ask for my music to be interpreted, but only that it should be played.” In the end, the feuding only helped to increase the work’s fame. A Hollywood film titled Bolero (1934), starring Carole Lombard and George Raft, made major use of the theme.[76] Ravel made one of his few recordings of his own music when he conducted his Boléro with the Lamoureux Orchestra in 1930.

Remarkably, Ravel composed both of his piano concertos at the same time. ”[77] 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. Ravel was inspired by the technical challenges of the project. As Ravel stated, “In a work of this kind, it is essential to give the impression of a texture no thinner than that of a part written for both hands.”[78] At the premiere of the work, Ravel—- not proficient enough to perform the work with only his left hand—- played two-handed and Wittgenstein was reportedly underwhelmed by it. But later Wittgenstein stated, “Only much later, after I’d studied the concerto for months, did I become fascinated by it and realized what a great work it was.” [79] During 1933, Wittgenstein played the work in concert for the first time to instant acclaim.[80] One critic wrote, “From the opening measures, we are plunged into a world in which Ravel has but rarely introduced us.”[80]

The other piano concerto was completed a year later. Its lighter tone follows the models of Mozart, Domenico Scarlatti, and Saint-Saëns, and also makes use of jazz-like themes.[81] 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 during 1932.[82] 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.

Ravel, ever modest, was bemused by the critics sudden favor of him since his American tour, “Didn’t I represent to the critics for a long time the most perfect example of insensitivity and lack of emotion?... And the successes they have given me in the past few years are just as unimportant.” [80]

Illness and death

During 1932, Ravel suffered a major blow to the head in a taxi accident. This injury was not considered serious at the time.[83] However, afterwards he began to experience aphasia-like symptoms and was frequently absent-minded.[84] 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.[83]

On April 8, 2008, the New York Times published an article suggesting Ravel may have been in the early stages of frontotemporal dementia during 1928, and this might account for the repetitive nature of Boléro.[85] This accords with an earlier article, published in a journal of neurology, that closely examines Ravel's clinical history and argues that his works Boléro and Piano Concerto for the Left Hand both indicate the impacts of neurological disease.[86]

This is contradicted somewhat, however, by the earlier cited comments by Ravel about how he created the deliberately repetitious theme for Boléro.

During 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 the automobile accident and not from a brain tumor as some believe.[87] 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.

Personal life

Ravel is not known to have had any intimate relationships, and his personal life, and especially his sexuality, remains a mystery. Ravel made a remark at one time suggesting that because he was such a perfectionist composer, so devoted to his work, that he could never have a lasting intimate relationship with anyone.[88] He is quoted as saying "The only love affair I have ever had was with music".[89]. Many of his friends suggested that Ravel frequented the bordellos of Paris, but many others suspected that he was homosexual, but no factual (or reliably anecdotal) evidence has ever been found to substantiate either rumor.

A recent hypothesis presented by David Lamaze, a composition teacher at the Conservatoire de Rennes in France, is that he hid in his music representations of the nickname and the name of Misia Godebska, transcribed into two groups of notes, Godebska = G D E B A and Misia = Mi + Si + A = E B A. He was invited onto her boat during a 1905 cruise on the Rhine after his failure at the Prix de Rome, for which her husband, Alfred Edwards organized a scandal in the newspapers. This same man owned the "Casino de Paris" where the Ravel family had a number staged, the "Tourbillon de la mort", a car somersault. The family of her half-brother, Cipa Godebski, is said to have been like a second family for Ravel. In 1907 on Misia's boat L'Aimée, Ravel completed L'heure espagnole and the Rapsodie espagnole, and at the premiere of Daphnis et Chloé, Ravel arrived late and did not go to his box but to Misia's, where he offered her a Japanese doll. In her memoires, Misia hid all these facts.[90]

Benjamin Ivry's 2000 biography of Ravel, "The Secret Pan," sets out in contrast to demonstrate that Ravel was a very secretive gay man, and that his hidden homosexuality explains both the aridity of his human relationships and the sensuality of his music. The evidence is highly circumstantial: Ravel doted on his mother, dressed as a dandy, and wrote music for songs about beautiful young boys, but there is no proof that he ever had a male (or female) lover. Ivry's evidence is instead of a man whose sexuality was stunted: Ravel in the 1920s settled in a Paris suburb where he read, composed, and collected pornography. The sensuality, as Ivry notes, was reserved for the music: Indifférent "is a wistful love lyric to a beautiful youth in the pederastic tradition of medieval Arab poetry," Shéhérazade is to a text of unabashed homoeroticism by Ravel's gay friend Klingsor ("My shaved slave will massage your powerful rear ('ta puissante derrière') and heavy sex with soapy hands,"), and Bolero is the perfect musical expression of a sexual release which Ravel may never have enjoyed with a companion of any gender.[91]

Musicality

Musical sources

Active during a period of great artistic innovations and diversification, Ravel benefited from many sources and influences, though his music defies any facile classification. As Vladimir Jankélévitch notes in his biography, "no influence can claim to have conquered him entirely […]. Ravel remains ungraspable behind all these masks which the snobbery of the century has attempted to impose."[92] Ravel's musical language was ultimately very original, neither absolutely modernist nor impressionist. Like Debussy, Ravel categorically refused this description of “impressionist” which he believed was reserved exclusively for painting.[93]

Ravel was a remarkable synthesist of disparate styles. Ravel’s music matured early into his innovative and distinct style. As a student, he studied the scores of composers of the past methodically: as he stated, "in order to know one's own craft, one must study the craft of others."[94] Though he liked the new French music, during his youth Ravel still felt fond of the older French styles of Franck and the Romanticism of Beethoven and Wagner. [13] Or, as Viñes put it, discussing Ravel's aesthetics (not his religion):

"He is, moreover, very complicated, there being in him a mixture of Middle Ages Catholicism and satanic impiety, but also a love of Art and Beauty which guide him and which make him react candidly."[94]

Certain aspects of his music can be considered to belong to the tradition of 18th century French classicism beginning with Couperin and Rameau as in Le Tombeau de Couperin. The uniquely 19th century French sensibilities of Fauré and Chabrier are reflected in Sérénade grotesque, Pavane pour une infante défunte, and Menuet antique, while pieces such as Jeux d'eau, and the String Quartet in F owe something to the innovations of Satie and Debussy. The virtuosity and poetry of Gaspard de la nuit and Concerto for the left hand hint at Liszt and Chopin. His admiration and interest in American jazz is echoed in L'enfant et les sortilèges, Violin Sonata and the Piano Concerto in G, while the Russian school of music inspired homage in "À la manière de Borodin" and the orchestration of Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition. Additionally, he variously cited Mozart, Saint-Saëns, Schubert and Schoenberg as inspirations for various pieces.

Musical style

Ravel's music was innovative, though he did not follow the contemporary trend towards atonality, as pioneered by Schoenberg. Instead, he applied the aesthetics of the new French school of Chabrier, Satie, and particularly Debussy. Ravel's compositions rely upon modal melodies instead of using the major or minor scales for their predominant harmonic language. He preferred modes with major or minor flavors – for example the Mixolydian (with its lowered 7th degree) instead of the major, and the Aeolian instead of the harmonic minor. As a result, there are virtually no leading tones in his output. Melodically, he tended to favor two modes: the Dorian and the Phrygian.[95] Following the teachings of Gédalge, Ravel placed high importance on melody, once stating to Vaughan Williams, that there is "an implied melodic outline in all vital music."[95]

In no way dependent on exclusively traditional modal practices, Ravel used extended harmonies and intricate modulations. He was fond of chords of the ninth and eleventh, and his characteristic harmonies are largely the result of a fondness for unresolved appoggiaturas (listen to the Valses nobles et sentimentales).[96] He was inspired by various dances, his favorite being the minuet, composing the Menuet sur le nom d'Haydn during 1908, to commemorate the centenary of the death of Joseph Haydn. Other forms from which Ravel drew material include the forlane, rigaudon, waltz, czardas, habanera, passacaglia, and the boléro.

He believed that composers should be aware of both individual and national consciousness. For him, Basque music was influential. He intended to write an earlier concerto, Zazpiak Bat, but it was never finished. The title is a result of his Basque heritage: meaning 'The Seven Are One', it refers to the seven Basque regions, and was a motto often used in association with the idea of a Basque nation.[97] Instead, Ravel abandoned the piece, using its nationalistic themes and rhythms in some of his other pieces. Ravel also used other folk themes including Hebraic, Greek, and Hungarian.[98]

Ravel has almost always been considered one of the two great French impressionist composers, the other being Debussy. In reality Ravel is much more than an Impressionist (and in fact he resented being labelled as such). For example, he made extensive use of rollicking jazz tunes in his Piano Concerto in G in the first and third movements.[99] Ravel also imitates Paganini's and Liszt's virtuoso gypsy themes and technique in Tzigane.[100] In his À la manière de...Borodine (In the manner of...Borodin), Ravel plays with the ability to both mimic and remain original. In a more complex situation, A la maniere de...Emmanuel Chabrier /Paraphrase sur un air de Gounod ("Faust IIème acte"), Ravel takes on a theme from Gounod's Faust and arranges it in the style of Chabrier. He also composed short pieces in the manner of Haydn and his teacher Fauré.[101] Even in writing in the style of others, Ravel's own voice as a composer remained distinct.

Ravel considered himself in many ways a classicist. He often relied on traditional forms, such as the A-B-A form, as well as traditional structures as ways of presenting his new melodic and rhythmic content, and his innovative harmonies.[102] Ravel stated, "If I were called upon to do so, I would ask to be allowed to identify myself with the simple pronouncements made by Mozart ... He confined himself to saying that there is nothing that music cannot undertake to do, or dare, or portray, provided it continues to charm and always remain music."[103] He often masked the sections of his structure with transitions that disguised the beginnings of the motif. This is apparent in his Valses nobles et sentimentales — inspired by Franz Schubert's collections, Valses nobles and Valses sentimentales — where the seven movements begin and end without pause, and in his chamber music where many movements are in sonata-allegro form, hiding the change from developmental sections to recapitulation.[104]

From his own experience, Ravel was cognizant of the effect of new music on the ears of the public and he insightfully wrote:

On the initial performance of a new musical composition, the first impression of the public is generally one of reaction to the more superficial elements of it music, that is to say, to its external manifestations rather than to its inner content…often it is not until years after, when the means of expression have finally surrendered all their secrets, that the real inner emotion of the music becomes apparent to the listener.[105]

Methods

His own composing method was craftsman-like and perfectionistic. Igor Stravinsky once referred to Ravel as "the most perfect of Swiss watchmakers", a reference to the intricacy and precision of Ravel's works.[106] Ravel might work on a piece over several years to develop it to the best possible result, “My objective, therefore, is technical perfection. I can strive unceasingly to this end, since I am certain of never being able to attain it. The important thing is to get nearer to it all the time.”[107]

More specifically he stated:

”In my own compositions I judge a long period of conscious gestation necessary. During this interval I come progressively, and with growing precision, to see the form and the evolution that the final work will take in its tonality. Thus I can be occupied for several years without writing a single note of the work, after which composition goes relatively quickly. But one must spend much time in eliminating all that could be regarded as superfluous in order to realize as completely as possible the definitive clarity so much desired. The moment arrives when new conceptions must be formulated for the final composition, but they cannot be artificially forced for they come only of their own accord, often deriving their original from some far-off perception and only manifesting themselves after long years.” [106]

Many of his most innovative compositions were developed first as piano music. Ravel used this miniaturist approach to build up his architecture with many finely wrought strokes. To fill the requirements of larger works, he multiplied the number of small building blocks.[102] This demonstrates the great regard he had for the piano traditions of Scarlatti, Couperin, Mozart, Chopin and Liszt.[108] For example, Gaspard de la nuit can be viewed as an extension of Liszt’s virtuosity and advanced harmonics.[109] Even Ravel’s most difficult pieces, however, are marked by elegance and refinement. Walter Gieseking found some of Ravel’s piano works to be among the most difficult pieces for the instrument but always based on “musically perfectly logical concepts”; not just technically demanding but also requiring the right expression.[108]

Ravel’s great regard as an orchestrator is also based on his thorough methods. He usually notated the string parts first and insisted that the string section “sound perfectly in and of itself”.[110] In writing for the other sections, he often preferred to score “in tutti” to produce a full, clear resonance. To add surprise and added color, the melody might start with one instrument and be continued with another.[111]

Because of his perfectionism and methods, Ravel’s musical output over four decades is quite small. Most of his works were thought out over considerable lengths of time, then noted quickly, and refined painstakingly.[112] When a piece would not progress, he would abandon a piece until inspired anew.[113] There are only about sixty compositions in all, of which slightly more than half are instrumental. Ravel’s body of work includes pieces for piano, chamber works, two piano concerti, ballet music, opera, and song cycles.[6] Though wide-ranging in his music, Ravel avoided the symphonic form as well as religious themes and forms.[114]

Ravel crafted his manuscripts meticulously, and relentlessly polished and corrected them. He destroyed hundreds of sketches and even re-copied entire autographs to correct one mistake. Unfortunately, early printed editions of his works were prone to errors so he worked painstakingly with his publisher, Durand, to correct them.[112]

Pianist and conductor

Though a competent pianist, Ravel decided early on to have virtuosi, like Ricardo Viñes, premiere and perform his work. As his career evolved, however, Ravel was again called upon to play his own piano music, and to conduct his larger works, particularly during a tour, both of which he considered chores in the same mold as "circus performances". Only rarely did he conduct works of other composers.[115] One London critic stated "His baton is not the magician's wand of a virtuoso conductor. He just stood there beating time and keeping watch."[116] As to how his music was to be played, Ravel was always clear and direct with his instructions.[116]

Musical influence

Ravel was always a supporter of young musicians, through his society and associations, and through his personal individual advice and his help in securing performance dates. His closest students included Maurice Delage, Manuel Rosenthal, Ralph Vaughan Williams, Alexis Roland-Manuel and Vlado Perlemuter.[117] Ravel modeled his teaching methods after his own teacher Gabriel Fauré, avoiding formulas and emphasizing individualism. Ravel's preferred way of teaching would be to have a conversation with his students and demonstrate his points at the piano. He was rigorous and demanding in teaching counterpoint and fugue, as he revered Johann Sebastian Bach without reservation. But in all other areas, he considered Mozart the ideal, with the perfect balance between "classical symmetry and the element of surprise", and with works of clarity, perfect craftsmanship, and measured amounts of lyricism. Often Ravel would challenge a student with "What would Mozart do?", then ask the student to invent his own solution.[118]

Though never a paid critic as Debussy had been, Ravel had strong opinions on historical and contemporary music and musicians, which influenced his younger contemporaries. In creating his own music, he tended to avoid the more monumental composers as models, finding relatively little kinship with or inspiration from Beethoven, Brahms, Tchaikovsky, Hector Berlioz, or Franck. However, as an outspoken commentator on the Romantic giants, he found much of Beethoven "exasperating", Wagner's influence "pernicious" and Berlioz's harmony "clumsy". He had considerable admiration for other 19th century masters such as Chopin, Liszt, Mendelssohn, and Schubert.[119] Despite what he considered their technical deficiencies, Ravel was a strong advocate of Russian music and praised its spontaneity, orchestral color, and exoticism.[120]

Notable compositions

Media Depictions

  • Canadian filmmaker Larry Weinstein has produced two documentaries about Ravel, Ravel (1987)[121] and Ravel's Brain (2001).[122] The second of these two films dramatizes the musician's illness and death.
  • Maurice Ravel is played as a "bit role" by actor Oscar Loraine in the 1945 Gershwin film biography Rhapsody in Blue.

See also

References

  1. ^ Kavanaugh, Patrick (1996). "Orchestra Music". Music of the Great Composers: A Listener's Guide to the Best of Classical Music. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan. p. 56. ISBN 0310208076. OCLC 34149901. http://books.google.com/books?id=qSFD5A6r3QEC&pg=PA56&vq=ravel&output=html&source=gbs_search_s&cad=1&sig=ACfU3U2VohEUL2N2jkHVeh3n-sRU3PvIww. 
  2. ^ Henley, Jon (2001-04-25). "Poor Ravel". The Guardian. http://www.guardian.co.uk/g2/story/0,3604,477906,00.html. Retrieved 2008-08-12. 
  3. ^ Joseph is sometimes described inaccurately as “Swiss”, Burnett James, Ravel, Omnibus Press, London, 1987, p. 11, ISBN 0-7119-0987-3
  4. ^ James, 1987, p. 13
  5. ^ Arbie Orenstein, Ravel: Man and Musician, Dover, New York, 1991, p. 10, ISBN0-486-26633-8
  6. ^ a b Orenstein, 1991, p. 130
  7. ^ a b Orenstein, 1991, p. 8
  8. ^ Orenstein, 1991, p. 11
  9. ^ Orenstein, 1991, pp. 11-12
  10. ^ James, 1987, p. 15
  11. ^ a b Orenstein, 1991, p. 16
  12. ^ a b Orenstein, 1991, p. 14
  13. ^ a b c James, 1987, p. 22
  14. ^ a b Orenstein, 1991, p. 111
  15. ^ Orenstein, 1991, p. 110
  16. ^ a b James, 1987, p. 20
  17. ^ Barbara L. Kelly. "Ravel, Maurice." Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online. 9 Dec. 2009.
  18. ^ James, 1987, p. 21
  19. ^ a b c James, 1987, p. 101
  20. ^ Orenstein, 1991, p. 17
  21. ^ Orenstein, 1991, p. 24
  22. ^ Orenstein, 1991, p. 25
  23. ^ Orenstein, 1991, p. 28
  24. ^ Orenstein, 1991, p. 29
  25. ^ Orenstein, 1991, p. 37
  26. ^ a b James, 1987, p. 33
  27. ^ Orenstein, 1991, p. 39, 155
  28. ^ James, 1987, p. 40
  29. ^ James, 1987, p. 40, 46
  30. ^ Orenstein, 1991, p. 31
  31. ^ a b Orenstein, 1991, p. 127
  32. ^ a b James, 1987, pp. 30-31
  33. ^ Orenstein, 1991, p. 33
  34. ^ a b James, 1987, p. 46
  35. ^ Orenstein, 1991, p. 67
  36. ^ James, 1987, p. 44
  37. ^ Orenstein, 1991, p. 163
  38. ^ Orenstein, 1991, p. 166
  39. ^ Orenstein, 1991, p. 39
  40. ^ Orenstein, 1991, p. 169
  41. ^ Orenstein, 1991, p. 171
  42. ^ James, 1987, p. 61
  43. ^ James, 1987, p. 62
  44. ^ a b Orenstein, 1991, p. 65
  45. ^ James, 1987, p. 65
  46. ^ Orenstein, 1991, p. 60
  47. ^ James, 1987, pp. 71-72
  48. ^ Orenstein, 1991, p. 177
  49. ^ James, 1987, p. 72
  50. ^ James, 1987, p. 79
  51. ^ James, 1987, p. 78
  52. ^ a b James, 1987, p. 83
  53. ^ James, 1987, p. 84
  54. ^ a b James, 1987, p. 81
  55. ^ James, 1987, p. 86
  56. ^ Orenstein, 1991, p. 78
  57. ^ Schonberg, Harold C. (1981). The Lives of the Great Composers (revised ed.). New York, London: W.W. Norton. p. 486. ISBN 0393013022. OCLC 6278261. 
  58. ^ Orenstein, 1991, p. 77
  59. ^ Orenstein, 1991, p. 81
  60. ^ Orenstein, 1991, pp. 82-83
  61. ^ a b Orenstein, 1991, p. 82
  62. ^ a b James, 1987, p. 99
  63. ^ a b Orenstein, 1991, p. 84
  64. ^ James, 1987, p. 108
  65. ^ Orenstein, 1991, p. 197
  66. ^ a b James, 1987, p. 118
  67. ^ Orenstein, 1991, p. 93
  68. ^ Orenstein, 1991, p. 94
  69. ^ James, 1987, p. 119
  70. ^ Orenstein, 1991, p. 95
  71. ^ Orenstein, 1991, p. 97
  72. ^ Smith, Jane Stuart; Betty Carlson (1995). The Gift of Music: Great Composers and Their Influence (3 ed.). Wheaton IL: Crossway Books. p. 272. ISBN 089107869X. OCLC 32820672. 
  73. ^ Orenstein, 1991, p. 98
  74. ^ Orenstein, 1991, p. 201
  75. ^ a b James, 1987, p. 121
  76. ^ Orenstein, 1991, p. 99
  77. ^ James, 1987, p. 125
  78. ^ James, 1987, p. 126
  79. ^ Orenstein, 1991, p. 101
  80. ^ a b c Orenstein, 1991, p. 104
  81. ^ Orenstein, 1991, pp. 204-5
  82. ^ Orenstein, 1991, p. 103
  83. ^ a b James, 1987, p. 132
  84. ^ Orenstein, 1991, p. 105
  85. ^ Blakeslee, Sandra (2008-04-08). "A Disease That Allowed Torrents of Creativity". New York Times. http://www.nytimes.com/2008/04/08/health/08brai.html. Retrieved 2008-08-10. 
  86. ^ Amaducci, L.; E. Grassi, and F. Boller (January 2002). "Maurice Ravel and right-hemisphere musical creativity: influence of disease on his last musical works?". European Journal of Neurology (subscription access) 9 (1): 75–82. doi:10.1046/j.1468-1331.2002.00351.x. ISSN 13515101. 
  87. ^ James, 1987, p. 136
  88. ^ Orenstein, 1991, p.112
  89. ^ Limelight, July 2008, p. 11.
  90. ^ This hypothesis has been presented in an universitarian essay (Master) and published in French (Le Coeur de l'horloge) and in English ( The Watchmaker's Heart)
  91. ^ Benjamin Ivry, "The Secret Pan" (review in the New York Times, December 2000). For the reference to the lyrics to Shéhérazade, see Tim Ashley, Eastern Promise The Guardian, 20 August 2005
  92. ^ Jankélévitch, Vladimir (1995). Ravel. Solfèges (Nouv. éd., rev. et augm ed.). Paris: Seuil. pp. 7–8. ISBN 2020234904. OCLC 33209653. 
  93. ^ Ravel, Maurice (1989). Lettres, écrits, entretiens. Orenstein, Arbie, ed.. Paris: Flammarion. p. 327. ISBN 2080661035. OCLC 20025651. "Si vous me demandez si nous avons une école impressionniste en musique, je dois dire que je n'ai jamais associé ce terme à la musique. La peinture, ah, ça, c'est autre chose! Monet et son école étaient impressionnistes. Mais dans l'art sœur, il n'y a pas d'équivalent à cela."  Interview extract printed in Musical Digest, March 1928.
  94. ^ a b Orenstein, 1991, p. 18
  95. ^ a b Orenstein, 1991, p. 131
  96. ^ Orenstein, 1991, p. 132
  97. ^ James, 1987, p. 75
  98. ^ Orenstein, 1991, p. 190
  99. ^ Orenstein, 1991, p. 203
  100. ^ Orenstein, 1991, p. 193
  101. ^ Orenstein, 1991, p. 192
  102. ^ a b Orenstein, 1991, p. 135
  103. ^ Orenstein, 1991, pp. 117-8
  104. ^ Orenstein, 1991, p. 134
  105. ^ Orenstein, 1991, p. 217
  106. ^ a b James, 1987, p. 103
  107. ^ Orenstein, 1991, p. 118
  108. ^ a b Orenstein, 1991, p. 136
  109. ^ James, 1987, p. 30
  110. ^ Orenstein, 1991, p. 137
  111. ^ Orenstein, 1991, p. 138
  112. ^ a b Orenstein, 1991, p. 208
  113. ^ Orenstein, 1991, p. 209
  114. ^ Orenstein, 1991, p. 139
  115. ^ Orenstein, 1991, p. 92
  116. ^ a b Orenstein, 1991, p. 87
  117. ^ Orenstein, 1991, p. 112
  118. ^ Orenstein, 1991, p. 120
  119. ^ Orenstein, 1991, p. 123
  120. ^ Orenstein, 1991, p. 125
  121. ^ Weinstein, Larry (Director). (1988). Ravel. [Videotape]. Toronto: Rhombus Media. OCLC 156633524.  Abstract: Follows Ravel's life and career through the presentation of his many works by the Montreal Symphony Orchestra.
  122. ^ Weinstein, Larry (Director). (2001). Ravel's Brain. [Videotape]. Oley, PA: Bullfrog Films. Produced by Rhombus Media. ISBN 1560299045. OCLC 48513895.  Abstract: The film portrays the inner being of a great artist who was rendered incapable of communicating with the outside world. For the last five years of his life, Maurice Ravel was the victim of his own lamentable circumstances. Afflicted with aphasia and apraxia, his brain produced music, but he was unable to write it down.

Further reading

External links

Free Scores

Miscellaneous

Recordings


Quotes

Up to date as of January 14, 2010

From Wikiquote

Maurice Ravel (1875-1937) was a French composer.

  • "Then M. Ravel discussed another idea. That was that in these days of cacophony it might be quite an original idea for the orchestra to start, say, in C major, and then, through a series of discords the instruments should divide, some going up a semitone at every three or four bars, while others went down in the same way, eventually ending in perfect harmony in C major two octaves apart. He said: 'It is just an idea but it might be rather fun working it out and certainly a novel way of resolving harmony from discord.'"
    • Maurice Ravel and unattributed. "Finding Tunes in Factories", Evening Standard, London, 24 February 1932.
    • Also printed in: Orenstein, Arbie, ed. (1990).A Ravel Reader: Correspondence, Articles, Interviews, p.490-91. New York: Columbia University Press.
  • "Mais est-ce qu'il ne vient jamais à l'idée de ces gens-là que je peux être 'artificiel' par nature?"
    • "But do these people never come up with the idea that I might be artificial by nature?"
    • Answering M. D. Calvocoressi on a question insinuating that many people thought Ravel's music rather "artificial" than "natural".
    • quoted in Calvocoressi's Musicians gallery, London, Faber, 1933
  • "I have the intention to dedicate Le Gibet to you. It is not because I think you merit a rope to hang yourself, but because it is the least difficult of the three pieces."
    • Ravel to pianist Jean Marnold about Le Gibet from Gaspard de la Nuit

Simple English

stands on the far right.]]

Maurice Ravel (born Ciboure, Pyrénées-Atlantiques, 7 March 1875; died Paris, 28 December 1937) was a French composer. His name is often thought of together with that of Claude Debussy, but their music is really very different. Ravel liked children and animals and his music is often about them. He liked to write about fairy tales and stories from far away lands. He wrote some lovely piano music, most of which is difficult to play. Boléro is a 17 minute piece for orchestra. A short version was used by ice-skaters Torvill and Dean for the dance that made them Olympic champions in 1984.

Contents

His life

Early years

Maurice Ravel was born in Ciboure in France. His father was an engineer. Both parents were interested in culture. Soon after he was born the family moved to Paris and stayed there.

It soon became clear that Maurice was musically gifted, so his father arranged for him to have piano lessons with a well-known teacher. In 1889 he entered the Paris Conservatoire.

In 1889 there was a big international exhibition: the Paris World Exhibition. Ravel and Debussy both heard gamelan music from Java at this exhibition. They were both influenced by it, especially Debussy. Ravel also heard Russian music at concerts given by Rimsky-Korsakov. He also made friends with a very talented Spanish pianist Ricardo Viñes who was in the same class at the Conservatoire. He heard the music of Richard Wagner and got to know the composers Chabrier and Satie.

He left the Conservatoire in 1895, but went back in 1897 to study composition with Gabriel Fauré and counterpoint and orchestration with Andreé Gédalge. At this stage Ravel was not sure of himself as a composer. His first work that was to become very well-known was the short piece for orchestra called Pavane pour une infante défunte. Fauré had been a very good teacher for Ravel, who dedicated his virtuoso piano piece Jeux d’eau (meaning “Play of water” or “Fountains”) and his String Quartet to Fauré. However, Ravel never got a prize for composition, so he left Fauré’s class in 1903.

Early career

Ravel was starting to live the life of a dandy. He always dressed very smartly, and got to know people with similar tastes. He tried to win the Prix de Rome in 1904 and again in 1905. However, the judges liked traditional music and did not understand Ravel’s style. There was a big argument at the Conservatoire which led to the director, Dubois, resigning and Fauré taking his place. Meanwhile Ravel left Paris for a time with some friends and started writing some of his best compositions. These included Introduction and Allegro for seven instruments including harp, the Rapsodie espagnole for orchestra, his first opera L’heure espagnole and Gaspard de la Nuit, a virtuoso piece for the piano. In Paris the music critics continued to argue about Ravel’s music.

Recognition at last

In 1909 the Ballets Russes visited Paris. They were the world’s most famous ballet group. Their director Diaghilev asked Ravel to write a ballet for them Ravel took about three years to compose the music for Daphnis et Chloé. Other works he completed before the war broke out include Shéhérazade for soprano and orchestra (not to be confused with the work by Rimsky-Korsakov with the same title), and the Piano Trio.

World War I

When World War I broke out Ravel felt very strongly that he wanted to do something for his country. However, he was not allowed to join the French army because he was 2 kg underweight. So he became a driver for the motor transport corps. In 1916 he became ill with dysentery. After a time in hospital he was taken back to Paris to get better, but then his mother died and this had a terrible effect on him. The war years had slowed him down as a composer. He had composed Le Tombeau de Couperin (well-known both as a piano solo piece and for orchestra) which looks back to the style of music in the Baroque period. It took him a long time to finish La Valse (The Waltz), one of his most popular pieces.

After the war

After the war had ended Debussy was dead and Ravel was seen to be the greatest living French composer. He was offered the award of Légion d’honneur but he would not accept it. He bought himself a house outside Paris. Here he could compose in peace and quiet. He wrote his opera L’enfant et les sortileges (The child and magic) and the famous virtuoso piece for solo violin called Tzigane. He toured in Europe and the United States and was welcomed everywhere as a great composer. He was given an honorary doctorate at Oxford University.

Ravel worked on several things: some ballet music which resulted in the orchestral piece Boléro, a Piano Concerto in G that could be played just with the left hand (written for the pianist Paul Wittgenstein who had lost his right arm in the war), and several other projects which were not finished.

His final years

In 1932 he started to become ill. For several years he had already been finding it difficult to sleep, and this may have been the beginning of the brain disease which would finally kill him. A road accident in 1932 made it worse. Soon he could no longer sign his own name, he could hardly move and hardly speak. He had a brain operation in 1937, but he died.

His music

Ravel was a very private man. We know nothing about his sexual life. His music came to him during walks on his own, in the country or in Paris, often at night, and in any weather. Then he would come home and write them down. He worked at each composition until it was perfect and never showed it to anybody until it was ready. He liked to collect little things such as toys, and these objects often became part of the music. Baroque music forms, gamelan music, Spanish music, ancient modes and unusual harmonies were all important in his musical style. He only had a few pupils, including Vaughan Williams, but no one could imitate his music because it is always so personal, full of perfection and humour.

References

  • The New Grove Dictionary of Music & Musicians, ed. Stanley Sadie, 1980; ISBN 1-56159-174-2


pcd:Maurice Ravel


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