Maurice Ravel

Definition

Mark Cartwright
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published on 26 February 2024
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Available in other languages: Dutch, French, Spanish
Maurice Ravel, 1925 (by Unknown Photographer, Public Domain)
Maurice Ravel, 1925
Unknown Photographer (Public Domain)

Maurice Ravel (1875-1937) was a French composer of classical music best known for his innovative piano pieces and orchestral works like Bolero and Daphnis et Chloé. Sometimes called an 'impressionist' composer, much was made of a practically non-existent rivalry with Claude Debussy (1862-1918). Ravel's work is most renowned for its complex yet sophisticated and precise orchestration.

Early Life

Maurice Ravel was born in Ciboure in southwest France on 7 March 1875. His father was Swiss and his mother was Basque. The family moved to Paris when Maurice was still very young. Ravel learnt piano well enough to enter the Paris Conservatoire at the age of 14. One of Ravel's teachers at the Conservatoire was Gabriel Fauré (1845-1924). The young Ravel was influenced by the Spanish composer Isaac Albéniz (1860-1909), who frequently employed the rhythms and timbres of Spanish folk music in his work. Ravel had a great admiration for Spanish culture in general. Other musical influences included Richard Wagner (1813-1883), Emmanuel Chabrier (1841-1894), Franz Liszt (1811-1886), and Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971). Ravel also had an interest in Russian music and the exotic, such as the sounds he came across at the 1889 Paris Exposition, like Javanese gamelan music with its use of multiple percussion instruments, where each instrumentalist progressively joins the group to create ever more intricate music.

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An early interest in Renaissance literature saw Ravel set the poems of Clément Marot to music. His compositions for piano were popular, especially Pavane pour une infante défunte (Pavan for a Dead Princess/Infanta). The pavane was a traditional funeral dance at the Spanish court. The work was first performed in 1899 and later made into an orchestral piece by Ravel. Another piano work which displayed Ravel's talent was Jeux d'eau (Fountains) in 1901. Later in life, some critics thought that Ravel had copied the "impressionistic" style of Claude Debussy, but Jeux d'eau illustrates that this was not so since it pre-dated the innovative works of Debussy. Much was made of this rivalry, but it was largely a concoction of the press. Ravel himself once wrote: "I believe that I myself have always followed a direction opposite to that of Debussy's symbolism" (Schonberg, 536).

Ravel returned to his Basques roots when he looked to the stage for the first time with his comic opera L'heure espagnole.

Ravel wrote the orchestral song cycle for mezzo-soprano Shéhérazade in 1903, which seemed to be the last straw for the ultra-conservative Conservatoire. Ravel's innovative music was failing to get official recognition – he entered the prestigious Prix de Rome (a French competition to send composers to study in Rome) four times without success, even getting eliminated in the first round in 1905. Ravel's pieces were popular with the public, and the composer's apparent neglect by the Conservatoire led to a public outcry and the director resigning. Ravel spent the rest of the 1900s writing the piano pieces Sonatine (1903-5), and Miroirs (1904-5), the song cycle Histoires naturelles (Natural Histories, 1906) for voice and piano, chamber music, including unusual works for the harp, and one of his most popular orchestral pieces, Rapsodie espagnole (1907-8).

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Maurice Ravel, 1907
Maurice Ravel, 1907
Unknown Photographer (Public Domain)

Character

The historian M. Wade-Matthews gives the following summary of Ravel's character:

His tiny stature, his addiction to elegant clothes and his impeccable toilette ensured his social popularity. His sexual proclivities are still unclear, but he never married and remained deeply attached to his mother.

(439)

Ravel was part of a group of like-minded artists and critics who called themselves "Les Apaches". Ravel's reputation as an avant-garde composer was enhanced in 1909 when he founded the Société Musicale Indépendante to promote modern music by any musician in any genre.

Bolero is highly unusual in that it repeats almost all the way through the piece a theme in C major.

Stage Works & War Years

Ravel returned to his Basques roots when he looked to the stage for the first time with his one-act comic opera L'heure espagnole (The Spanish Hour, 1907-9). In 1911, he wrote the ballet Ma mère l'oye (Mother Goose), which was adapted from an earlier piano suite. The three-movement ballet Daphnis et Chloé (1909-12) became a firm favourite although nowadays it tends to be performed as a concert piece, arranged by Ravel in 1911 and again in 1913. This transformation reflects the piece's undefinable quality, Ravel described the work as a "choreographic symphony" (Arnold, 1528). The historian H. Schonberg notes that "Daphnis et Chloé Suite No. 2 became one of the most popular orchestral works of the century" (540)

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The First World War began in 1914, and Ravel attempted to enlist in the Army and then the Air Force but was rejected by both because of his small stature (both height and weight). Wanting to help the French cause in any way he could, Ravel joined the ambulance service and served on the Western Front as a driver. Eventually, the composer's poor health led to him being discharged even from the ambulances. The war, his poor health, and the death of his mother in 1916 all resulted in a new, darker music when he returned to composing. Le tombeau de Couperin (The Grave of Couperin) piano suite was composed in 1917, and each of its six movements commemorated a friend of Ravel's who had been killed in the war. Even darker was 1920's La valse, conceived as a waltz into oblivion and described by Ravel as being a "choreographic poem" (Arnold, 1528). La valse was written for the Russian ballet impresario Sergei Diaghilev (1872-1929) but was never used by him. Ravel never forgave Diaghilev this slight, and when the two men met in 1925, the composer refused to shake the Russian's hand. Diaghilev, equally outraged, challenged Ravel to a duel but, fortunately, was later persuaded to back down.

Western Classical Music, c. 1700-1950
Western Classical Music, c. 1700-1950
Simeon Netchev (CC BY-NC-SA)

1920 brought public recognition when Ravel was awarded France's most prestigious honour, the Légion d'honneur. Ravel, remembering the judges of the Prix de Rome, refused the award. The composer was not against awards, just awards from the French Establishment, since he did accept an honour from the king of Belgium and an honorary doctorate from the University of Oxford.

In 1921, Ravel bought a villa, La Belvédère, just outside Paris in Montfort-l'Amaury. Here he lived a quiet life with his cats. The villa was gradually filled with the fruit of the composer's life-long passion for collecting art and mechanical toys.

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Ravel composed another opera in 1925, L'enfant et les sortilèges (The Child and the Magic Spells), which was set in the never-world of an idyllic childhood populated with animals and animated toys. Two pieces for violin (one to accompany cello, the other piano) were completed in 1922 and 1927 (titled Tzigane/Gypsy and Sonata, respectively). These works show that Ravel had established a unique style, as the music critic Paul Griffiths puts it: "The precision of Ravel's orchestration…reveals an artist for whom imagination had to be confirmed by calculation" (Arnold, 1528). This, perhaps, explains Stravinsky's description of his friend Ravel as the "Swiss watchmaker" (ibid). Ravel's gift for orchestration and inventiveness led him to convert many of his works for stage or soloists into full orchestral suites. He also performed the same orchestral transformation on works by other composers, notably Pictures from an Exhibition by Modest Musorgsky (1839-1881).

Ravel's Villa
Ravel's Villa
Henry Salomé (CC BY-SA)

Ravel's Bolero

1928 was an important year for Ravel. He visited the United States, where he met George Gershwin (1898-1937) and was impressed with the jazz music he heard. Ravel's most famous piece today is undoubtedly Bolero, originally a one-act ballet, which premiered in Paris in 1928. The work is named after the dynamic 3/4 time Spanish dance (which later inspired the Cuban bolero-son dance), although Bolero is a little slower. The music is highly unusual in that it repeats almost all the way through the piece a theme in C major. The theme drives the piece forward through 300 bars, never changing rhythm but eventually rising to a crashing finale. Ravel described the piece in the following terms:

In 1928, at the request of Madame Ida Rubinstein, I composed a Bolero for orchestra. It is a rather slow dance and uniform throughout in its melody, harmony and rhythm, the latter tapped out ceaselessly by the side-drum. The only element of variety is supplied by the orchestral crescendo.

(Liner notes, Felix Aprahamian)

The work, in terms of its use of an ensemble of musicians, shows the clear influence of gamelan music, as here defined by the Classical Music Encyclopedia:

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The music is made up of homogenous percussive sounds, with a rich timbre and intricate patterns…The compositions employ polyphony and interlocking patterns, with each player adding a series of notes to the total melody to produce fast, complex pieces without making excessive demands on any one musician.

(Sadie, 15)

The first choreography of Bolero was by Nijinskaya, with subsequent runs choreographed by Lifar in 1941 and Béjart in 1961. Bolero was certainly something new. As the music historian M. Steen notes: "At its premiere, a lady shouted out that its composer was mad. When told that, Ravel said that she obviously understood the piece." (634).

Bolero was used in a major 1934 Hollywood film, also titled Bolero, starring Carol Lombard and George Raft who play a pair of dancers. Ravel's Bolero made another explosion on the international scene at the Winter Olympics in Sarajevo in 1984. The British skaters Jayne Torvill and Christopher Dean skated to the music and won the gold medal with perfect 6.0 scores from all judges, a first in the sport.

Maurice Ravel, 1928
Maurice Ravel, 1928
Unknown Photographer (Public Domain)

Ravel's final works included two piano concertos (1931) and a song cycle for a film soundtrack which was based on the tale of Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes (1547-1616), Don Quichotte à Dulcinée (1932-3). Both of the piano concertos were unusual. The first, often called Concerto for Left Hand, was written for only the left hand since Ravel had been commissioned by the famous pianist Paul Wittgenstein (1887-1961), who had tragically lost his right arm in the war. The second piano concerto carries a hint of jazz.

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Ravel's Major Works

The most famous works by Maurice Ravel include:

Pavane pour une infante défunte – for piano/orchestra (1899/1910)
Jeux d'eau – for piano (1901)
String Quartet (1902-3)
Shéhérazade – orchestral song cycle (1903)
Miroirs – for piano (1905)
Histoires naturelles – song cycle (1906)
L'heure espagnole – opera (1907-9)
Gaspard de la nuit (1908)
Daphnis et Chloé (1909-12)
Ma mère l'oye – ballet/orchestral suite (1908/1911)
Le tombeau de Couperin – piano/orchestral suite (1917/1919)
La valse – waltz (1918)
L'enfant et les sortilèges (1925)
Chansons madécasses – song cycle (1925-6)
Bolero – ballet/orchestral piece (1928)
2 piano concertos (1931)

Grave of Maurice Ravel
Grave of Maurice Ravel
Thomon (CC BY-SA)

Death & Legacy

Ravel suffered ill health in his final years. He perhaps suffered from Pick's disease, a form of dementia. His condition deteriorated further after a driving accident in 1932 which left him with an awkward cough. In the next few years, he lost some coordination of his limbs and suffered memory loss. The composer had brain surgery in 1937, but the precise cause of his condition was kept a secret. Ravel died in hospital in Paris on 28 December 1937. He had never married, there was no public knowledge of any life or even temporary partner, and he had no children.

Ravel influenced both contemporary and younger composers like Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958) – who studied with Ravel in Paris to see what he could learn from the French composer, Manuel de Falla (1876-1946), John Ireland (1879-1962), and Arnold Bax (1883-1953). Although history has proved him wrong, Ravel was not convinced of his legacy, he once wrote:

I am not one of the great composers. All the great have produced enormously. There is everything in their work – the best and the worst, but there is always quantity. But I have written relatively very little…and at that, I did it with a great deal of difficulty. I did my work slowly, drop by drop.

(Schonberg, 543)

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Editorial Review This article has been reviewed by our editorial team before publication to ensure accuracy, reliability and adherence to academic standards in accordance with our editorial policy.
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About the Author

Mark Cartwright
Mark is a full-time writer, researcher, historian, and editor. Special interests include art, architecture, and discovering the ideas that all civilizations share. He holds an MA in Political Philosophy and is the WHE Publishing Director.

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Questions & Answers

What is Maurice Ravel best known for?

Maurice Ravel is a classical composer best known for his orchestral suites Bolero and Daphnis et Chloé.

What makes Ravel unique?

The work of Maurice Ravel is unique because of its precise and complex orchestration. The composer was likened to a Swiss watchmaker for this reason. He also blended European folk traditions with exotic music like Javanese gamelan, as can be seen in pieces like Bolero.

Did Ravel have a wife?

Maurice Ravel never married and had no children.

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Cite This Work

APA Style

Cartwright, M. (2024, February 26). Maurice Ravel. World History Encyclopedia. Retrieved from https://www.worldhistory.org/Maurice_Ravel/

Chicago Style

Cartwright, Mark. "Maurice Ravel." World History Encyclopedia. Last modified February 26, 2024. https://www.worldhistory.org/Maurice_Ravel/.

MLA Style

Cartwright, Mark. "Maurice Ravel." World History Encyclopedia. World History Encyclopedia, 26 Feb 2024. Web. 24 Apr 2024.

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