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  • Writer's pictureGraham Abbott

An Introduction to Maurice Ravel

Updated: Jul 28, 2020

If ever there was a piece of music which needed little or no introduction, just mention Ravel’s Bolero. Composed in 1928, it’s one of those pieces which is in the public consciousness like almost no other. Its simple melodies, obsessive rhythm and irresistible climax tick every box on the "how to make a piece of music popular" form.

The man behind the music is nowhere near as well known, even if several of his works are standard fare in the classical canon today, so in this post I want to give you an introduction to the life and work of Maurice Ravel.

Maurice Ravel

Joseph Maurice Ravel was born in the Basque village of Cibourne in March 1875. His father was Swiss-born of Savoyard parents, his mother was Basque. Although the family moved to Paris when Ravel was only three months old, the Basque (and by extension, Spanish) connection was always very close to the composer's heart, and bore fruit in many of his later works.

Ravel started piano lessons at the age of 7, and harmony lessons at 12. In 1889, aged 14, he gained admission into the preparatory piano class at the Paris Conservatoire and two years later he won first prize in the institution's piano competition. This was about the last prize he was to win for a while, however, as right from the start it was clear that the young Ravel was moving further and further outside the orbit of the French musical establishment.

He won no further prizes and was dismissed from the Conservatoire in 1895. It was about this time he decided to seriously take up composition, a field in which he had been experimenting since his early teens. One of his earliest works was for piano, the Menuet antique (Ancient or Antique Minuet), and this became his first published work. [listen]

In 1897, aged 22, Ravel returned to the Conservatoire as a composition student, studying with no less a figure than Gabriel Fauré. Fauré was a constant supporter of his young, occasionally wayward pupil, as was Ravel's counterpoint teacher André Gedalge. Both were cited Ravel in later life as important influences.

Gabriel Fauré (1907)
André Gedalge (c. 1908)

Some major works came from Ravel during these years, including a "fairy overture" called Shéhérazade. [listen]

Shéhérazade was conducted at its premiere by Ravel when he was 24. It was not a success and it has been largely forgotten. It does, along with the Menuet antique, show the three major influences for a great deal of Ravel's work for the rest of his life. The minuet reflects a desire to recapture and assimilate the spirit of music of the past, and the overture shows his attraction to exotic subjects. And both show a keenness to express these ideas within established formal structures; the minuet is in classic minuet and trio form, the overture is in classic sonata form. These three elements - music of the past, exoticism and established structures - are ever-present in Ravel's music.

During his time as a composition student at the Conservatoire, Ravel won neither the fugue prize nor the composition prize, and he was dismissed from classes in 1900. He remained an auditor at Fauré's classes until 1903 but by then he was carving his own path as a composer.

The biggest prize of all for French composition students at the time was the Prix de Rome {the Rome Prize); it had been an established goal in the world of French music (and other disciplines) for generations. Ravel entered the Prix de Rome no less than five times, between 1900 and 1905. The best he did was a third place in 1901; in some years he never made it past the preliminary stages. His failure in the Prix de Rome is in part explained by the fact that the works he presented had to conform to styles he did not actually subscribe to personally. For the first round the competitors had to write a fugue and short chorus setting. If they passed this stage they were given a text to set as a major cantata for choir, solo voices and orchestra.

With the benefit of hindsight, words like "fugue" and "cantata" immediately seem out of place when we think of Ravel. The judges furthermore found much to fault in his entries, such as parallel fifths and unorthodox added sevenths, things which are hallmarks of his own personal and mature style, but which were regarded as serious no-nos in the world of academic composition. Ravel wanted to win the prize as the prestige would have been enormous, but he found it impossible to straight-jacket his muse appropriately in order to do so.

This is especially evident in the chorus he composed in 1903, where he seems to be trying to write in an old fashioned salon style to please the judges. [listen]

Ravel's strategy worked in that this piece got him through to the next stage, but the cantata he wrote as the follow up didn't rate a mention. In 1904 he didn't enter at all, but he gave it one more shot in 1905. The fact that he didn't get past the first stage on that occasion led to a major scandal, known as L’affaire Ravel. He was by that stage a well-known composer and 1905 was the last time he was able to enter the Prix de Rome due to the age limit. He already had works like Jeux d'eau and the string quartet in the public domain and several famous people went into print over what they saw as Ravel's less-than-fair treatment at the hands of the judges.

It soon became apparent that all the finalists in 1905 were students of Charles Lenepveu, who happened to be one of the jury members. The press campaign which followed led to the resignation of Théodore Dubois as director of the Conservatoire. He was replaced by Fauré.

Certainly the scandal did no harm to Ravel's reputation and his supporters were right: he was one of the finest composers active in France at the time. The only problem was that he didn't compose in the formal, academic style required by the judges of the Prix de Rome. The wonderful string quartet, now a standard part of the repertoire, had been premiered the year before. [listen]

After his run-in with the Prix de Rome, Ravel was still not free of controversy. Many of his works had been heard over the years at concerts presented by the National Society of Music, an organisation designed to promote new works and engender debate. Unfortunately, despite the support he received from Fauré (who was the Society's president), Ravel had come under fire from conservative elements within the Society as early as 1899 - with the premiere of the Shéhérazade overture - and subsequent works had also caused a stir from time to time. In 1907 Ravel had another premiere at the Society, a set of songs called Histoires naturelles. In this Ravel adopted a way of setting French text which cut across the more formal and accepted method of setting French to music, a way of text setting which had held sway since the 17th century. What Ravel wanted to do was have French sung more like the way it is spoken, whereas the formal and traditional way of setting French for singing gave many silent letters a prominence they don't have in speech.

For example, in the second song of the set Ravel sets the line "mais il ne se trouve pas en sûreté". In traditional French song setting, the word "trouve" would be clearly set as a word of two syllables: "trou-ve". Likewise "sûreté" would be given three syllables: " sû-re-té" rather than the two it would have when spoken. In treating French more naturally Ravel incurred the wrath of the more conservative elements in the National Society, and he was regarded as an outsider. Likewise many critics took aim at Ravel for the same reason. [listen]

Ravel was of course living at the same time as one of the other major players in new French music, Claude Debussy. Debussy was thirteen years older than Ravel and our tendency today to think of the two as being somehow connected is only partially true. Both composers revolutionised French music at the dawn of the 20th century, but there was (until Debussy's death in 1918) an awkward relationship between the two. The critic Pierre Lalo had sought to divide them, praising the older composer at the expense of the younger, but Ravel made it clear that he admired Debussy's work, and even dedicated several works to him. Yet it was clear that Ravel occasionally resented Debussy's fame and often felt that he and not Debussy had developed certain new techniques first.

Claude Debussy (1908)

Debussy for his part admired Ravel's early works, like the string quartet, but in later life kept his distance, due in no small part to the press controversies and the behaviour of their supporters.

In 1909 Ravel played a prominent role in the foundation of a new organisation called the Independent Music Society. In this he and others sought to be free from what they saw as the hidebound conservative elements of the National Society, and Fauré was appointed president of the new organisation. He somehow managed to hold the presidency of both Societies simultaneously.

In what was clearly a signal as to the future directions of the Independent Music Society, it was inaugurated in 1910 with an event which saw premieres of music by Fauré, Debussy and Ravel. The Debussy work was performed by Ravel, and Ravel's work heard on this occasion has become one of his best-known: the original four-hand piano version of the Mother Goose suite. [listen]

An interesting indication of Ravel's willingness to promote other composers who snubbed their noses at the French establishment was his use of the Independent Society to present music by Erik Satie - well known for his iconoclastic, irreverent music - in 1911.

This period saw Ravel embark on some major projects for the theatre. He had been working on an opera since 1907 and even though it was accepted for performance by the Opéra-Comique in Paris in 1908 it didn't receive its premiere until 1911. The opera (in one act) was L'heure espagnole, sometimes translated as "Spanish Time", and its risqué subject matter was most likely the cause of the delay to its performance. L'heure espagnole is obsessed with clocks and time; it's set in a watchmaker's premises and concerns the antics of his amorous wife and her would-be lovers. The Spanish setting is one in which Ravel's own Basque and Spanish associations seem to have the best time. It's also evident that Ravel's famed skills with orchestral colour are having a good time too. [listen]

L'heure espagnole was only one of a number of commissions which saw Ravel working in the theatre in the second decade of the 20th century. This was the time of Serge Diaghilev's famous seasons with the Ballets Russes in Paris, and Ravel was commissioned to compose a ballet for the company. (An earlier post in this blog is devoted to Diaghilev.) Ravel received this commission in 1909 but the ballet which resulted - Daphnis and Chloe - nearly didn't get performed at all, such were the disagreements between Diaghilev and Ravel, and between the choreographer, Fokine, and Ravel. 1909 was also the year Ravel met Igor Stravinsky, who was busily working on the first of his commissions for Diaghilev, The Firebird.

One of Léon Bakst's set designs for the premiere season of Daphnis and Chloe (1912)

Daphnis and Chloe was eventually premiered in 1912 but the score - requiring a chorus as well as a very large orchestra in the pit - was deemed a failure at the time. Fortunately history has been quick to rectify this perception; Daphnis and Chloe is one of the greatest, most innovative, and most beautiful ballet scores of all time. [listen]

Serge Diaghilev (1910)

Apart from the opera and the ballet, Ravel also transformed some of his pre-existing piano works into ballets by orchestrating them; in fact, a large number of Ravel's piano works exist in the composer's own orchestrations. In 1911, for example, Mother Goose was orchestrated and expanded into a ballet score. Here is Ravel's own orchestration of the movement we heard earlier in the original four-hand piano version. [listen]

This is an excellent example of Ravel's innate gifts as an orchestrator. His ability to realise dazzling aural colours, beyond even those of the sensualist Debussy, is a feature of all his music, but particularly his orchestral music. This particular movement from Mother Goose also reflects his taste for the exotic, conjuring as it does [admittedly westernised] images of Chinese pagodas.

But Ravel's unique ability to conjure from instruments sounds which were truly new is evident even when he was writing on a small scale. The string quartet is a good example, and so is the chamber work on which Ravel was working at the outbreak of the first world war, the piano trio. [listen]

Ravel hurried to finish the trio before volunteering for war service. He wanted to be a pilot but was refused on medical grounds; some sources say his height also precluded him as he was rather short. Eventually he was accepted as a driver in the motor transport corps. In 1916 he became ill with dysentery and then in early 1917 his mother - the person to whom he had always been closest - suddenly died. The combined effect of the war and his mother's death shattered Ravel, both personally and creatively. The first work he wrote after the war was a short piano work called Frontispiece. It’s a tiny miniature and it is hardly ever performed today. It's also a disturbing piece, with no real anchor harmonically or structurally. It's also very unusually scored, for five hands on two pianos. [listen]

For a composer we normally think of as being so suave, self-assured and polished, this little piece comes as a shock. Yet Europe was devastated by the war, millions died, and western civilisation was changed irrevocably. Ravel was not immune from these feelings, and when coupled with the loss of his mother, we might rather be more amazed that he was able to continue at all. Yet continue he did, and in continuing he created some of his greatest music, music which is justly famous today.

Ravel had planned many works during the war, but only a few of them came to be completed. One was a suite of piano pieces called Le tombeau de Couperin, another work he subsequently orchestrated. As happened so often in his life, Ravel drew inspiration from the past, in this case from the Baroque keyboard suite and each movement of this was dedicated to a different friend who had died in the war. This is the work's prelude. [listen]

Music for solo piano then fades from Ravel's catalogue. Le tombeau de Couperin - published 20 years before he died - was his last solo piano work.

Despite a great deal of speculation virtually nothing is known about Ravel's personal life or intimate relationships. It seems that the emotional connection with his mother was his most significant personal connection; certainly he kept his emotions very much to himself otherwise. The devastation of the war led to a period of disorientation for the composer, as expressed in the bizarre Frontispiece.

Another work planned and composed during the war was an unaccompanied choral work, simply called Trois Chansons (Three Songs). Choral music is not often associated with Ravel but he wrote wonderfully for the solo voice, as evidenced in his many fine songs, and the handling of the choral forces in Daphnis and Chloe is masterful. Like Le tombeau de Couperin, these choral pieces draw inspiration from the past, in this case the Renaissance madrigal. [listen]

Another work planned during the war was a symphonic poem, originally titled Wien (Vienna). This was completed to fulfil another ballet commission from Diaghilev but it was rejected by the Russian impresario as being unsuitable for ballet. Fortunately the work - which Ravel re-named as La valse (The Waltz) - was eventually staged as a ballet by Ida Rubinstein in 1929, and of course it's stayed in the concert repertoire ever since. [listen]

Ida Rubinstein (1912)

1918 saw the death of another significant person in Ravel's life, namely Claude Debussy. Whatever tensions had existed between the two giants of French music of the period, it was probably more between their respective supporters than between the two men themselves. Debussy's death left Ravel as France's leading composer and in the early 20s Ravel composed a duo for violin and cello in memory of his famous compatriot.

This later became the first movement of the sonata for violin and cello, which was completed in 1922. For all their individual prominence as solo instruments, this is, amazingly, a very rare and unusual combination. Ravel seems to be deliberately paring back any perceived excesses in his style; this music is clear to the point of being distilled. [listen]

Ravel pared back and modernised his style even more in the mid-20s with the Chansons madécasses (Songs of Madagascar). This was written in response to a commission from the famous American patroness of the arts, Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge, and it was Coolidge who suggested to Ravel that he add flute and cello to the usual piano accompaniment. This set of three songs was part of a major turning point in Ravel's approach to composition. He himself pointed this out in later life, and cited the Chansons madécasses as his own favourites from among his song settings. [listen]

Written around the same time was the second of Ravel's sonatas for violin and piano; he had written one many years before, in 1897, but the later work is generally regarded as "the" Ravel violin sonata. This piece continues the notion of paring things back to their most elemental nature, but it shows Ravel being very much aware of other aspects of modernism as well. The second movement is titled "Blues". [listen]

For a composer who had for so many years been seen as a young radical, Ravel's elevation to the mainstream must have seemed very rapid indeed. He was offered the Legion of Honour by the French state in 1920, an offer he very publicly refused. Nonetheless, his position as a major figure in French music led to him becoming alienated from some composers who were younger and more on the fringe, including Satie and some members of Les Six. Oddly enough, the recognition he received did nothing to bring him any closer to those in the National Society of Music who had so derided his work in past decades. An attempt in 1917 to merge the National Society and Ravel's own Independent Music Society failed, and it seemed that despite public and commercial success, Ravel was very much artistically isolated from the mid-20s onwards, at least in France.

Between the end of the war and 1925 Ravel collaborated with Colette to create one of his most wonderful works, the opera/ballet L'enfant et les sortilèges (The Child and the Enchantments). This is perhaps Ravel's greatest testament to his preoccupation with childhood and fantasy, but it is no trifle. Colette may have taken eight days to produce the first draft of the text but Ravel laboured over the score for nearly eight years.

The work describes - with utter purity and delicious fun - a world of magic and wonderment, but Ravel's skill in drawing the disparate elements of Colette's ideas together into a satisfying musical whole is nigh-on miraculous. L'enfant et les sortilèges was premiered in Monte Carlo in 1925 and one critic wrote: "The talent of Maurice Ravel is no more in doubt than that of Monet or Renoir". [listen]

The cat duet which closes the first part of L'enfant et les sortilèges reflects an important aspect of Ravel's personal life at this time. His isolation from the French musical world was expressed physically by his decision to move 50 km west of Paris to Montfort-l'Amaury. There he shared his house with his cats - and a housekeeper - until his death.

It was international fame which made the French establishment realise what a treasure they had in Ravel. He travelled widely in the 20s and 30s and developed a major following in the North America. His most successful tour took place over four months in 1928, during which time he conducted, performed as a pianist, gave interviews and lectured throughout the United States and Canada.

It was also in 1928 that Ravel wrote what is arguably his most famous work, Bolero. This also originated in a commission from Ida Rubinstein (who had mounted the first ballet performance of La valse) and after various false starts, the composer decided to try the outrageous idea of repeating a single melody over and over with different orchestral treatment. His original plan was to call the work Fandango but he settled on the title Bolero and the rest is history.

While it's usually heard today as a concert work, it is instructive to remember that Bolero was commissioned as - and first performed as - a ballet. Rubinstein's scenario was set in a Spanish tavern where a single woman begins to dance on a table. She is joined by more and more people as the music becomes louder and more powerful. Ravel, on the other hand, saw the music as more mechanical, and envisaged a scenario in the open air where people dance in front of a factory.

Regardless of the scenario, Ravel seriously thought orchestras would refuse to play the piece, such is the almost unbearable tension created by the repetition of that single melody in two sections and the incessant side drum rhythm. To this day it's a terrifying piece for orchestras to play, especially for those with prominent solos as the players live in fear of cracking a note or stumbling in one of the most recognisable tunes in history.

Ravel's own words on the piece are instructive:

It constitutes an experiment in a very special and limited direction, and should not be suspected of aiming at achieving anything different from, or anything more than, it actually does achieve. Before its first performance, I issued a warning to the effect that what I had written was a piece lasting seventeen minutes and consisting wholly of "orchestral tissue without music" — of one very long, gradual crescendo. There are no contrasts, and practically no invention except the plan and the manner of execution. [listen]

Ravel refused most of the honours offered to him by French authorities. He did, however, accept an honorary doctorate from Oxford University and honorary diplomas from institutions in Spain, Belgium, Italy and Scandinavia. By the time he composed Bolero in 1928, he was 53 years old. Yet by this time he had already written his last piano music, his last chamber music, his last opera, and with Bolero his last ballet. Apart from a few arrangements, he only produced three more major works, but what works they are.

In 1929 he began work on not one but two piano concertos. For a composer who had not written any concertos - virtuoso works for solo instrument and orchestra - before, this was a radical move, yet both the Ravel piano concertos are utter masterpieces of the first rank. The first completed was a work written at the request of the Viennese pianist Paul Wittgenstein. Wittgenstein had lost his right arm during the first world war and commissioned some of the major names in early 20th century music to write works for him to play with the left hand alone. (An earlier post in this blog is devoted to some of the music Wittgenstein commissioned.) Ravel's Concerto for the Left Hand is a work of ferocious technical difficulty. It's also a work of incredible expressive power and it remains one of the great contributions to the piano concerto literature. [listen]

Paul Wittgenstein

Ravel's other piano concerto, for the more conventional two hands, was originally intended for himself to play but at the last minute he must have realised he was not up to the task. He was persuaded to let Marguerite Long, with whom he was on tour in Europe in 1932, give the premiere, and the composer conducted instead. The G major concerto is one of the best-loved of all 20th century concertos and it has never been out of favour since the day of its first performance. The sparking orchestration, the dazzling piano writing, the hints of jazz and blues, and the sheer voluptuousness of the melodies have made it a favourite work of so many pianists and music lovers.

I thought it might be interesting here, despite the many fine recordings of the work which exist, to hear part of a recording made in the year the G major piano concerto was first performed - 1932 - with the original soloist, Marguerite Long, and the original conductor, Maurice Ravel himself. [listen]

In the early 30s Ravel was asked to write some songs for a film based on Cervantes' Don Quixote which would star the famous Russian bass Fedor Chaliapin. As it turned out songs by Jacques Ibert were used instead and Ravel considered legal action against the film company for his wasted work. In any case the three songs he composed for the film were his last completed compositions, now collectively called Don Quixote to Dulcinea. They were premiered in a concert in 1934 and are rarely heard today as they are rather short. This is such a pity because they are very beautiful. This is the first song in the set. [listen]

Ever since the end of the war, Ravel's health had not been perfect. He claimed to be suffering from what he called "cerebral anaemia" and suffered badly from insomnia. In 1932 he was injured in a car accident and his symptoms worsened. He was diagnosed as suffering from ataxia - an inability to co-ordinate muscle movements - and aphasia - an inability to properly co-ordinate speech. Despite rest and recuperative travel, these problems most seriously manifested themselves by making it sometimes impossible for Ravel to write, and he expressed frustration in his final years at being unable to commit to paper the musical ideas in his head.

In December 1937 he underwent a brain operation which was initially thought to be successful, but he soon became seriously ill, and nine days after the surgery, on 28 December 1937, he died.

Maurice Ravel (1925)

Ravel still divides the critics. There are those who view him as being shallow and showy, a craftsman rather than a creator. Semantics aside, I think Ravel was unique, and few composers I know have the ability to charm, dazzle, move and overpower an audience, often within the same piece. I hope you've discovered some new music here, and that you get the chance to explore the music of Maurice Ravel on your own.

This article is based on a pair of Keys To Music programs first aired on ABC Classic FM (now ABC Classic) in August, 2009.

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