Born Maurice Joseph Ravel, March 7, 1875, in Ciboure, Basses-Pyrenees, France; (died December 28, 1937, in Paris, France); son of Pierre Joseph (an engineer) and Marie (Delouard) Ravel. Education: Studied at Paris Conservatoire, 1899-1905.

One of France's greatest musical geniuses, Maurice Ravel is best known as the composer of the riveting orchestral piece Bolro, perhaps the most universally recognized of all classical melodies. Music scholars deem Ravel one of the century's best orchestrators for his ability to create a kaleidoscopic array of sounds within an orchestra, but he also wrote several superb, technically difficult works for the piano.

Maurice Joseph Ravel was born on March 7, 1875, in Ciboure, a town in the Pyrenees region of France near the border with Spain. His mother, Marie Delouard, was of Basque heritage, and his father was an engineer of Swiss birth whose family was originally of French origins. From his father he inherited a sincere passion for the arts, while his mother was fond of singing Spanish folk songs to him as a child; many of Ravel's compositions would draw upon the musical heritage of that country. With their infant son, the Ravels moved to Paris, and he would later be joined by a younger brother, Edouard. The family lived in the bohemian neighborhood of Montmartre, and Ravel began piano lessons at the age of seven with a respected composer of the time, Henri Ghis.

Entered Conservatoire

By the time he was eleven, Ravel was studying harmony, and a few years later easily passed the entrance examinations to the rigorous Paris Conservatoire. He would remain there for over a dozen years, and was an excellent and disciplined student; though sometimes at odds with his instructors for the avant-garde bent of his compositions as an adult student. His first pieces for the piano were written at the age of 18, and almost all of his later work would be composed on the instrument. Gabriel Faur, an esteemed French composer of the day, was one of Ravel's teachers, and the sole one to provide him with encouragement to explore the creative possibilities outside the traditional training given at the Conservatoire.

Ravel's first published work, Menuet Antique, appeared in 1895. He also wrote a Spanish-themed work for two pianos, Habanera, that year, with his good friend, the pianist Ricardo Vines, whom he knew from the Conservatoire for several years. Both had Spanish mothers, and Vines would go on to an acclaimed concert career. Habanera was not published until a few years later, when Ravel included it as part of Les Sites Auriculaires, which premiered at the first public performance of a Ravel composition in March of 1898. Later he would orchestrate the Habanera work into his Rhapsodie Espagnole from 1908.

Sheherazade was Ravel's first work for orchestra, and was performed in Paris at the Societe Nationale de Musique in May of 1899, which he also conducted. His piano piece, Pavane pour une infante dfunte, was published that same year and proved extremely popular upon its debut at another Societe concert in 1902. The concerts made him a rising star in the competitive music scene in Paris. Another work performed that same evening, Jeux d'Eau ("Fountains"), would also receive a strong critical reception. An essay on Ravel in Composers Since 1900 called Jeux d'Eau "remarkable for its unusual resonances, extraordinary exploitation of piano sonorities, and its brilliant use of the upper register of the keyboard.... It opened a new world of haunting sounds and timbres for piano writing; certainly it opened them for Debussy who, from the moment he became acquainted with it, began to write for the piano in an entirely new manner."

The Apaches

Around 1900, Ravel formed the Societe des Apaches with Igor Stravinsky, Manuel de Falla, Florent Schmitt and other progressive composers and musicians of the day in Paris. Their name reflected their renegade attitude toward the staid conservatism of the Parisian musical world, and they strove to write and promote innovative and fresh works. One controversial effort they rallied behind was Claude Debussy's opera Pelleas et Melisande. Ravel's demanding piano masterwork, Miroirs, originated at an Apache evening, and its five movements were dedicated to different members of the group. Vines gave its first public performance.

Ravel met with continued success in the early years of the century. His chamber piece Quartet in F major, first performed in March of 1904, met with tremendous critical success and would become a favorite with audiences as well. Still, the accolades and financial bounties showered upon Ravel also provoked professional jealousy inside the competitive Parisian music scene, and in 1905 he was declared ineligible to compete for the prestigious Prix de Rome, the most important award for young composers in France, and a Conservatoire-affiliated competition that he had entered thrice before. The judges of the Conservatoire were evidently biased against him, and one in particular wished to promote the works of his own pupils. But several other musicians and musicologists rallied around Ravel and publicly condemned the panel. A great war in the press followed, and even came to be known the Ravel Affair. In the end, the director of the Conservatoire was forced to resign.

An Enforced Rivalry

Another furor erupted in 1907 with the premiere of Ravel's Histoires Naturelles, which consisted of satirical verse about animals set to his equally biting music. The critics derided it, especially the highly regarded Pierre Lalo, who termed Ravel a plagiarist of Claude Debussy. For weeks a debate raged in the press over the attributes of each. Ravel's ultimate revenge, however, came with the extremely successful premiere of his Rhapsodie espagnole for the orchestra, first performed in Paris in 1908, to enthusiastic applause and critical accolades.

Less favorable was the reception of his first opera, L'heure espagnole ("The Spanish Hour"), which premiered at the Opera Comique in Paris in May of 1911. However, after World War I, the one-act comedy found surprising success both in Europe and abroad. It premiered in Chicago in 1920 and at the New York Metropolitan Opera five years later. The musical tale, set in a clockmaker's shop in Spain several generations before, showcased Ravel's talent for orchestration, as various instruments were cleverly utilized to re-create the sounds of this particular enterprise.

Worked with Diaghilev

Along with his fascination with Spain, Ravel was also intrigued by the Viennese waltz. His eightValses Nobles et Sentimentalesw-valse being the French term for the dance-drew upon the form and remain "highly representative of clear, forceful writing, marked by a condensing and a hardening of the system of chords that they obey," noted Jean-Jacques Soleil and Guy Lelong of the 1911 work in Musical Masterpieces. Ravel also began to collaborate with the choreographer Sergei Diaghilev, who staged arrangements of Ravel's piano suite Ma Mre l'Oye ("Mother Goose"), a work based on several French fairy tales. Diaghilev then commissioned from Ravel the impressionistic ballet Daphnis et Chlo, which premiered with the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo-with the famed Nijinsky dancing the lead-in 1912. The tale of two young shepherds and thwarted love, based on a work from early Greek literature, at first received a mixed reception from critics, but would later be termed "one of the major symphonic works in French music of the twentieth century," according to Soleil and Lelong. "An important orchestral effect is created by rarely-used instruments: alto flute in G and clarinet in E flat among others. A mixed choir of four voices blends in at times, with closed mouths, to the sounds of the orchestra."

When World War I erupted, Ravel-though nearly 40-attempted to enlist in the French Army, but was rejected. Instead he served in the motor corps near the front lines, which aversely affected his nerves for a time. Furthermore, his mother, with whom he had been especially close, was in poor health, and she died not long after the war. During this somber time of his life, Ravel wrote the piano work Le Tombeau de Couperin, which commemorated the war dead. It premired in Paris in 1920, and was orchestrated by himself as well for another debut that same year.

Refused Legion d'honneur

For 1920's La Valse, Ravel returned once more to the waltz, this time basing it on the works of Johann Strauss the Younger. La Valse was a huge success, but Ravel was still at odds with the more conservative music establishment despite his acclaim. The French government attempted to award him its prestigious Legion d'honneur in 1920, which he declined. The following year he retired to the Ile-de-France countryside, to a villa called Le Belvedere. There he wrote-though less prolifically than in his earlier career-and enjoyed gardening and entertaining his beloved Siamese cats. Ravel was also known as an elegant dresser, and was allegedly the first man in France to wear pastel-hued shirts. He had impeccable manners and was an entertaining storyteller, but never married, believing that the artistic temperament was unsuited to the institution.

Ravel continued to write chamber works, such as the Sonata for Violin and Cello, and penned another opera, this one in collaboration with the illustrious French writer Colette. L'enfant et les sortilges ("The Child and the Enchantments"), the stage fantasy of a young child beset by singing objects, had its premiere in Monte Carlo in March of 1925. In 1928 the composer toured America for the first time, and was deeply moved by a standing ovation given one of his works in New York City, remarking that such applause had never greeted his premieres in his own Paris.

The Stirring Bolro

Later that year Ravel created what would become his signature piece, a work for the orchestra that was an immediate and resounding success, and an enduring one as well. Bolro was commissioned by the dancer Ida Rubinstein, and for her Ravel provided a simple piece of music, fantastically orchestrated, with the premise of a gypsy dancer at a Spanish tavern intoxicating four men with her dance. Bolro is simply the same passage repeated for seventeen minutes, a few bars of lilting music first played by the flute section, and then allowing the instruments to take their turns until a rousing crescendo. "Built on a single theme in two sections, Bolro is a stunning tour de force with an inescapable kinetic appeal as the melody grows in dynamics and changes in orchestral color, until a thunderous climax erupts in full orchestra," declared Composers Since 1900.

Premiered at Paris Opera in November of 1928, and not long afterward in the United Sates under the baton of Arturo Toscanini with the New York Philharmonic, Bolro was a great sensation at the time. Nearly every symphony added the piece to its repertoire, and recorded versions of it were also popular. It is assumed to be the most often performed piece ever written for the orchestra. It was used in the Dudley Moore/Bo Derek film 10 in 1979, a comic look at a midlife crisis that posited that Bolrowas remarkably suitable as background music for a private act.

A British scientific study, published in 1997, presented the theory that Bolro's repetitive nature may have been symptomatic of the early onset of Alzheimer's disease. By the early 1930s Ravel was noticing a precipitous drop in his motor skills, originally thought to have been brought on by a 1932 taxicab accident in Paris. He became unable to write music or even letters, and his last missive written to a childhood friend in 1934 noted that it took him over a week to complete. His speech abilities also began to falter, and a 1937 operation to remove a supposed brain tumor found nothing. He went into a coma a few days later, and died in December of 1937.

The street in Ciboure on which Ravel was born was renamed in his honor, as the street of Le Belvedere, is now a museum dedicated to his life and work. He remains one of France's most exalted composers. Music scholar Arbie Orenstein called Ravel "an exponent of that careful, precise workmanship, elegance, and grace he so admired in the music of Mozart," he declared in American Scholar. "His work, however, was a monument to the dignity and precision that even now all worthy musicians should strive for and that French music has at its best always captured."

by Carol Brennan

Maurice Ravel's Career

First published work, Menuet Antique, 1895; first performance of a composition with Les Sites Auriculaires, Paris, 1898; first work for orchestra, Sheherazade, performed as conducted by Ravel in Paris, 1899; founding member, Societe des Apaches, c. 1900; first opera, L'heure espagnole, premiered in Paris, 1911; ballet, Daphnis et Chlo, premiered at Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, 1912.

Maurice Ravel's Awards

French legion d'honneur (declined), 1920; honorary doctorate in music from Oxford University, 1928.

Famous Works

Further Reading



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