On March 7, 1875, French composer, pianist and conductor Maurice Ravel was born. In the 1920s and 1930s Ravel was internationally regarded as France‘s greatest living composer. He liked to experiment with musical form, as in his best-known work, Boléro (1928), in which repetition takes the place of development.
“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.
Joseph-Maurice Ravel was the first of two sons to be born in the extreme southwest of France. His father Joseph Ravel (1832-1908) came from Versoix in French-speaking Switzerland and was an engineer by profession. Ravel received his first piano lessons at the age of seven. The idea to pursue a career as a musician came early and was supported by his parents. At the age of 13 he took piano lessons and harmony lessons at a private music school. He entered the Paris Conservatoire in 1889. There he managed to compose a few of his earliest and best known works including the Pavane for a Dead Princess, the Sonatine for piano, and the String Quartet.
From the beginning, Ravel worked within the socially established format as well as harmonic conventions. Still, Ravel was able to “forge” his own musical language. His melodies were mostly modal while his harmonies were sometimes left unresolved. Ravel along with other younger artists, poets, critics and musicians joined a group entitled “Les Apaches“. Until the First World War started, the group met regularly. The group was for instance enthusiastic about the music of Debussy. While the public quickly categorized Debussy as an impressionist composer, they started to also apply the term to Maurice Ravel which he did not prefer.
In contrast to the rather conservative Société Nationale de Musique, Ravel along with a few collaborators created a new and modernist organisation, the Société Musicale Indépendente. Its inaugural concert took place on 20 April 1910. One year later, the first of Ravel’s two operas, the one-act comedy L’heure espagnole was premiered with modest success. In 1912, he premiered three ballets. The first, to the orchestrated and expanded version of Ma mère l’Oye, opened at the Théâtre des Arts in January. The reviews were excellent: the Mercure de France called the score “absolutely ravishing, a masterwork in miniature”. Ravel’s second ballet of 1912 was Adélaïde ou le langage des fleurs, danced to the score of Valses nobles et sentimentales, which opened at the Châtelet in April. Daphnis et Chloé opened at the same theatre in June. This was his largest-scale orchestral work, and took him immense trouble and several years to complete.
World War I
In 1914, the First World War began and Maurice Ravel intended to join the French Air Force. However, he was rejected as an aviator. He joined the Thirteenth Artillery Regiment as a lorry driver in March 1915. Stravinsky expressed admiration for his friend’s courage: “at his age and with his name he could have had an easier place, or done nothing“. During the war, the Ligue Nationale pour la Defense de la Musique Française was formed by Saint-Saëns , Dubois, d’Indy and others, campaigning for a ban on the performance of contemporary German music. Ravel declined to join, telling the committee of the league in 1916, “It would be dangerous for French composers to ignore systematically the productions of their foreign colleagues, and thus form themselves into a sort of national coterie: our musical art, which is so rich at the present time, would soon degenerate, becoming isolated in banal formulas.” The league responded by banning Ravel’s music from its concerts.
Jazz Influences and International Success
After the war, Ravel’s musical output was rather small and he only managed to create about one composition per year. Many of his works from the 1920s are noticeably sparer in texture than earlier pieces. Other influences on him in this period were jazz and atonality. Jazz was popular in Parisian cafés, and French composers such as Darius Milhaud incorporated elements of it in their work. To his major works from the 1920s belong the orchestral arrangement of Mussorgsky‘s piano suite Pictures at an Exhibition (1922), the opera L’enfant et les sortilèges to a libretto by Colette (1926), Tzigane (1924) and the Violin Sonata (1927). In 1928, Maurice Ravel toured North America for four months where he played and conducted music. Audiences loved his music and the critics were complimentary. At an all-Ravel programme conducted by Serge Koussevitzky in New York, the entire audience stood up and applauded as the composer took his seat. Ravel was touched by this spontaneous gesture and observed, “You know, this doesn’t happen to me in Paris.“
Rubbish! – The Famous Bolereo
The last work Ravel completed in the 1920s became his most famous: Boléro. He was commissioned to provide a score for Ida Rubinstein‘s ballet company, and he decided on “an experiment in a very special and limited direction … a piece lasting seventeen minutes and consisting wholly of orchestral tissue without music.” Ravel continued that the work was “one long, very gradual crescendo. There are no contrasts, and there is practically no invention except the plan and the manner of the execution. The themes are altogether impersonal“. He was astonished, and not wholly pleased, that it became a mass success. When one elderly member of the audience at the Opéra shouted “Rubbish!” at the premiere, he remarked, “That old lady got the message!” The work was popularised by the conductor Arturo Toscanini, and has been recorded several hundred times.
During the 1930a, Ravel first worked on two piano concertos. He completed the Piano Concerto in D major for the Left Hand first. It was premiered in Vienna in 1932. The Piano Concerto in G major was completed one year later. In 1932, Ravel suffered a blow to the head in a taxi accident. The injury was not thought serious at the time, but in a study for the British Medical Journal in 1988 the neurologist R. A. Henson concludes that it may have exacerbated an existing cerebral condition. His health began to deteriorate in 1937 and he received surgery. After the operation there seemed to be an improvement in his condition, but it was short-lived, and he soon lapsed into a coma. Maurice Ravel died on 28 December, at the age of 62.
References and Further Reading:
-  Maurice Ravel Biography at Britannica Online
-  Maurice Ravel – The Elegant Impressionist
-  Maurice Ravel short Biography at Classic FM
-  Giuseppe Verdi – Master of the Opera, SciHi Blog, October 10, 2013
-  Camille Saint-Saëns – a Musical Renaissance Man, SciHi Blog, October 9, 2013
-  Maurice Ravel at Wikidata
-  Timeline for Maurice Ravel, via Wikidata
-  “Discovering Ravel”. BBC Radio 3.
-  Newspaper clippings about Maurice Ravel in the 20th Century Press Archives of the German National Library of Economics (ZBW)
-  Maurice Ravel’s Friends Society: Les Amis de Maurice Ravel