Maurice Ravel

(7 March 1875 - 28 December 1937)

Maurice Ravel was a French composer and one of the most extraordinarily original musicians of the early 20th century. Through his instrumental writing he discovered new possibilities and his profound interest in both the past and the exotic gave his music a French refinement and sensibility.

Maurice Ravel was born in the Basque village of Ciboure, however, at three months of age, the family moved to Paris. Despite his Parisian upbringing, he always felt close to his Basque roots. Ravel’s father was an engineer and an amateur pianist and encouraged his son in his early years of piano playing. Aged 7, he was sent to his first piano teacher, Henri Ghys and five years later, began to study harmony with Delibes’ pupil Charles-René leading to his first attempts at composition, including variations on themes by Schumann and Grieg.

In 1889, Ravel gained a place at the Paris Conservatoire to study piano until he was dismissed in 1895 for not winning prizes. Despite his wish to succeed, he was not willing to conform to the specifications of the conservatoire. After this, he decided to focus fully on composition, and was re-admitted to the conservatoire in 1897 to study with Gabriel Fauré and counterpoint with Gédalge, both of whom he regarded as critical influencers of his technique and musicianship. He was again dismissed for not winning any prizes. The competitions such as Prix de Rome were rife with politics and it transpired that all the finalists in the competitions that Ravel entered, between 1900 and 1905, were pupils of members of the jury. Even critics, who were not particularly friendly in their reviews of Ravel’s work, were outraged at the realisation that Ravel, who had established himself at the Société Nationale de Musique was barred from receiving such a prestigious award.

Together with his Spanish pianist friend Ricardo Viñes, who later became the teacher and spiritual mentor of Poulenc, Ravel began to feed his hunger for musical and literary knowledge. The two young musicians discussed the latest literature of Mallarmé and Poe and played four-hand arrangements of works by Schumann, Mendelssohn, Franck, Rimsky-Korsakov, Balakirev, Borodin, Glazunov, Chabrier, Satie and Debussy. In 1902 Ravel and Ricardo Viñes became part of a group called Les Apaches consisting of musical, artistic and literary contemporaries. Ravel’s was influenced not just by his conservatoire education but was very much rooted in the fin-de-siecle French culture.

Mais est-ce qu'il ne vient jamais à l'idée de ces gens-là que je peux être 'artificiel' par nature?

Ravel had a prominent role in the founding of the Societé Musicale Indépendante in 1909, due to his willingness to speak out on important issues. The aim was to have a society that promoted the performance of music, French or foreign, regardless of genre or style. Fauré was appointed president and the inaugural performance took place on the 20 April 1910, including Fauré’s Chanson d’Eve, Debussy’s D’un cahier d’esquisses, played by Ravel.

Ravel was involved in many theatrical projects in the years that followed. Diaghilev commissioned Daphnis et Chloe for the Ballets russes in 1909. In the same year Ravel and Stravinsky met and struck up a close friendship and a few years later collaborated on an orchestration project of Mussorgsky’s Khovanshschina at the request of Diaghilev.

The premiere of the original version of Ravel's Mother Goose, or Ma Mére L'oye in French, took place in Paris on 20 April 1910. . This piano duet was written for Mimi and Jean Godebski, aged 6 and 7.

In 1914, his military duty took over, yet he still managed to keep working on La cloche engloutie and Interieur, a symphonic poem, a ‘French suite’ for piano and Nuit romantique for piano. However, the only pieces from the WW1 years that made it to their final stage of being published and premiered were Le tombeau de Couperin and the symphonic poem, which he renamed La valse. His Trois Poemes de Stephane Mallarmé were premiered the same year.

War, sickness and the death of Ravel’s mother curbed his creativity. La valse was completed only because it was a commission from Diaghilev, although eventually it was deemed unsuitable for the ballet and therefore rejected. Between 1920 and 1924, Ravel composed three hommages: a Duo in memory of Debussy, the Berceuse sur le nom de Gabriel Fauré and the Ronsard à son âme.

After Debussy’s death in 1918, Ravel became regarded as France’s leading composer, leading to the Legion d’Honneur being offered to him in 1920, which he publicly refused. He became ostracised from his colleagues, both the younger composers such as Satie as well as some of Les Six. Ravel made a decision to move 50km west of Paris to Montfort-l’Amaury, where he lived with his cats and was looked after by his housekeeper. Although Ravel refused many French honours, he later accepted an honorary doctorate from Oxford University in 1928 and other diplomas from Scandinavia, Spain, Belgium and Italy.

Ravel’s success abroad was considerable, and strengthened his reputation in France. He first visited Britain in 1909 and again in the 1920s and 1930s. His four-month North American trip was his most successful. In the US and Canada, Ravel conducted, performed, gave numerous interviews and delivered an important lecture on contemporary music at the Rice Institute In Texas. Ravel’s newest piece to be performed in the United States was his violin sonata, which contained a slow movement entitled ‘Blues’, which he wrote in anticipation of his American trip.

In 1929-30, at the request of the one-armed pianist Paul Wittgenstien, Ravel composed his trio for the left hand. Around the same time, Ravel composed his Bolero, which he described as 'a masterpiece…without any music in it’.

a masterpiece…without any music in it.

Claude Debussy

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