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Ravel

Category: Musician or composer

 

Joseph-Maurice Ravel (March 7, 1875 – December 28, 1937) was a French composer.  I have to admit some bias here, as he is one of my favourite composers and it has been extremely difficult for me to select observations, as from what I can see all his works were spiritually inspired.

He composed at a time when the Impressionists and Symbolists were making great strides in the world of painting and it is clear that his music is influenced by the overall artistic culture of the time, the loosening of strict classical boundaries and the more expressive colourful styles of painting are there in his music.

Ravel painted with music and his compositions are as symbolic and colourful as the paintings of his artist contemporaries.  What is perhaps interesting about Ravel is that he had no time for the academic pigeon-holing of music into ‘classical’, or ‘folk’, or ‘jazz’.  For example, he made extensive use of the rollicking jazz tunes he had heard in America in his Piano Concerto in G Major.  His Rapsodie espagnole uses folk-like melodies, although no actual folk songs are used.  His Piano Trio (for piano, violin, and cello) uses ‘Basque themes’. The second movement of Sonata for Violin and Piano is titled “Blues”.  His opera L'enfant et les sortilèges, has ‘significant jazz and ragtime accents’. Musicians like Nigel Kennedy are currently trying to break those same barriers down, providing interpretations of so called ‘pop’ songs.   

 

Another area of great interest from this site’s point of view is that he preferred modes with major or minor flavours; for example, the Mixolydian instead of the major scale, and the Aeolian instead of the harmonic minor. As a result, there are virtually no leading tones in his output. Melodically, he tended to favour two modes: the Dorian and the Phrygian. There is thus the sense that he was trying to capture celestial music, reverting back to older pitches and harmonies. 

Ravel placed high importance on melody, once stating to Vaughan Williams, that there is "an implied melodic outline in all vital music."

Ravel’s composing method has been described as “craftsman-like and perfectionistic”. Igor Stravinsky once referred to Ravel as "the most perfect of Swiss watchmakers", a reference to the intricacy and precision of Ravel's works.  But what is fascinating is that it sounds neither technical or forced, it sounds fluid and sensuous.  Ravel himself said “My objective … is technical perfection. I can strive unceasingly to this end, since I am certain of never being able to attain it. The important thing is to get nearer to it all the time.”

nijinsky with ravel at the piano working on
daphnis and chloe 1912

But we come closer to what he meant by this, when we look in more detail at the process he followed.  He stated:

In my own compositions I judge a long period of conscious gestation necessary. During this interval I come progressively, and with growing precision, to see the form and the evolution that the final work will take in its tonality. Thus I can be occupied for several years without writing a single note of the work, after which composition goes relatively quickly. But one must spend much time in eliminating all that could be regarded as superfluous in order to realize as completely as possible the definitive clarity so much desired. The moment arrives when new conceptions must be formulated for the final composition, but they cannot be artificially forced for they come only of their own accord, often deriving their original from some far-off perception and only manifesting themselves after long years.”

So his music was ‘received’ via inspiration, but then he had to translate this to musical instruments and actually write it down on paper.

Major works

 

Because of his perfectionism and methods, Ravel’s musical output over four decades is quite small. There are only about sixty compositions in all, of which slightly more than half are instrumental. Ravel’s body of work includes pieces for piano, chamber works, two piano concerti, ballet music, opera, and song cycles. Though wide-ranging in his music, Ravel avoided the symphonic form as well as religious themes and forms.

Ravel's piano compositions, such as Jeux d'eau, Miroirs, Le tombeau de Couperin and Gaspard de la nuit, demand considerable virtuosity from the performer. His first significant work, Habanera for two pianos, was later transcribed into the well-known third movement of his Rapsodie espagnole.  His first published work was Menuet antique.

Histoires naturelles (Nature Stories) consists of five humorous songs evoking the presence of five animals.  Ravel's music for the opera L'heure espagnole (The Spanish Hour) is “full of humour and rich in colour, employing a wide variety of instruments, including the trombone, sarrusophone, tuba, celesta, xylophone, and bells”.

Ravel collaborated with impresario Sergei Diaghilev during 1909 for the ballet Daphnis et Chloé with the lead danced by the famous ballet dancer Vaslav Nijinsky. Around 1920, Diaghilev commissioned Ravel to write La valse (The Waltz). The piece became a waltz “with a macabre undertone, famous for its fantastic and fatal whirling”. It was rejected by Diaghilev as “not a ballet. It’s a portrait of ballet”. Ravel, hurt by the comment, ended the relationship.  Subsequently, it became a popular concert work.

Maurice Ravel drinking tea with
Alexis Roland-Manuel.

Ravel’s Ma mère l'oye (Mother Goose) followed in the tradition of Schumann, Mussorgsky, and Debussy, who also created memorable works of childhood themes. In 1912, it was performed as a ballet, after being first transcribed from piano to orchestra.  During 1914, just as World War I began, Ravel composed his Piano Trio (for piano, violin, and cello). The piece, difficult to play well, is considered a masterpiece among trio works.

Le tombeau de Couperin is a commemoration of the musical ideals of François Couperin.  Each movement is dedicated to a friend of Ravel's who died in the war, with the final movement dedicated to the deceased husband of Ravel’s favourite pianist Marguerite Long.  In 1922, Ravel completed his Sonata for Violin and Cello. By 1925, he finally finished his opera L'enfant et les sortilèges, writer Colette provided the libretto. Around this time, he also completed Chansons madécasses, the ‘summit of his vocal art’.  In 1927, he completed and premiered his Sonata for Violin and Piano, his last chamber work.

After returning to France from the USA, in 1928, Ravel composed his most famous and controversial orchestral work Boléro, originally called Fandango. Ravel called it “an experiment in a very special and limited direction”. He conceived of it as an accompaniment to a ballet and not as an orchestral piece and was somewhat taken aback by its popular success.

Remarkably, Ravel composed both of his piano concertos simultaneously. He completed the Concerto for the Left Hand first. The work was commissioned by Austrian pianist Paul Wittgenstein, who had lost his right arm during World War I. The Piano Concerto in G was completed a year later. Ravel dedicated the work to his favorite pianist, Marguerite Long, who played it and popularized it across Europe and they recorded it together in 1932.

Other notable works include the Sérénade grotesque, Pavane pour une infante défunte,  the String Quartet in F, the Violin Sonata and his arrangement of Modest Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition.

Gifted but criticised

 

One thing that marks Ravel out is his constant dismissal by the establishment, but his dogged determination to do what he believed in anyway, despite the critics or his teachers.  Ravel’s parents encouraged his musical pursuits and sent him to the Conservatoire de Paris, where he was considered “very gifted”, but “somewhat heedless” in his studies.

After failing to meet the requirement of earning a competitive medal in three consecutive years, Ravel was expelled in 1895. He returned to the Conservatoire in 1898 and studied composition with Fauré until he was dismissed from the class in 1900 for having won neither the fugue nor the composition prize.

In 1899, Ravel conducted his first orchestral piece, Shéhérazade, and was greeted by a raucous mixture of boos and applause. Critics termed the piece "a jolting debut: a clumsy plagiarism of the Russian School" and called Ravel a “mediocrely gifted debutante ... who will perhaps become something if not someone in about ten years, if he works hard.”

During his years at the Conservatoire, Ravel tried numerous times to win the prestigious Prix de Rome, but to no avail; he was simply considered too radical by the conservatives, including Director Théodore Dubois.  Ravel's String Quartet in F, is now a standard work of chamber music, though at the time it was criticized and found lacking academically.

In 1905, Ravel's final year of eligibility for the Prix de Rome, Ravel did not even pass the preliminary test. Instead, all six selected finalists were students of Charles Lenepveu, a member of the jury and heir apparent of Dubois as director of the Conservatoire. The scandal – named the "Ravel Affair" by the Parisian press – engaged the entire artistic community, pitting conservatives against the avant-garde, and eventually caused the resignation of Dubois and his replacement by Fauré instead of Lenepveu, a vindication of sorts for Ravel”.

Rapsodie espagnole  premiered in 1908 to generally good reviews, while the critic Pierre Lalo (as usual) reacted negatively, calling it "laborious and pedantic".

But the tide eventually turned.  Igor Stravinsky called Daphnis et Chloé "one of the most beautiful products of all French music".  Ravel was bemused by the critics' sudden favour of him after his American tour: “Didn’t I represent to the critics for a long time the most perfect example of insensitivity and lack of emotion?... And the successes they have given me in the past few years are just as unimportant.”

Personal life

Maurice Ravel's parents, Joseph Ravel
and Marie Delouart

Ravel was born in the Basque town of Ciboure, France, near Biarritz, only 18 kilometres from the Spanish border. His mother, Marie Delouart, was of Basque descent and grew up in Madrid, Spain, while his father, Joseph Ravel, was a Swiss inventor and industrialist from French Haute-Savoie.

Ravel was very fond of his mother, and her Basque-Spanish heritage was a strong influence on his life and music. Among his earliest memories are folk songs she sang to him. He intended, at one time, to write a concerto, Zazpiak Bat, meaning 'The Seven Are One', which refers to the seven Basque regions, and was a motto often used in association with the idea of a Basque nation.

Ravel’s younger brother Édouard became his father’s favourite and also became an engineer.  Some of Joseph's inventions were quite important, including an early internal-combustion engine and a notorious circus machine, the "Whirlwind of Death", an automotive loop-the-loop that was quite a success until a fatal accident at the Barnum & Bailey Circus in 1903. Joseph was not without influence in Maurice’s life, however, as he also had a keen interest in music and culture.

Ravel appears to have learnt the meticulous and painstaking care with which he ‘engineered’ his compositions from his father, but all the inspiration and artistic flair was inherited and learnt from his mother.  He was a naturally gifted child, at age six, he began piano lessons and his earliest public piano recital was in 1889, at age fourteen.

Ravel with leon paul fargue,  georges auric and paul morand
showing how small he was

Ravel was not a healthy child nor a healthy adult.  He was small, sensitive, nervous only 1.61 m – bony and light weight.  He also had a large head, which seems to indicate some underlying disorder. He became a lifelong tobacco smoker in his youth, which can’t have helped.  During the First World War, he was not allowed to enlist as a pilot because of his weak health.  So exhausting was the effort to score the ballet Daphnis et Chloé, that he was forced to rest for several months with a diagnosis of ‘neurasthenia’.  He was also not interested in the "bohemian" lifestyle of his contemporaries, which in the circumstances seems wise given that it tended to be fuelled by absinthe and hashish.  With his mother’s death in 1917, he fell into a “horrible despair”, adding to his ill health and the general gloom over the suffering endured by the people of his country during the war.

But he also seems to have been a kindly and gentle man with a love of conversation and a sense of humour. Ravel was, for example, always a supporter of young musicians, through his society and associations and through his personal individual advice and his help in securing performance dates. 

People as sensitive, empathetic, kindly and easily hurt as Ravel find intimate relationships to be hard to forge, because they spend their whole life frightened of being hurt.  And if they are hurt they never try again.  Ravel made a remark at one time suggesting that because he was such a perfectionist composer, so devoted to his work, he could never have a lasting intimate relationship with anyone. But this seems to me to be too easy an explanation.

According to close friend and student Manuel Rosenthal, he asked violinist Hélène Jourdan-Mourhange to marry him, but she dismissed him, saying "No, Maurice, I'm extremely fond of you, as you know, but only as a friend, and I couldn't possibly consider marrying you". So maybe we have the cause of his single minded pursuit of music.  A piano cannot reject you or hurt you.  He is quoted as saying "The only love affair I have ever had was with music".

Maurice Ravel, with Hélène Jourdan-Morhange and Madeleine Grey

Perhaps because he had no intimate relationships, Ravel’s friendships played a very key part in his development and life.  In 1887, for example, Ravel met Ricardo Viñes, who would become one of his best friends, one of the foremost interpreters of his piano music, and an important link between Ravel and Spanish music. Around 1893, Ravel was introduced by his father to the café pianist Erik Satie, whose distinctive personality and unorthodox musical experiments also proved influential.  Ravel was taught music by Fauré until he left the Conservatoire in 1903 and they remained friends and colleagues. Ravel also had a friendship with the pianist Marguerite Long with whom he collaborated on a number of his works.

Ravel [right] with Ricardo Viñes

Around 1900, Ravel joined with a number of innovative young artists, poets, critics, and musicians who were referred to as the Apaches (hooligans).  The group met regularly until the beginning of World War I and the members often inspired each other with intellectual argument and performances of their works before the group. For a time, the influential group included Igor Stravinsky and Manuel de Falla.

Ravel met Debussy in the 1890s. In 1900, Ravel was invited to Debussy’s home and they played each other’s works. Ravel wrote that Debussy’s “genius was obviously one of great individuality, creating its own laws, constantly in evolution, expressing itself freely, yet always faithful to French tradition. For Debussy, the musician and the man, I have had profound admiration, but by nature I am different from Debussy.”  So not a friend, but an influence nevertheless.

Although his parents were Catholic, Ravel had no interest in religion, although via his links with his friends he had a keen interest in mythological themes, symbolism and the spiritual.  Ravel had an appreciation, for example, for the writings of Edgar Allan Poe, Charles Baudelaire, and Stéphane Mallarmé.  He was not a non believer in the spiritual, just a non believer in institutionalised religion.

In a sense therefore his principle sources of inspiration were Beauty, Music and Art, Believing in a spiritual world, as well as simple Companionship and friendship – a sort of love - his illnesses did not help him, he lost all ability to compose when he was ill.

Death

In 1932, Ravel suffered a major blow to the head in a taxi accident. This injury was not considered serious at the time. However, afterwards he began to experience aphasia-like symptoms and was frequently absent-minded.

 

In late 1937, Ravel consented to experimental brain surgery, evidently with some hesitation. On December 17, he entered a hospital in Paris, following the advice of the well-known neurosurgeon Clovis Vincent. Vincent assumed there was a brain tumour, and on December 19 operated on Ravel. No tumour was found, but there was some shrinkage of the left hemisphere of his brain.  So maybe, rather fortuitously, he was born right brained – not very good for your overall health, but excellent if you want to be a creative genius. 

Vincent thereupon re-inflated it with serous fluid. Ravel awoke from the anaesthesia,  but quickly sank into a deep coma, from which he never awoke.   He died on December 28, at the age of 62.  Death by doctor.

 

 

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