Maurice Ravel Biography

French classical composer
Ravel explored new areas of harmony and tone color in his meticulously crafted compositions. His music is often a fusion of Baroque or classical idioms with Impressionism and jazz.

March 7, 1875; Ciboure, France
December 28, 1937; Paris, France
Also known as:
Joseph Maurice Ravel (full name)
Principal works
ballets: Daphnis et Chloe, 1912 (choreography by Michael Fokine and Maurice Ravel); Ma Mere l’oye, 1912 (Mother Goose; choreography by Jeanne Hugard); La Valse, composed 1920, first performed 1929 (choreography by Bronislava Nizhinska); Le Tombeau de Couperin, 1920 (Tombeau for Couperin; choreography by Jean Borlin and Rolf de Mare); Bolero, 1928.

operas (music): L’Heure espagnole, 1911 (The Spanish Hour; comedic opera; libretto by Franc- Nohain); L’Enfant et les sortileges, 1925 (The Bewitched Child; lyric fantasy; libretto by Colette).

orchestral works: Sheherazade: Ouverture de feerie, 1898; Une Barque sur l’ocean, 1906; Rapsodie espagnole, 1908 (Spanish Rhapsody); Fragments symphoniques, 1911 (Suite No. 1); Alborada del gracioso, 1918; Tzigane, 1924 (rhapsody for violin and orchestra).

piano works: Pavane pour une infante defunte, 1899 (Pavane for a Dead Infanta); Jeux d’eau, 1902; Miroirs, 1906; Gaspard de la nuit, 1908 (Demons of the Night); Valses nobles et sentimentales, 1911 (Noble and Sentimental Waltzes); Menuet antique, 1929; Piano Concerto for the Left Hand in D, 1930; Piano Concerto in G, 1931.

vocal works: Sheherazade, 1903 (orchestral song cycle; based on Tristan Klingsor’s poetry); Don Quichotte a Dulcinee, 1933 (Serenade of Don Quixote to Dulcinea; for voice and piano).

The Life
Joseph Maurice Ravel (zho-SEHF moh-REES rah-VEHL) was born in the small town of Ciboure in the Basque region of France, near the Spanish border. His mother was of Basque origin, and his father was a civil engineer of Swiss origin. Ravel’s family moved to Paris when he was three months old, and he lived in and around the French capital for the rest of his life. Ravel studied intermittently at the Paris Conservatory for several years, attempting multiple times to win the prestigious Prix de Rome scholarship. He always failed because his compositions were judged too controversial by the traditionalist board. This error in judgment regarding Ravel’s talent led to an administrative reorganization of the Paris Conservatory under the leadership of another great French composer and friend of Ravel, Gabriel Faure.

In 1901 Ravel formed an artistic partnership called Les Apaches with pianist Ricardo Vines and other friends. They were adamant in defending the merits of Claude Debussy’s controversial opera Pelleas et Melisande (1902) against critics of thework.

Ravel’s most productive years as a composer were from 1905 to 1914, during which time he benefited from a contract and an annuity from the publisher Durand. He began a series of concert tours in 1909 (the first one being to London) which broadened his fame outside France. By the advent of World War I, he was considered one of France’s great composers.

In March, 1916, Ravel joined the war effort, driving a supply truck, and he was near the front lines at the Battle of Verdun. Ravel’s poor health during this time (as a result of his military service) plus the death of his mother in 1917 resulted in three years of compositional inactivity. In 1921 Ravel bought a villa in Montfort l’Amaury, a small village west of Paris, and he lived there until his death.

In the 1920’s and 1930’s he concertized all over Europe, but his compositional output had lessened to approximately one piece a year. In 1928 he embarked on a successful twenty-five-city tour of North America, where he was promoted as the greatest living French composer. In 1933 he began suffering from the effects of apraxia and aphasia, which caused mental fatigue,memory loss, and difficulty with motor skills and with speech. By 1937 his health greatly deteriorated to the point where a brain operation was required. Shortly after the operation, he lapsed into a coma, and he died on December 28, 1937.

The Music
Ravel’s distinctive compositional voice emerged early in his career. Like the slow unfolding of the theme in his Bolero, he gradually developed the contours and dimensions of his style throughout the rest of his life. Unlike other twentieth century European composers, such as Igor Stravinsky and Arnold Schoenberg, Ravel did not make any sharp turns or radical departures in his musical style.

Some essential elements of his compositional style include Impressionism, the contrast between modality and tonality, the use of dance rhythms, the influence of Spanish dance music, and a fascination with the exotic. Ravel was essentially a miniaturist.

His large-scaleworks (the ballets and operas) were assemblages of smaller sections, yet unified by melodic transformation.

Ravel regarded the piano as his primary medium of expression and an essential element in his compositional process. He treated orchestration as a separate task from composition, thus many of his orchestral works were arrangements of his previously composed pianoworks. He spent a lot of time arranging and reshaping his works to the extent that nearly half of his oeuvre exists in more than one form. He arranged other composers’ works as well, the most popular being his orchestration of Modest Mussorgsky’s piano suite Pictures at an Exhibition (1886).

Periodically throughout his life, Ravel would return to his birthplace, drawn by memories of his mother’s Spanish folk songs and the Basque countryside.

Thus, much of his music reflects a distinctive Spanish influence and a yearning for the past, most clearly felt in the Rapsodie espagnole and Bolero.

Ravel’s fascination with the exotic began with the Paris Exhibition in 1889 when he was fourteen.

He was interested in Chinese and Japanese art, American jazz, and Javanese gamelan music. He was often drawn to ancient myths as a basis for his musical ideas, and his fascination with mechanical devices is evident in his meticulously crafted compositions.

Jeux d’eau.
Although Pavane for a Dead Infanta is one of Ravel’s most recognizable pieces for piano, Jeux d’eau was his first masterpiece for the instrument, opening up a new avenue of expression.

This piece was among the first Impressionistic character pieces written for piano. Influenced by Franz Liszt’s Les Jeux d’Eaux a la Villa d’Este from his Annees de Pelerinage (1883), the title translates to playing water or fountains. Many of Ravel’s compositional trademarks are at work in this piece, including the use of modal harmony, pentatonic scales, and polytonality.

Miroirs builds upon the pianistic innovations of Jeux d’eau. These five Impressionistic pieces conjure up vivid images of animal life, the ocean, Spain, and pastoral landscapes. The first, Noctuelles (Night Moths), uses polyrhythms, shifting meters and melodic fragments to portray flittering moths. The second, Oiseaux tristes (Sad Birds), sounds like an improvisation, and it has an elegiac and melancholy tone. The third, Une barque sur l’ocean (A Boat on the Ocean), shows Ravel’s skill in depicting water scenes. The fourth, Alborada del gracioso (Aubade of the Jester), portrays a fool trying to serenade a lady with a lugubrious song. The fifth, La vallee des cloches (The Valley of Bells), evokes church bells with its use of modal scales. Ravel later orchestrated the third and fourth pieces of this set.

Daphnis et Chloe.
Ravel was commissioned to compose this ballet by Sergei Diaghilev, the Russian impresario and leader of the Ballets Russes.

Based on a Greek pastoral romance about the love between a goatherd and a shepherdess, the ballet is considered by most musicologists to be Ravel’s greatest orchestral work. It is heard in concert halls most often in the form of two suites that Ravel created from extracting accessible sections of the score.

Piano Concerto for the Left Hand in D.
Ravel beganwork on this piece in 1929 after meeting Austrian pianist Paul Wittgenstein, who lost his arm in combat in World War I on the Russian front and who was the brother of the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein. This piece is among the several compositions created later in Ravel’s life that were influenced by jazz rhythms and harmony. Ravel gave the piano part a thick texture and a wide range in order to disguise the fact that only the left hand of the pianist is playing. The concerto is in one movement, yet it encompasses the several moods, keys, and tempi associated with a multimovementwork.

This is easily Ravel’s most well-known work. Although it was written as a ballet, it is almost exclusively performed as an orchestral piece.

It earned immediate success, and it has been a staple of the concert repertoire since it first premiered.

The piece consists solely of one melody in two sections repeated and developed into an ornate orchestral tapestry of sound over an unchanging rhythm played on two snare drums. Remarkably, although it has a rigid and machinelike rhythm, the melody never sounds constrained or confined.

There is no piece like it in the orchestral repertoire, and it remains a prime example of Ravel’s ability to write compelling music within a tightly constructed framework.

Musical Legacy
Ravel’s oeuvre, comprising approximately sixty works in all, is small compared to that of most composers, yet he is considered to be among the greatest of French composers, alongside Josquin des Prez, Francois Couperin, Jean-Philippe Rameau, Hector Berlioz, and Debussy. Ravel’s music was not of one school, be it Impressionism, Expressionism, or modernism, but it drew from a combination of these and other influences.

Ravel’s legacy has suffered from an almost constant association with Debussy. Ravel greatly admired Debussy and his music, yet he strove to compose music that was more grounded in form than Debussy’s. In fact, Ravel was often referred to as a classicist by other composers, and he even called himself one, because he frequently placed his musical ideas into familiar structures rather than creating his own. Ravel has been influential in demonstrating that fresh ideas can be cast into already existing forms, such as the waltz (Noble and Sentimental Waltzes illustrate this).

Ravel’s influence can be observed to some degree in the works of Stravinsky, Debussy, and many other French composers (such as Arthur Honegger, Francis Poulenc, Olivier Messiaen, and Pierre Boulez). Ravel’s Bolero was an influence on the American minimalist composers Terry Riley, Steve Reich, and others. It is largely the result of Ravel’s orchestration of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition that this work has maintained its popularity.

Synthesizing the forms and styles of the past with an innovative harmonic language, Ravel enriched the possibilities of modern musical expression. ¶