Maurice Ravel

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Maurice Ravel in 1912

Joseph-Maurice Ravel (March 7, 1875 – December 28, 1937) was a French composer and pianist of Impressionist music known especially for the subtlety, richness, and poignancy of his melodies, orchestral and instrumental textures and effects. Much of his piano music, chamber music, vocal music and orchestral music have become staples of the concert repertoire.

Ravel's piano compositions, such as Jeux d'eau, Miroirs and Gaspard de la Nuit, demand considerable virtuosity from the performer, and his orchestral music, including Daphnis et Chloé and his arrangement of Modest Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition, uses tonal color and variety of sound and instrumentation very effectively.

Ravel is perhaps best known for his orchestral work, Boléro, which he considered trivial and once described as "a piece for orchestra without music."[1]

According to SACEM, Ravel's estate earns more royalties than that of any other French musician. According to international copyright law, Ravel's works are public domain since January 1, 2008 in most countries. In France, due to anomalous copyright law extensions to account for the two world wars, they will not enter the public domain until 2015.[2]


[edit] Biography

[edit] Early life

Ravel was born in Ciboure, France, near Biarritz, close to the border with Spain, in 1875. 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.[3] Both were Catholics and they provided a happy and stimulating household for their children. 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 hit until a fatal accident at the Barnum and Bailey circus in 1903.[4] Joseph delighted in taking his sons on trips to factories to see the latest mechanical devices, and he also had a keen interest in music and culture.[5] Ravel stated later, “As a child, I was sensitive to music—to every kind of music.” [6]

Ravel was very close to his mother, and her Basque heritage was a strong influence on his life and music. Among his earliest memories are folk songs she sang to him.[7] The family moved to Paris three months after the birth of Maurice, and there his younger brother Édouard was born. He became his father’s favorite and also became an engineer.[8] At age seven, Maurice began piano lessons with Henry Ghys and received his first instruction in harmony, counterpoint, and composition with Charles-René. His earliest public piano recital was in 1889 at age fourteen.[9]

Though clearly talented at the piano, Ravel demonstrated a preference for composing. He was particularly impressed by the new Russian works conducted by Rimsky-Korsakov at the Exhibition Universelle in 1889.[10] The foreign music at the exhibition also had a great influence on Ravel’s contemporaries Erik Satie, Emmanuel Chabrier, and most significantly Claude Debussy. That year Ravel also 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.[11] The students shared an appreciation for Richard Wagner, the Russian school, and the writings of Edgar Allan Poe, Charles Baudelaire, and Stéphane Mallarmé.[12]

[edit] The Conservatoire and early career

Ravel’s parents encouraged his musical pursuits and sent him to the Conservatoire de Paris, first as a preparatory student and eventually as a piano major. He received a first prize in the piano student competition in 1891.[13] Overall, however, he was not successful academically even as his musicianship matured dramatically. Considered “very gifted”, Ravel was also called “somewhat heedless” in his studies.[14] Around 1893, Ravel created his earliest compositions, and he was introduced by his father to bohemian café pianist Erik Satie, whose distinctive personality and unorthodox musical experiments proved influential.[15]

Ravel was far from a bohemian and evidenced little of the typical trauma of adolescence. At twenty, Ravel was already “self-possessed, a little aloof, intellectually biased, given to mild banter.”[16] He dressed like a dandy and was meticulous about his appearance and demeanor. Short in stature, light in frame, and bony in features, Ravel had the “appearance of a well-dressed jockey”.[17] His large head seemed suitably matched to his great intellect. He was well-read and later accumulated a library of over 1,000 volumes.[18] In his younger adulthood, Ravel was usually bearded in the fashion of the day, though later he dispensed with all whiskers. Though reserved, Ravel was sensitive and self-critical, and had a mischievous sense of humor.[19] He became a life-long heavy smoker in his youth, and he enjoyed strongly flavored dishes, fine wine, and spirited conversation.[20]

After failing to meet the requirement of earning a competitive medal in three consecutive years, Ravel was expelled in 1895. He turned down a music professorship in Tunisia then returned to the Conservatoire in 1898 and started his studies with Gabriel Fauré, determined to focus on composing rather than piano playing.[21] He studied composition with Fauré for a remarkable fourteen years. Ravel found his teacher’s personality and methods sympathetic and they remained friends and colleagues. He also undertook private studies with André Gédalge, whom he later stated was responsible for “the most valuable elements of my technique.”[22] Ravel studied the ability of each instrument carefully in order to determine the possible effects, and was sensitive to their color and timbre. This may account for his success as an orchestrator and as a transcriber of his own piano works and those of other composers, such as Mussorgsky, Debussy and Schumann.[23]

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 (dedicated to and premiered by Viñes).[24] In 1899, Ravel conducted his first orchestral piece, Shéhérazade, and was greeted by a raucous mixture of boos and applause. The critics were somewhat harsh, calling it “a jolting debut: a clumsy plagiarism of the Russian School” and labeling him a “mediocrely gifted debutante…who will perhaps become something if not someone in about ten years, if he works hard.”[25] As the most gifted composer of his class and as a leader, with Debussy, of avant-garde French music, Ravel would continue to have a difficult time with the critics for some time to come.[26]

Around 1900, Ravel joined with a number of innovative young artists, poets, critics, and musicians (but not women) who were referred to as the Apaches (hooligans), a name coined by Viñes to represent his band of “artistic outcasts”.[27] The group met regularly until the outbreak 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.[28] One of the first works Ravel performed for the Apaches was Jeux d’eau (Fountains), his first piano masterpiece and clearly a pathfinding impressionistic work. Viñes performed the public premiere of this piece and Ravel’s other early masterpiece "Pavane pour une Infante défunte" in 1902.[29]

During his years at the Conservatoire, Ravel tried numerous times to win the prestigious Prix de Rome, but to no avail, likely because he was considered too radical by the conservative leadership under Director Théodore Dubois.[30] One of Ravel’s pieces, the String Quartet in F, likely modeled on Debussy’s Quartet (1893), is now a standard work of chamber music, though at the time it was criticized and found lacking academically.[31] After a scandal involving his loss of the prize in 1905 to Victor Gallois, despite being favored to win, Ravel left the Conservatoire. The incident —named the "Ravel Affair" by the Parisian press—engaged the entire artistic community, pitting conservatives against the avant-garde, and eventually led to the resignation of Dubois and his replacement by Fauré, a vindication of sorts for Ravel.[32] Though deprived of the opportunity to study in Rome, the decade after the scandal proved to be Ravel’s most productive, and included his “Spanish “period”.[33]

[edit] Ravel and Debussy

Ravel met Debussy in the 1890’s. Debussy was older than Ravel by some twelve years and his pioneering "Prélude à l’Après-midi d’un faune" was highly influential among the younger musicians including Ravel, who were impressed by the new language of impressionism.[34] In 1900, Ravel was invited to Debussy’s home and they played each other’s works. Viñes became the preferred piano performer for both composers and a go-between. The two composers attended many of the same musical events and were performed at the same concerts. Ravel and the Apaches were strong supporters of Debussy’s stormy public debut of his revolutionary opera "Pelléas et Mélisande", which energized the new music movement and garnered Debussy both fame and scorn.[35]

The two musicians also appreciated much the same musical heritage and operated in the same artistic milieu, but they differed in terms of personality and their approach to music. Debussy was considered more spontaneous and casual in his composing while Ravel was more attentive to form and craftsmanship.[36] Even though they worked independently of one another, because they employed differing means to similar ends, and because superficial similarities and even some more substantive ones are evident, the public and the critics linked them more closely than the facts bear out.[37]

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.”[38] Ravel further stated, “I think I have always personally followed a direction opposed to that of the symbolism of Debussy.”[39]

They clearly admired each other’s music and Ravel even played Debussy’s work in public on occasion. However, Ravel did level some criticisms at Debussy, particularly regarding his orchestration, and he once said, “If I had the time, I would reorchestrate "La Mer"”[40]

By 1905, factions formed for each composer and the two groups began feuding in public. Disputes arose as to questions of chronology about their respective works and who influenced whom. The public tension led to personal estrangement.[41] As Ravel put it, “It is probably better after all for us to be on frigid terms for illogical reasons.”[42] Ravel stoically absorbed superficial comparisons with Debussy promulgated by biased critics, including Pierre Lalo, a fierce anti-Ravel critic who stated, “Where M. Debussy is all sensitivity, M. Ravel is all insensitivity, borrowing without hesitation not only technique but the sensitivity of other people.”[43] In 1913, in a remarkable coincidence, both Ravel and Debussy independently produced and published musical settings for poems by Stéphane Mallarmé, again stirring up comparisons of their work and their perceived influence on each other, which continued even beyond Debussy’s death five years later.[44]

[edit] Early major works

The next milestone in Ravel’s piano composition was "Miroirs" (Mirrors - 1905), five piano pieces which marked a “harmonic evolution” and which one commentator described as “intensely descriptive and pictorial. They banish all sentiment in expression but offer to the listener a number of refined sensory elements which can be appreciated according to his imagination.”[45] Next came his "Histoires naturelles" (Nature Stories), five humorous songs evoking the presence of five animals.[46] Two years later, Ravel completed his Rapsodie espagnole, his first major “Spanish” piece, written first for piano four hands and then scored for orchestra. Though it employs folk-like melodies, no actual folk songs are quoted.[47] It premiered in 1908 to generally good reviews, with one critic stating that it was “one of the most interesting novelties of the season.”, while Lalo (as usual) reacted negatively, calling it “laborious and pedantic”.[48] Next followed Ravel’s music for the opera "L’Heure espagnole" (The Spanish Hour), full of humor and rich in color, employing a wide variety of instruments and their characteristic qualities, including the trombone, sarrusophone, tuba, celesta, xylophone, and bells.[49]

Ravel further extended his mastery of impressionistic piano music with Gaspard de la nuit, based on a collection by the same name by Aloysius Bertrand, with some influence from the writings of Edgar Allan Poe, particularly in the second part.[50] Viñes, as usual, performed the premiere but his performance displeased Ravel, and their relationship became strained from then on. For future premieres, Ravel replaced Vines with Marguerite Long.[51] Also unhappy with the conservative musical establishment which was stifling performance of new music, around this time Ravel, Faure, and some of his pupils formed the Société Musical Indépendante (SMI). In 1910, the society presented the premiere of Ravel’s Ma Mere l’Oye (Mother Goose) in its original piano version.[52] With this work, Ravel followed in the tradition of Schumann, Mussorgsky, and Debussy who also created memorable works of childhood themes. In 1912, Ravel’s “Ma Mere l’Oye” was mounted as a ballet (with added music) after being first transcribed from piano to orchestra.[53] Looking to expand his contacts and career, Ravel undertook his first foreign tours to England and Scotland in 1909 and 1911.[54]

[edit] Daphnis et Chloé

Ravel began work with impresario Sergei Diaghilev in 1909 for the ballet Daphnis et Chloé commissioned by Diaghilev with the lead danced by the great Vaslav Nijinsky . Diaghilev had taken Paris by storm the previous year in his Parisian debut opera Boris Godunov.[55] “Daphnis et Chloé” took three years to reach final form with conflicts constantly arising among the principal artists, including Leon Bakst (sets and costumes), Michel Fokine (libretto), and Ravel (music).[56] In frustration, Diaghilev nearly cancelled the project. The ballet met with a cool reception and lasted only two performances, only to be revived to acclaim a year later. Stravinsky called “Daphnis et Chloé” “one of the most beautiful products of all French music” and author Burnett James claims that it is “Ravel’s most impressive single achievement, as it is his most opulent and confident orchestral score”.[57] The work is notable for its rhythmic diversity, lyricism, and evocations of nature. The score utilizes a large orchestra and two choruses, one onstage and one offstage.[58] So exhausting was the effort to score the ballet that Ravel’s health deteriorated to the point of near breakdown, with a diagnosis of neurasthenia forcing total rest for many months.[59] In 1914, just as World War I began, Ravel composed his Trio (for piano, violin, and cello) with its Basque themes. The piece, difficult to play well, is considered a masterpiece among trio works.[60]

[edit] War years

Although he considered his small stature and light weight an advantage to becoming an aviator, and he tried every means of securing service as a flyer, during the First World War Ravel was not allowed to enlist as a pilot because of his age and weak health.[61] Instead, he became a truck driver stationed at the Verdun front.[62] With his mother’s death in 1917, his closest relationship ended and he fell into a “horrible despair”, adding to his ill health and the general gloom over the universal suffering endured by his country during the war. However, during the war years, Ravel did manage some compositions, including one of his most popular works, Le Tombeau de Couperin, a look back to the musical ideals of the early 18th century composer, which premiered in 1919.[63] Each movement is dedicated to a friend of Ravel who died in the war, with the final movement dedicated to the deceased husband of Ravel’s favorite pianist Marguerite Long.[64] At the height of the war, a National League for the Defense of French Music was formed but Ravel, despite his strong antipathy for the German aggression, declined to join stating:

“it would be dangerous for French composers to ignore systematically the works of their foreign colleagues, and thus form themselves into a sort of national coterie: our musical, so rich at the present time, would soon degenerate and become isolated by its own academic formulas.”[65]

Ravel was utterly exhausted and lacking any creative spirit at the war’s end in 1918. With the death of Debussy and the emergence of Satie, Schoenberg, and Stravinsky, modern classical music took on a new direction to which Ravel would shortly re-group and make his contribution.[66]

[edit] 1920s

Around 1920, Diaghilev commissioned Ravel to write La Valse, originally named Wien (Vienna), which was to be used for a projected ballet. The piece, conceived many years earlier, became a waltz with a macabre undertone, famous for its “fantastic and fatal whirling”. However, it was rejected by Diaghilev as “not a ballet. It’s a portrait of ballet”. Ravel, hurt by the comment, broke the relationship.[67] Subsequently, it became a popular concert work and when the two men met again in 1925, Ravel refused to shake Diaghilev's hand. Diaghilev challenged Ravel to a duel (friends talked Diaghilev out of it). The men never met again.[68]

In 1920, the French government awarded Ravel the Légion d'honneur, but he refused it. [69] The following year, he retired to the French countryside where he continued to write music, albeit even less prolifically, but in more tranquil surroundings.[70] He returned regularly to Paris for performances and socializing, and increased his foreign concert tours. Ravel maintained his leadership in the SMI which continued its active role of promoting new music, particularly of British and American composers such as Arnold Bax, Ralph Vaughn Williams, Aaron Copland, and Virgil Thomson.[71] With Debussy’s passing, Ravel ascended to the perceived leadership of French classical music. As Fauré stated in a letter to Ravel (October, 1922), “I am happier than you can imagine about the solid position which you occupy and which you have acquired so brilliantly and so rapidly. It is a source of joy and pride for your old professor.”[72] In 1922, Ravel completed his Sonata for Violin and Cello. Dedicated to Debussy’s memory, the work features the thinner texture popular with the younger postwar composers.[73]

The English, in particular, lauded Ravel, as the Times reported in 1923, “Since the death of Debussy, he has represented to English musicians the most vigorous current in modern French music. In reality, however, Ravel’s own music was no longer considered au courant in France. Satie had become the inspiring force for the new generation of French composers known as Les Six.[74] Ravel was fully aware of this, and was mostly effective in preventing a serious breach between his generation of musicians and the younger group.[75]

In the ferment of the post-war Paris cultural scene, music was being carried along by many currents. American influences played a strong part. Jazz particularly found its way into the cafes and into the public taste, and French composers including Ravel and Darius Milhaud were applying jazz elements to their work.[76] Also in vogue was a return to simplicity in orchestration and a move away from the mammoth scale of the works of Gustav Mahler and Richard Strauss. Stravinsky and Prokofiev were in ascent, and Schoenberg's experiments were leading music into atonality.[77] These trends posed challenges for Ravel, always a slow and deliberate composer, who desired to keep his music relevant but still revered the past. This may have played a part in his declining output and longer composing time during the 1920s.[78]

Around 1922, Ravel completed his famous orchestral arrangement of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exposition, commissioned by Serge Koussevitzsky, which through its widespread popularity brought Ravel great fame and substantial profit.[79] The first half of the 1920s was a particularly lean period for composing but Ravel did complete successful concert tours to Amsterdam, Milan, London, Madrid, and Vienna, which also boosted his fame. By 1925, by virtue of the unwelcomed pressure of a performance deadline, he finally finished his opera L’Enfant et les sortileges, with its significant jazz and ragtime accents. Famed writer Colette provided the libretto.[80] Around this time, he also completed Chansons madécasses, the summit of his vocal art. [81]

In 1927, Ravel’s string quartet received its first complete recording. By this time Ravel, like Edward Elgar, had become convinced of the importance of recording his works, especially with his input and direction. He made recordings in nearly every year from then until his death.[82] That same year, he completed and premiered his Sonata for Violin and Piano, his last chamber work, with its second movement (titled “Blues”) gaining much attention.[83]

[edit] American tour

Ravel at the piano, accompanied by Canadian singer Éva Gauthier, during his American tour, March 7, 1928. At far right is George Gershwin.

After two months of planning, in 1928 Ravel made a four month concert tour in North America, for a promised minimum of $10, 000.[84] In New York City, he received a moving standing ovation, unlike any of his stormy premieres in Paris. His all-Ravel concert in Boston was equally acclaimed.[85] Noted critic Olin Downes wrote, “Mr. Ravel has pursued his way as an artist quietly and very well. He has disdained superficial or meretricious effects. He has been his own most unsparing critic.”[86] Ravel conducted most of the leading orchestras in the U.S. from coast-to-coast and visited twenty-five cities. [87]

He also met George Gershwin in New York and went with him to hear jazz in Harlem, likely hearing many of the jazz greats including Duke Ellington.[88] There is a story that when American composer George Gershwin met Ravel, he mentioned that he would have liked to study with the French composer. According to Gershwin, the Frenchman retorted, "Why do you want to become a second-rate Ravel when you are already a first-rate Gershwin?"[89]The second part of the story has Ravel asking Gershwin how much money he made. Upon hearing Gershwin's reply, Ravel suggested that maybe he should study with Gershwin. (This tale may well be apocryphal: Gershwin seems also to have told a near-identical story about a conversation with Arnold Schoenberg, some have claimed it was with Igor Stravinsky. (See George Gershwin) In any event, this had to have been before Ravel wrote Boléro which became financially very successful for him.

Ravel then visited New Orleans and imbibed the jazz scene there as well. His admiration of American jazz, increased by his American visit, led him to include some jazz elements in a few of his later compositions, especially the two piano concertos. The great success of his American tour thrust Ravel to the peak of his international fame.[90]

[edit] Final years

After returning to France, 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”.[91] He stated his idea for the piece, “I am going to try to repeat it a number of times on different orchestral levels but without any development.”[92] He conceived of it as an accompaniment to a ballet and not as an orchestral piece as, in his own opinion, “it has no music in it”, and was somewhat taken aback by it popular success.[93] A public dispute erupted with conductor Arturo Toscanini. The Italian maestro, taking liberties with Ravel’s strict instructions, conducted the piece at a faster tempo and with an “accelerando at the finish”. Ravel insisted “I don’t ask for my music to be interpreted, but only that it should be played.” In the end, the feuding only helped to increase the work’s fame. A Hollywood film titled Bolero (1934), starring Carole Lombard and George Raft, made major use of the theme.[94] Ravel made one of his few recordings of his own performance when he conducted his Boléro with the Lamoureux Orchestra in 1930.

Remarkably, Ravel composed both of his piano concertos at the same time, one dark and powerful, the other bright and buoyant. ”[95] 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. Ravel was inspired by the technical challenges of the project. As Ravel stated, “In a work of this kind, it is essential to give the impression of a texture no thinner than that of a part written for both hands.”[96] At the premiere of the work, Ravel—not proficient enough to perform the work with only his left hand—played two-handed and Wittgenstein was reportedly underwhelmed by it. But later Wittgenstein stated, “Only much later, after I’d studied the concerto for months, did I become fascinated by it and realized what a great work it was.” [97] In 1933, Wittgenstein played the work in concert for the first time to instant acclaim.[98] One critic wrote, “From the opening measures, we are plunged into a world in which Ravel has but rarely introduced us.”[99]

The other piano concerto was completed a year later and its lighter tone follows the models of Mozart, Domenico Scarlatti, and Camille Saint-Saëns, and also makes use of jazz-like themes. [100] Ravel dedicated the work to his favorite pianist Marguerite Long, who played it and popularized it across Europe in over twenty cities, and they recorded it together in 1932.[101] EMI later reissued the 1932 recording on LP and CD. Although Ravel was listed as the conductor on the original 78-rpm discs, it is possible he merely supervised the recording.

Ravel, ever modest, was bemused by the critics suddenly shift to his side since 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.” [102]

[edit] Illness and death

In 1932, Ravel suffered a major blow to the head in a taxi accident. This injury was not considered serious at the time.[103] However, afterwards he began to experience aphasia-like symptoms and was frequently absent-minded.[104] He had begun work on music for a film, Adventures of Don Quixote (1933) from Cervantes's celebrated novel, featuring the Russian bass Feodor Chaliapin and directed by G. W. Pabst. When Ravel became unable to compose, and could not write down the musical ideas he heard in his mind, Pabst hired Jacques Ibert. However, three songs for baritone and orchestra that Ravel composed for the film were later published under the title Don Quichotte a Dulcinée, and have been performed and recorded.[105]

On April 8, 2008, the New York Times published an article saying Ravel may have been in the early stages of frontotemporal dementia in 1928, and this might account for the repetitive nature of Boléro.[106] This is in line with an earlier article, published in a journal of neurology, that closely examines Ravel's clinical history and argues that his works Boléro and Piano Concerto for the Left Hand both indicate the impacts of neurological disease.[107]

This is contradicted somewhat, however, by the earlier cited comments by Ravel about how he created the deliberately repetitious theme for Boléro.

In late 1937, Ravel consented to experimental brain surgery. One hemisphere of his brain was re-inflated with serous fluid. He awoke from the surgery, called for his brother Edouard, lapsed into a coma and died shortly afterwards at the age of 62. Ravel probably died as a result of a brain injury caused by an automobile accident and not from a brain tumor as some believe.[108] This confusion may arise because his friend George Gershwin had died from a brain tumor only five months earlier. Ravel was buried with his parents in a granite tomb at the cemetery at Levallois-Perret, a suburb of northwest Paris.

[edit] Personal life

Ravel is not known to have had any intimate relationships. However, his sophisticated and self-possessed persona was balanced with his enthusiasm and empathy with children and animals.[109] Many of his friends have suggested that Ravel was known to frequent the bordellos of Paris, but the issue of his sexuality remains largely a mystery. Rumors have surfaced from time to time that Ravel was homosexual, possibly because of his association with Diaghilev. No factual (or reliably anecdotal) evidence has ever been found to substantiate this rumor. Ravel made a remark at one time suggesting that because he was such a perfectionist composer, so devoted to his work, that he could never have a lasting intimate relationship with anyone.[110] He is quoted as saying "The only love affair I have ever had was with music".[111]

[edit] Musical sources

Active in a period of great artistic innovations and diversification, Ravel benefited from many sources and influences, though his music defies any facile classification. As Vladimir Jankélévitch notes in his biography, "no influence can claim to have conquered him entirely […]. Ravel remains ungraspable behind all these masks which the snobbery of the century has attempted to impose."[112] Ravel's musical language was ultimately highly original, neither absolutely modernist nor impressionist. Like Debussy, Ravel categorically refused this description of “impressionist” which he believed was reserved exclusively for painting.[113]

Ravel was very open to musical ideas and was a remarkable synthesist of disparate styles. Ravel’s music matured early into his innovative and distinct style. As a student, he methodically studied the scores of composers of the past, as he stated, “in order to know one’s own craft, one must study the craft of others.”[114] Though drawn in the direction of the new French music, in his youth Ravel still felt connected to the older French styles of Cesar Franck and the Romanticism of Beethoven and Richard Wagner. He struggled early to overcame any natural tendencies to mimic traditional forms and quickly forged a new path that only hinted at the musical past.[115] Or as Viñes put it, discussing Ravel’s aesthetics (not his religion):

“He is, moreover, very complicated, there being in him a mixture of Middle Ages Catholicism and satanic impiety, but also a love of Art and Beauty which guide him and which make him react candidly.”[116]

Certain aspects of his music can be considered to fall into the lineage of 18th century French classicism beginning with Couperin and Rameau as in Le tombeau de Couperin. The uniquely 19th century French sensibilities of Fauré and Chabrier are reflected in Sérénade grotesque, Pavane pour une infante défunte, and Menuet antique, while pieces such as Jeux d’eau, and the String Quartet owe something to the innovations of Satie and Debussy. The virtuosity and poetry of Gaspard de la nuit and Concerto pour la main gauche hint at Liszt and Chopin. His admiration and interest in American jazz is echoed in L’Enfant et les sortilèges, Sonate pour violon and the Piano Concerto in G, while the Russian school of music inspired homage in In the style of Borodin and the orchestration of Pictures at an Exhibition. Additionally, he variously cited Mozart, Saint-Saëns, Schubert and Schönberg as inspirations for various pieces.

[edit] Musical style

Ravel's music was innovative, though he did not follow the contemporary trend towards atonality, as pioneered by Schoenberg. Instead, he applied the aesthetics of the new French school of Chabrier, Satie, and particularly Debussy. Ravel's compositions rely upon modal melodies instead of using the major or minor scales for their predominant harmonic language. He preferred modes with major or minor flavors – for example the Mixolydian (with its flatted 7th degree) instead of the major, and the Aeolian instead of the harmonic minor. As a result, there are virtually no leading tones in his output. Melodically, he tended to favor two modes: the Dorian and the Phrygian.[117] Following the teachings of Gédalge, Ravel placed high importance on melody, once stating to Vaughan Williams, that there is “an implied melodic outline in all vital music.”[118]

In no way dependent on exclusively traditional modal practices, Ravel used extended harmonies and intricate modulations. He was fond of chords of the ninth and eleventh, and the acidity of his harmonies is largely the result of a fondness for unresolved appoggiaturas (listen to the Valses nobles et sentimentales).[119] He was inspired by various dances, his favorite being the minuet. Other forms from which Ravel drew material include the forlane, rigaudon, waltz, czardas, habanera, passacaglia, and the boléro.

He believed that composers should be aware of both individual and national consciousness. For him, Basque music was highly influential. He intended to write an earlier concerto, Zazpiak Bat, but it was never finished. The title reflects his Basque heritage: meaning 'The Seven Are One', it refers to the seven Basque regions, and was a motto often used in connection with the idea of a Basque nation.[120] Instead, Ravel abandoned the piece, using its nationalistic themes and rhythms in some of his other pieces. Ravel also used other folk themes including Hebraic, Greek, and Hungarian.[121]

Ravel has almost always been considered one of the two great French impressionist composers, the other being Debussy. In reality Ravel is much more than an Impressionist. For example, he made extensive use of rollicking jazz tunes in his Piano Concerto in G in the first and third movements.[122] Ravel also imitates Paganini’s and Liszt’s virtuoso gypsy themes and technique in Tzigane.[123] In his A la maniere de...Borodine (In the manner of...Borodine), Ravel plays with the ability to both mimic and remain original. In a more complex situation, A la maniere de...Emmanuel Chabrier /Paraphrase sur un air de Gounod ("Faust IIème acte"), Ravel takes on a theme from Gounod's Faust and arranges it in the style of Emmanuel Chabrier. He also composed short pieces in the manner of Haydn and his teacher Fauré. [124] Even in writing in the style of others, Ravel's own voice as a composer remained distinct.

Ravel considered himself in many ways a classicist. He often relied on traditional forms, such as the A-B-A form, as well as traditional structures as ways of presenting his new melodic and rhythmic content, and his innovative harmonies.[125] Ravel stated, “If I were called upon to do so, I would ask to be allowed to identify myself with the simple pronouncements made by Mozart…He confined himself to saying that there is nothing that music can not undertake to do, or dare, or portray, provided it continues to charm and always remain music.”[126] He often masked the sections of his structure with transitions that disguised the beginnings of the motif. This is apparent in his Valses nobles et sentimentales — inspired by Franz Schubert's collections, Valses nobles and Valses sentimentales — where the seven movements begin and end without pause, and in his chamber music where many movements are in sonata-allegro form, hiding the change from developmental sections to recapitulation.[127]

From his own experience, Ravel was cognizant of the effect of new music on the ears of the public and he insightfully wrote:

”On the initial performance of a new musical composition, the first impression of the public is generally one of reaction to the more superficial elements of it music, that is to say, to its external manifestations rather than to its inner content…often it is not until years after, when the means of expression have finally surrendered all their secrets, that the real inner emotion of the music becomes apparent to the listener.”[128]

[edit] Methods

His own composing method was craftsman-like and constantly aimed at perfection. Igor Stravinsky once referred to Ravel as "the most perfect of Swiss Watchmakers", a reference to the intricacy and precision of Ravel's works.[129] Ravel might work on a piece over several years to hone it to the best possible result, “My objective, therefore, 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.”[130]

More specifically 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.” [131]

Many of his most innovative compositions were first worked out as piano music. Ravel used this miniaturist approach to build up his architecture with many finely wrought strokes. To fill the requirements of larger works, he multiplied the number of small building blocks.[132] This demonstrates the high regard he had for the piano traditions of Scarlatti, Couperin, Mozart, Chopin and Liszt.[133] For example, Gaspard de la nuit can be viewed as an extension of Liszt’s virtuosity and advanced harmonics.[134] Even Ravel’s most difficult pieces, however, are marked by elegance and refinement. Walter Gieseking found some of Ravel’s piano works to be among the most difficult pieces for the instrument but always based on “musically perfectly logical concepts”; not just technically demanding but also requiring the right expression.[135]

Ravel’s high regard as an orchestrator is also based on his thorough methods. He usually notated the string parts first and insisted that the string section “sound perfectly in and of itself”.[136] In writing for the other sections, he often preferred to score “in tutti” to produce a full, clear resonance. To add surprise and added color, the melody might start with one instrument and be continued with another.[137]

Because of his perfectionism and methods, Ravel’s musical output over four decades is quite small. Most of his works were thought out over considerable lengths of time, then noted quickly, and painstakingly refined.[138] When a piece would not progress, he would abandon a piece until inspired anew.[139] 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.[140] Though wide-ranging in his music, Ravel avoided the symphonic form as well as religious themes and forms.[141]

Ravel crafted his manuscripts meticulously, and relentlessly polished and corrected them. He destroyed hundreds of sketches and even re-copied entire autographs to correct one mistake. Unfortunately, early printed editions of his works were prone to errors so he painstakingly worked with his publisher, Durand, in correcting them.[142]

[edit] Pianist and conductor

Though a competent pianist, Ravel decided early on to have virtuosi, like Richard Viñes, premiere and perform his work. As his career evolved, however, Ravel was again called upon to play his own piano music, and to conduct his larger works, particularly on tour, both of which he considered chores in the same mold as “circus performances”. Only rarely did he conduct works of other composers.[143] One London critic stated “His baton is not the magician’s wand of a virtuoso conductor. He just stood there beating time and keeping watch.”[144] As to how his music was to be played, Ravel was always clear and direct with his instructions.[145]

[edit] Musical influence

Ravel was always a supporter of young musicians, through his society and association connections, and through his personal individual advice and his help in securing performance dates. His closest students included Maurice Delage, Manuel Rosenthal, Ralph Vaughan Williams, Roland-Manuel and Vlado Perlemuter.[146] Ravel modeled his teaching methods after his own teacher Fauré, avoiding formulas and emphasizing individualism. Ravel’s preferred way to teaching would be to have a conversation with his students and demonstrate his points at the piano. He was rigorous and demanding in teaching counterpoint and fugue, as he revered Johann Sebastian Bach without reservation. But in all other areas, he considered Mozart the ideal, with the perfect balance between “classical symmetry and the element of surprise”, and with works of clarity, perfect craftsmanship, and measured amounts of lyricism. Often Ravel would challenge a student with “what would Mozart do”, then ask the student to invent his own solution.[147]

Though never a paid critic as Debussy had been, Ravel had firm opinions on historical and contemporary music and musicians, which influenced his younger contemporaries. In creating his own music, he tended to avoid the more monumental composers as models, finding relatively little kinship with or inspiration from Beethoven, Brahms, Tchaikovsky, Berlioz, and Franck. However, as an outspoken commentator on the Romantic giants, he found much of Beethoven “exasperating”, Wagner’s influence “pernicious” and Berlioz’s harmony “clumsy”. He had considerable admiration for other 19th century masters such as Chopin, Liszt, Felix Mendelssohn, and Franz Schubert.[148] Despite their technical deficiencies, Ravel was a strong advocate of Russian music and praised their spontaneity, orchestral color, and exoticism.[149]

Audio samples of Ravel's music

[edit] Notable compositions

[edit] Media Depictions

  • Canadian filmmaker Larry Weinstein has produced two documentaries about Ravel, Ravel (1987)[150] and Ravel's Brain (2001).[151] The second of these two films dramatizes the musician's illness and death.

[edit] References

  1. ^ Kavanaugh, Patrick (1996). "Orchestra Music". Music of the Great Composers: A Listener's Guide to the Best of Classical Music. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan. p. 56. ISBN 0310208076. OCLC 34149901. 
  2. ^ Henley, Jon (2001-04-25). "Poor Ravel". The Guardian.,3604,477906,00.html. Retrieved on 2008-08-12. 
  3. ^ Joseph is sometimes described inaccurately as “Swiss”, Burnett James, Ravel, Omnibus Press, London, 1987, p. 11, ISBN 0-7119-0987-3
  4. ^ James, 1987, p. 13
  5. ^ Arbie Orenstein, Ravel: Man and Musician, Dover, New York, 1991, p. 10, ISBN0-486-26633-8
  6. ^ Orenstein, 1991, p. 130
  7. ^ Orenstein, 1991, p. 8
  8. ^ Orenstein, 1991, p. 8
  9. ^ Orenstein, 1991, p. 11
  10. ^ Orenstein, 1991, pp. 11-12
  11. ^ James, 1987, p. 15
  12. ^ Orenstein, 1991, p. 16
  13. ^ Orenstein, 1991, p. 14
  14. ^ Orenstein, 1991, p. 14
  15. ^ Orenstein, 1991, p. 16
  16. ^ James, 1987, p. 22
  17. ^ Orenstein, 1991, p. 111
  18. ^ Orenstein, 1991, p. 111
  19. ^ James, 1987, p. 22
  20. ^ Orenstein, 1991, p. 110
  21. ^ James, 1987, p. 20
  22. ^ James, 1987, p. 21
  23. ^ James, 1987, p. 101
  24. ^ Orenstein, 1991, p. 17
  25. ^ Orenstein, 1991, p. 24
  26. ^ Orenstein, 1991, p. 25
  27. ^ Orenstein, 1991, p. 28
  28. ^ Orenstein, 1991, p. 29
  29. ^ Orenstein, 1991, p. 37
  30. ^ James, 1987, p. 33
  31. ^ Orenstein, 1991, p. 39, 155
  32. ^ James, 1987, p. 40
  33. ^ James, 1987, p. 40, 46
  34. ^ Orenstein, 1991, p. 31
  35. ^ James, 1987, p. 33
  36. ^ Orenstein, 1991, p. 127
  37. ^ James, 1987, pp. 30-31
  38. ^ Orenstein, 1991, p. 33
  39. ^ James, 1987, p. 20
  40. ^ Orenstein, 1991, p. 127
  41. ^ James, 1987, p. 46
  42. ^ James, 1987, pp. 30-31
  43. ^ James, 1987, p. 46
  44. ^ Orenstein, 1991, p. 67
  45. ^ James, 1987, p. 44
  46. ^ Orenstein, 1991, p. 163
  47. ^ Orenstein, 1991, p. 166
  48. ^ Orenstein, 1991, p. 39
  49. ^ Orenstein, 1991, p. 169
  50. ^ Orenstein, 1991, p. 171
  51. ^ James, 1987, p. 61
  52. ^ James, 1987, p. 62
  53. ^ Orenstein, 1991, p. 65
  54. ^ James, 1987, p. 65
  55. ^ Orenstein, 1991, p. 65
  56. ^ Orenstein, 1991, p. 60
  57. ^ James, 1987, pp. 71-72
  58. ^ Orenstein, 1991, p. 177
  59. ^ James, 1987, p. 72
  60. ^ James, 1987, p. 79
  61. ^ James, 1987, p. 78
  62. ^ James, 1987, p. 83
  63. ^ James, 1987, p. 81
  64. ^ James, 1987, p. 81
  65. ^ James, 1987, p. 83
  66. ^ James, 1987, p. 86
  67. ^ Orenstein, 1991, p. 78
  68. ^ Schonberg, Harold C. (1981). The Lives of the Great Composers (revised ed.). New York, London: W.W. Norton. p. 486. ISBN 0393013022. OCLC 6278261. 
  69. ^ Orenstein, 1991, p. 77
  70. ^ Orenstein, 1991, p. 81
  71. ^ Orenstein, 1991, pp. 82-83
  72. ^ Orenstein, 1991, p. 82
  73. ^ Orenstein, 1991, p. 82
  74. ^ James, 1987, p. 99
  75. ^ James, 1987, p. 99
  76. ^ James, 1987, p. 101
  77. ^ Orenstein, 1991, p. 84
  78. ^ Orenstein, 1991, p. 84
  79. ^ James, 1987, p. 101
  80. ^ James, 1987, p. 108
  81. ^ Orenstein, 1991, p. 197
  82. ^ James, 1987, p. 118
  83. ^ Orenstein, 1991, p. 93
  84. ^ James, 1987, p. 118
  85. ^ Orenstein, 1991, p. 94
  86. ^ James, 1987, p. 119
  87. ^ Orenstein, 1991, p. 95
  88. ^ Orenstein, 1991, p. 97
  89. ^ Smith, Jane Stuart; Betty Carlson (1995). The Gift of Music: Great Composers and Their Influence (3 ed.). Wheaton IL: Crossway Books. p. 272. ISBN 089107869X. OCLC 32820672. 
  90. ^ Orenstein, 1991, p. 98
  91. ^ Orenstein, 1991, p. 201
  92. ^ James, 1987, p. 121
  93. ^ James, 1987, p. 121
  94. ^ Orenstein, 1991, p. 99
  95. ^ James, 1987, p. 125
  96. ^ James, 1987, p. 126
  97. ^ Orenstein, 1991, p. 101
  98. ^ Orenstein, 1991, p. 104
  99. ^ Orenstein, 1991, p. 104
  100. ^ Orenstein, 1991, pp. 204-5
  101. ^ Orenstein, 1991, p. 103
  102. ^ Orenstein, 1991, p. 104
  103. ^ James, 1987, p. 132
  104. ^ Orenstein, 1991, p. 105
  105. ^ James, 1987, p. 132
  106. ^ Blakeslee, Sandra (2008-04-08). "A Disease That Allowed Torrents of Creativity". New York Times. Retrieved on 2008-08-10. 
  107. ^ Amaducci, L.; E. Grassi, and F. Boller (January 2002). "Maurice Ravel and right-hemisphere musical creativity: influence of disease on his last musical works?". European Journal of Neurology (subscription access) 9 (1): 75–82. doi:10.1046/j.1468-1331.2002.00351.x. ISSN 13515101. 
  108. ^ James, 1987, p. 136
  109. ^ Orenstein, 1991, p. 113
  110. ^ Orenstein, 1991, p.112
  111. ^ Limelight, July 2008, p. 11.
  112. ^ Jankélévitch, Vladimir (1995). Ravel. Solfèges (Nouv. éd., rev. et augm ed.). Paris: Seuil. pp. 7–8. ISBN 2020234904. OCLC 33209653. 
  113. ^ Ravel, Maurice (1989). Lettres, écrits, entretiens. Orenstein, Arbie, ed.. Paris: Flammarion. p. 327. ISBN 2080661035. OCLC 20025651. "Si vous me demandez si nous avons une école impressionniste en musique, je dois dire que je n'ai jamais associé ce terme à la musique. La peinture, ah, ça, c'est autre chose! Monet et son école étaient impressionnistes. Mais dans l'art sœur, il n'y a pas d'équivalent à cela."  Interview extract printed in Musical Digest, March 1928.
  114. ^ Orenstein, 1991, p. 18
  115. ^ James, 1987, p. 22
  116. ^ Orenstein, 1991, p. 18
  117. ^ Orenstein, 1991, p. 131
  118. ^ Orenstein, 1991, p. 131
  119. ^ Orenstein, 1991, p. 132
  120. ^ James, 1987, p. 75
  121. ^ Orenstein, 1991, p. 190
  122. ^ Orenstein, 1991, p. 203
  123. ^ Orenstein, 1991, p. 193
  124. ^ Orenstein, 1991, p. 192
  125. ^ Orenstein, 1991, p. 135
  126. ^ Orenstein, 1991, pp. 117-8
  127. ^ Orenstein, 1991, p. 134
  128. ^ Orenstein, 1991, p. 217
  129. ^ James, 1987, p. 103
  130. ^ Orenstein, 1991, p. 118
  131. ^ James, 1987, p. 103
  132. ^ Orenstein, 1991, p. 135
  133. ^ Orenstein, 1991, p. 136
  134. ^ James, 1987, p. 30
  135. ^ Orenstein, 1991, p. 136
  136. ^ Orenstein, 1991, p. 137
  137. ^ Orenstein, 1991, p. 138
  138. ^ Orenstein, 1991, p. 208
  139. ^ Orenstein, 1991, p. 209
  140. ^ Orenstein, 1991, p. 130
  141. ^ Orenstein, 1991, p. 139
  142. ^ Orenstein, 1991, p. 208
  143. ^ Orenstein, 1991, p. 92
  144. ^ Orenstein, 1991, p. 87
  145. ^ Orenstein, 1991, p. 87
  146. ^ Orenstein, 1991, p. 112
  147. ^ Orenstein, 1991, p. 120
  148. ^ Orenstein, 1991, p. 123
  149. ^ Orenstein, 1991, p. 125
  150. ^ Weinstein, Larry (Director). (1988). Ravel [Videotape]. Toronto: Rhombus Media. OCLC 156633524. Abstract: Follows Ravel's life and career through the presentation of his many works by the Montreal Symphony Orchestra.
  151. ^ Weinstein, Larry (Director). (2001). Ravel's Brain [Videotape]. Oley, PA: Bullfrog Films. Produced by Rhombus Media. ISBN 1560299045. OCLC 48513895. Abstract: The film portrays the inner being of a great artist who was rendered incapable of communicating with the outside world. For the last five years of his life, Maurice Ravel was the victim of his own lamentable circumstances. Afflicted with aphasia and apraxia, his brain produced music, but he was unable to write it down.

[edit] Further reading

[edit] See also

[edit] External links

[edit] Free Scores

[edit] Miscellaneous

[edit] Recordings

NAME Ravel, Maurice
ALTERNATIVE NAMES Ravel, Joseph-Maurice
SHORT DESCRIPTION French composer and pianist
DATE OF BIRTH March 7, 1875
PLACE OF BIRTH Ciboure, France near Biarritz
DATE OF DEATH December 28, 1937

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