Ravel's Life & Works
Fastidious orchestrator whose work includes music of childlike innocence and urbane sophistication.
(1875 - 1937)
Early Life and Career
The poet Tristan Klingsor got closer than many to summing up this most contradictory of men when he wrote in one of his Humoresques of 'The ironic and tender heart that beats/Under the velvet waistcoat of Maurice Ravel'. On the one hand, there is his physical appearance: compact in stature, fastidiously dressed, perfectly turned out. On the other, there is his character: he could be sharp, sometimes barbed, in his witty ripostes, although friends write time and again of his generosity and warmth of spirit.
Ravel was a man who delighted in mechanical toys and things in miniature but who also loved cats and nature. A man who was a great mimic and a generous host but also an intensely private person. These contrary characteristics flavour his music too. He had a great appetite for fantasy and fairytales, worked with immense detail (part of the reason why he was such a supreme orchestrator) but he also loved the mechanics of music.
He orchestrated many of his piano pieces, but the result is not like comparing a colour photograph to a black and white original. In the piano version of a piece such as Valses nobles et sentimentales you can hear the sinews, the muscles, the rhythms that breathe life into the music; in the orchestral version you are seduced by the colouristic skill. Ravel was arguably the greatest French conjurer of orchestral colour after Rameau and Berlioz, even taking Debussy into consideration.
He was born in the Basque region of France, although he moved to Paris while still a baby. His mother was of Basque descent, a heritage which Ravel celebrated in several works. His Swiss father was an engineer who encouraged his son to take piano lessons, which he did at the age of seven, and harmony lessons later on.
Based on an ostinato rhythm, with sinuous solos for woodwind and a violent climax, Boléro became Ravel's most popular work.
Daphnis et Chloé
'Symphonie choréographique' whose languid atmosphere builds inexorably towards a pantomime for Pan and Syrinx and an ecstatic dance of celebration.
Gaspard de la nuit
Three mesmerising realisations of Aloysius Bertrand's poetry: cascading water ('Ondine'), the swaying of a hangman's noose ('Le gibet') and the manic gyrations of a ghostly imp ('Scarbo').
Ravel's choreographic poem La valse is a magnificently sinister creation in which the dancers gradually gather momentum before hurling themselves from the dance floor into oblivion.
Dazzling suite of five pieces ranging from the sun-drenched virtuosity of Alborada del gracioso to the intimate evocation of birdsong and tolling bells in Oiseaux tristes and La vallée des cloches.
Fourth and most extrovert of the Miroirs, 'Alborada' means 'song of the dawn', a type of serenade common in Northern Spain, while 'Gracioso' refers to the jester of the Hispanic world.
Pavane pour une infante défunte
After enduring a particularly soporific rendition of his 'Pavane for a Dead Princess' in the original piano version, Ravel reminded the performer: 'It is the princess who has died - not the Pavane!'
Piano Concerto for the Left Hand
The dark side of Ravel's psyche surfaces in the Left-Hand Piano Concerto, written for the Viennese pianist Paul Wittgenstein, whose right arm was amputated after an injury in the First World War.
Piano Concerto in G
The G major Piano Concerto is a work of exuberance and optimism, its bubbly, jazz-inflected outer movements offset by a dreamy central Adagio inspired by Mozart.
Dazzling showpiece in the popular gypsy style, composed for the Hungarian violinist Jelly d'Arányi, of whose playing Ravel excitedly remarked: 'I don't know what she's doing - but I like it!'
Student Life and First Compositions
Ravel entered the Paris Conservatoire in 1889 aged 14. It was an important experience, not least for the start of his friendship with Ricardo Viñes, a pianist who became a great champion of French contemporary music. Equally vital to his development were his experiences outside the institution. 1889 was the year of the Exposition Universelle, the 'world fair' in which a Javanese gamelan was one of the highlights. Concerts conducted by Rimsky-Korsakov were to prove equally seminal for Ravel.
He left the conservatoire in 1895 and produced several pieces that are recognisably Ravelian, not least the Menuet antique. But he felt his education to be incomplete and re-entered in 1897, studying with Gabriel Fauré and Maurice Gédalge but learning little from either. He persevered until 1903, making several attempts at the coveted Prix de Rome. It continued to elude him until he finally admitted defeat in 1905, overlooked for the fifth time, whereupon a tremendous uproar blew up.
Ravel's supporters levelled accusations of reactionary attitudes at the establishment, and the conservatoire's director eventually resigned. But Ravel did not need the boost of success, as the works from these years show: the Pavane pour une infante défunte (1899); the glitteringly Lisztian Jeux d'eau of 1901 (something of a wake-up call for the older Debussy, who responded with 'Jardins sous la pluie', the last of his piano Estampes); the String Quartet and the song cycle Shéhérazade (both 1903).
Ravel was a composer who seems to have delighted in addressing the opposing sides of his nature with opposing works - not just the Classical quartet and the sensuous Shéhérazade, but the contrasting piano concertos of his later career. His musical wit is sometimes overlooked, but his one-act opera L'heure espagnole is an affectionate send-up of both Spanish music and the operas of Offenbach.
It is just one in a dazzling array of masterpieces from Ravel's pre-war years, including the orchestral Rapsodie espagnole, his piano masterpiece Gaspard de la nuit and many songs. With Diaghilev's arrival in Paris with the Ballets Russes in 1909 came a commission for what became Ravel's most substantial score, Daphnis et Chloé. Again, Classicism (this time of the Greek variety) rubs shoulders with opulence (in the orchestral writing), demonstrated by one of the most ravishing depictions of sunrise in all music. By the time he finally finished the score in 1912, he had also composed two other ballets, Ma mère l'oye ('Mother Goose') and Valses nobles et sentimentales.
Nationalism and Masterworks
The First World War provoked a patriotic fervour in Ravel. The musical consequences of this included the piano suite Le tombeau de Couperin and the Trois Chansons for chorus. He enlisted as a driver, being too weak for active service. But the great tragedy of Ravel's war occurred not on the battlefields but with the death of his mother, with whom he had enjoyed a particularly close relationship, in 1917.
After the war, the still grief-stricken Ravel orchestrated Le tombeau (for yet another ballet) and in 1919 returned to a project he had been contemplating since before the war, La valse. His original idea had been to create a story looking back to the Viennese ballrooms of late-19th-century Vienna. But following the agonies of war, his world view had changed considerably and the resulting waltz swirls cataclysmically towards the abyss, conveying a darkness at which earlier works had hinted but never realised as profoundly as here. It was intended for Diaghilev but at its play-through the impresario politely rejected it with the comment: 'Ravel, it's a masterpiece but it isn't a ballet. It's a portrait of a ballet, a painting of a ballet'. Ballet or not, it remains one of Ravel's supreme achievements.
Ravel left Paris, acquiring in 1921 a house in Montfort-l'Amaury which he furnished with his characteristic style and attention to detail. It was here that he completed his second opera, L'enfant et les sortilèges ('The Child and the Magic Spells', 1920-25) with its cornucopia of styles, including a radiantly witty pastiche of ragtime. Here too he orchestrated Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition, which rapidly became a standard of the repertoire.
In 1928 came Boléro, a work whose instant fame Ravel grew to hate, dismissing it as 'a piece for orchestra without music'. He toured the USA, from which he returned to write two piano concertos, the bubbly G major Concerto and the profoundly troubled, even violent, Concerto for the Left Hand (for the pianist Paul Wittgenstein, who had lost his right arm in the war). A plangently beautiful set of songs, Don Quichotte à Dulcinée (1932-3), was his last new composition, written during the onset, following a traffic accident, of the brain troubles that were to kill him just five years later.