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The French Impressionist Composer, Maurice Ravel's Works and Life

Maurice Ravel: Overview

  • Born: 1875 - Ciboure, France
  • Died: 1937 - Paris, France
  • Historical Period: Modern, Impressionist, Modern
  • Musical Media: Orchestra, Chamber music, Keyboard, Choral, Ballet, Opera

Composer, Maurice Ravel

A prominent figure of Impressionism, Joseph-Maurice Ravel earned his reputation as a gifted composer of Swiss-Basque descent. Born in France on March 7, 1875, he is celebrated for works like Rapsodie espagnole, the ever-popular Boléro, Pavane pour une infante défunte, Daphnis et Chloé, and L’Enfant et les sortilèges. He is known to overwhelm his critics with the perfection of form and style, exquisite detailing, elegant construction, and crafty finish.

Maurice Ravel: The Proponent of Musical Liberalism

Young Maurice was quite lucky to get motivation from his parents when he started to show a lot of promise with his musical flair. When Maurice was seven years old, he started taking piano lessons with Henry Ghys. Five years later, it was Charles-René, who helped him study harmony, counterpoint, and composition.

At the age of fourteen, he applied for entry to Conservatoire de Paris, France's most reputed musical college. Playing music by Chopin there, he succeeded in entering the prefatory piano class held by Eugène Anthiome. He practiced enough to earn the first prize in the Conservatoire's piano competition in 1891. Under the guidance of Charles-Wilfrid de Bériot and Émile Pessard, he progressed further attending classes in piano and harmony. Subsequently, he earned notable success creating Sérénade grotesque for piano, and Ballade de la Reine morte d'aimer on a poem in 1893.

Like most geniuses, Ravel was a free-spirited soul. He loved to learn on his own terms - something that his later teacher Gabriel Fauré was well aware of. However, this was not entertained by the faculty members of the Conservatoire and this led to his expulsion after the failure to earn any more prizes.

By this time, he had realized that he would not make a great pianist and therefore concentrated on composition. Such notions led to the composition of Menuet Antique, his first published work in 1895. Thereon, he wrote Habanera, that was incorporated later into the Rapsodie espagnole. At this time, he was introduced to Erik Satie, a café pianist, whose musical experiments inspired Ravel remarkably.

In 1897, he was readmitted to the Conservatoire. Thereon, he studied composition with Fauré and practiced counterpoint with André Gedalge. It was a time when Ravel flourished significantly and worked substantially on works like Shéhérazade and Pavane pour une infante défunte. Unfortunately, the hostile treatment from the Conservatoire Director, Théodore Dubois, made him leave the place once again. However, as a former student, he was allowed to turn up at Fauré’s classes.

Around 1900, Maurice joined 'The Apaches' (The Hooligans) - a group of artists, musicians, poets and critics representing their status as "artistic outcasts". Until the beginning of the First World War, they met on a regular basis to exchange intellectual ideas and spend quality time together.

During the early 1900s, Ravel tried for Prix de Rome for several times with his fugue, cantata and choral pieces. Despite his unending endeavors, he failed to fulfill his desire on several occasions. It became even worse when he got barred from attempting any further after trying to qualify for the Prix de Rome in 1905. This created a furor over the role of the panel of judges, resulting in the resignation of Théodore Dubois. However, Ravel also left the Conservatoire by then.

Next, he composed a suite for solo piano, known as Miroirs. After this, he orchestrated Une barque sur l'océan and Alborada del gracioso. During this period, he worked for many notable works, premiering Histoires Naturelles in 1907. Ravel visited London in 1909 and played for the Société des Concerts Français, earning positive reviews for his work.

Returning home from England, he became enthusiastic about setting up Société Musicale Indépendente, having Gabriel Fauré as its president in 1910. Following this, he gained formidable success through the premiere of Ma mère l'Oye, L'heure espagnole, Adélaïde ou le langage des fleurs and Daphnis et Chloé in the next couple of years.

During the First World War, Ravel tried to enlist in the French Air Force. However, he ended up a being a lorry driver the 13th Artillery Regiment in March, 1915. There, he had to transport munitions at night under adverse situations, due to which, he eventually became a victim of insomnia and digestive problems. In the following winter, he felt the pain of frostbite in his feet. It was in 1917, when his mother passed away, that he started suffering from depression. Despite such hardships, he continued to work, and composed Le tombeau de Couperin, between 1914 and 1917, though in much-reduced volume.

In the post-war period, he completed La valse, that was unfortunately rejected by Sergei Diaghilev greatly due to that it was not being a ballet. However, La valse was later performed successfully by others. In the following years, he continued to work on several artistic pieces such as Sonata, Tableaux d'une, Tzigane, L'Enfant et les sortilèges, Chansons madécasses, and Boléro. Amongst all these masterpieces, Boléro got immense appreciation, premiering at the Paris Opéra in 1928. It is basically an orchestral piece which was composed as a ballet commissioned by Ida Rubinstein, a Russian dancer. Being a set of 18 orchestrations of an original two-part theme, it deliberately showed Ravel's experimental attitude. The soundtrack of Boléro is quite popular for intensifying the lovemaking scene in Blake Edwards’ film 10 (1979).

During 1928, his tour of North America brought good luck to him. While visiting there, he appeared with first-rate orchestras and the shows were warmly received. After this tour, he produced three works - Piano Concerto for the Left Hand, Piano Concerto in G Major, and Don Quichotte à Dulcinée.

The culminating years of Ravel’s life were clouded by several health issues. Although he was unable to write or perform anymore, he tried his best to remain socially active. In 1937, he was suspected of growing a tumor and this was diagnosed by Clovis Vincent, a neurosurgeon. After going through an operation, he slipped into a coma and died on the 28th of December in 1937. After two days, he was buried in a granite tomb at the cemetery at Levallois-Perret. At the moment of his final departure, eminent musicians and composers like Igor Stravinsky, Darius Milhaud, Francis Poulenc, and Lennox Berkeley were there to honor this musical maestro for the way he worshipped music throughout his life.


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