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Maurice Ravel

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Maurice Ravel

Ravel in 1925

Joseph-Maurice Ravel (March 7, 1875 – December 28, 1937) was a French composer known especially for his melodies, masterful orchestration, richly evocative harmonies and inventive instrumental textures and effects. Along with Claude Debussy, he was one of the most prominent figures associated with Impressionist music. Much of his piano music, chamber music, vocal music and orchestral music is part of the standard concert repertoire.

Ravel's piano compositions, such as Pictures at an Exhibition. Ravel is best known for his orchestral work Boléro (1928), which he once described as "a piece for orchestra without music".[1]

According to SACEM, as recently as 2009 Ravel has been on the list of the top 20 artists whose works have generated the most royalties abroad.[2]


  • Biography 1
    • Early life 1.1
    • Paris Conservatoire and early career 1.2
    • Ravel and Debussy 1.3
    • Early major works 1.4
    • Daphnis et Chloé 1.5
    • War years 1.6
    • 1920s 1.7
    • American tour 1.8
    • Final years 1.9
    • Illness and death 1.10
    • Personal life 1.11
    • Legacy 1.12
  • Musicality 2
    • Musical sources 2.1
    • Musical style 2.2
    • Methods 2.3
    • Pianist and conductor 2.4
    • Transcriber and orchestrator 2.5
  • Musical influence 3
  • Notable compositions 4
  • Media depictions 5
  • See also 6
  • Notes 7
  • References 8
  • Further reading 9
  • External links 10
    • Free scores 10.1
    • Miscellaneous 10.2
    • Recordings 10.3
    • Institutions 10.4


Early life

Birthplace of Maurice Ravel in Ciboure

Ravel was born in 1875, in the Basque town of Ciboure, France, near Biarritz, only 18 kilometers from the Spanish border. His mother, Marie Delouart, was Basque – according to Ravel's biographer, Roger Nichols, "illegitimate" and "practically illiterate"[3] – and had grown up in Madrid, Spain, while his father, Joseph Ravel, was an educated and successful engineer, a Swiss inventor and industrialist from French Haute-Savoie.[4] 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 success until a fatal accident at the Barnum & Bailey Circus in 1903.[5] Joseph delighted in taking his sons to factories to see the latest mechanical devices, and he also had a keen interest in music and culture.[6] Ravel substantiated his father's early influence by stating later, “As a child, I was sensitive to music—to every kind of music.”[7]

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.[8] The family moved to Paris three months after the birth of Maurice, and there his younger brother Édouard was born. Édouard became his father’s favorite and also became an engineer.[8] At age six, 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 obviously talented at the piano, Ravel demonstrated a preference for composing. He was particularly impressed by the new Russian works conducted by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov at the Exposition Universelle in 1889.[10][11] The foreign music at the exhibition also had a great influence on Ravel’s contemporaries Erik Satie, Emmanuel Chabrier, and most significantly Claude Debussy. Two years earlier Ravel had 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.[12] The students shared an appreciation for Richard Wagner, the Russian school, and the writings of Edgar Allan Poe, Charles Baudelaire, and Stéphane Mallarmé.[13]

Paris Conservatoire and early career

Piano class of Charles de Bériot in 1895 with Ravel on the left

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. His teachers included Émile Descombes. He received a first prize in the piano student competition in 1891.[14] 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 the café pianist Erik Satie, whose distinctive personality and unorthodox musical experiments proved influential.[13]

Ravel was not a "bohemian" and evidenced little of the typical trauma of adolescence. At twenty years of age, Ravel was already "self-possessed, a little aloof, intellectually biased, given to mild banter."[15] 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".[16] His large head seemed suitably matched to his great intellect. He was well-read and later accumulated a library of over 1,000 volumes.[16] 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.[15] He became a lifelong tobacco smoker in his youth, and he enjoyed strongly flavored meals, fine wine, and spirited conversation.[17]

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 Schumann.[21]

His first significant work, Habanera for two pianos, was later transcribed into the well-known third movement of his Rapsodie espagnole, which he dedicated to Charles-Wilfrid de Bériot, another of his professors at the Conservatoire. His first published work was Menuet antique, dedicated to and premiered by Viñes.[22] In 1899, Ravel conducted his first orchestral piece, Shéhérazade, ouverture de féerie, 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."[23] 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.[24]

Performed by Thérèse Dussaut.

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Around 1900, Ravel joined with a number of innovative young artists, poets, critics, and musicians who were referred to as the Apaches (hooligans), a name coined by Viñes to represent his band of "artistic outcasts".[25] 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.[26] One of the first works Ravel performed for the Apaches was Jeux d'eau, 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.[27]

During his years at the Conservatoire, Ravel tried numerous times to win the prestigious Prix de Rome, but to no avail; he was probably considered too radical by the conservatives, including Director Théodore Dubois.[28] Ravel's String Quartet in F, probably 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.[29] In 1905, Ravel's final year of eligibility for the Prix de Rome, Ravel did not even pass the preliminary test, despite being favored to win one of the two first prizes available.[30] 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.[31] Alfred Edwards, editor of Le Matin, who had taken particular interest in the incident, took Ravel on a seven-week canal trip on his yacht Aimée through the Low Countries in June and July 1905, the first time Ravel traveled abroad.[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]

Ravel and Debussy

Ravel met Debussy in the 1890s. Debussy was older than Ravel by twelve years and his pioneering Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune was 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 controversial public debut of his unconventional opera Pelléas et Mélisande, which garnered Debussy both fame and scorn.[28]

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.[35] 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 associated them more than the facts warranted.[36]

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.”[37] Ravel further stated, “I think I have always personally followed a direction opposed to that of the symbolism of Debussy.”[18]

They admired each other’s music and Ravel even played Debussy’s work in public on occasion. However, Ravel did criticize Debussy sometimes, particularly regarding his orchestration, and he once said, "If I had the time, I would reorchestrate La mer."[35]

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 caused personal estrangement.[38] As Ravel said, “It is probably better after all for us to be on frigid terms for illogical reasons.”[36] Ravel stoically absorbed superficial comparisons with Debussy promulgated by biased critics, including Pierre Lalo, an 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.”[38] During 1913, in a remarkable coincidence, both Ravel and Debussy independently produced and published musical settings for poems by Stéphane Mallarmé, again provoking comparisons of their work and their perceived influence on each other, which continued even after Debussy’s death five years later.[39]

Early major works

Ravel in 1906 (photograph by Pierre Petit)

The next of Ravel’s piano compositions to become famous 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.”[40] Next was his Histoires naturelles (Nature Stories), five humorous songs evoking the presence of five animals.[41] 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.[42] 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 Pierre Lalo (as usual) reacted negatively, calling it "laborious and pedantic".[43] 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.[44] The libretto was by Franc-Nohain, after his own comedy of the same name.

Ravel further extended his mastery of impressionistic piano music with Gaspard de la nuit, based on a collection of the same name by

  • International Academy of Music from Saint-Jean-de-Luz : Académie internationale de Musique Maurice Ravel de Saint-Jean-de-Luz
  • Maurice Ravel's Friends Society : Les Amis de Maurice Ravel


  • Piano Rolls (The Reproducing Piano Roll Foundation)
  • Maurice Ravel on Wikilivres


  • Ravel material in the BBC Radio 3 archives
  • Maurice Ravel featuring a track from Miroirs and Gaspard De La Nuit
  • Works by or about Maurice Ravel in libraries (WorldCat catalog)
  • Maurice Ravel at Find a Grave
  • The mystery of the missing Bolero millions – an artist's rights saga! – and a tale of greed?
  • Many quotations about Ravel's personality


Free scores

External links

  • "Maurice Ravel". Biography Resource Center (subscription required) (Farmington Hills, MI: Thomson Gale) 25 (Contemporary Musicians). 1999. 
  • Larner, Gerald (1996). Maurice Ravel. London:  
  • Marnat, Marcel (1986, rev 1995). Maurice Ravel. Paris:  
  • Mawer, Deborah, ed. (2000). The Cambridge Companion to Ravel. Cambridge Companions to Music. Cambridge:  
  • Nichols, Roger (2011). Ravel. New Haven and London:  

Further reading

  • 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 9 (1): 75–82.  
  • Blakeslee, Sandra (April 8, 2008). "A Disease That Allowed Torrents of Creativity". New York Times. Retrieved August 10, 2008. 
  • Henley, Jon (April 25, 2001). "Poor Ravel". The Guardian (UK). Retrieved August 12, 2008. 
  • Herenberg, Fabienne (2010). "Top sales in 2009 for SACEM". Neuilly sur Seine: Société des Auteurs Compositeurs et Editeurs de Musique (23 June). Retrieved August 12, 2014. 
  • James, Burnett (1987). Ravel.  
  • Kavanaugh, Patrick (1996). "Orchestra Music". Music of the Great Composers: A Listener's Guide to the Best of Classical Music. Grand Rapids, MI:  
  • Kelly, Barbara L. "Ravel, Maurice".  
  • Lamaze, David (2009). "The Watchmaker's Heart". Retrieved September 23, 2010. 
  • Lanford, Michael (2011). "Ravel and 'The Raven': The Realisation of an Inherited Aesthetic in Boléro." Cambridge Quarterly 40(3), 243-265.
  • Nichols, Roger (2011). Ravel.  
  • Orenstein, Arbie (1991). Ravel: man and musician.  
  • Ravel, Maurice (1989). Lettres, écrits, entretiens (in French). Orenstein, Arbie, ed. Paris:  
  • Siegel, Michele (March 1, 2009). "Florence Meyer Blumenthal". Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia. Retrieved September 23, 2010. 
  • Smith, Jane Stuart; Betty Carlson (1995). The Gift of Music: Great Composers and Their Influence (3 ed.). Wheaton IL:  
  • Weinstein, Larry (Director) (1988). Ravel (Videotape). Toronto: Rhombus Media.  
  • Weinstein, Larry (Director) (2001). Ravel's Brain (Videotape). Oley, PA: Bullfrog Films. Produced by Rhombus Media.  


  1. ^ Kavanaugh 1996, p. 56
  2. ^ Herenberg 2010
  3. ^ Nichols 2011, p. 6
  4. ^ James 1987, p. 11. Joseph is sometimes described inaccurately as Swiss.
  5. ^ James 1987, p. 13
  6. ^ Orenstein 1991, p. 10
  7. ^ a b Orenstein 1991, p. 130
  8. ^ a b Orenstein 1991, p. 8
  9. ^ Orenstein 1991, p. 11
  10. ^ Orenstein 1991, pp. 11–12
  11. ^ Nichols 2011, pp. 10-11
  12. ^ James 1987, p. 15
  13. ^ a b Orenstein 1991, p. 16
  14. ^ a b Orenstein 1991, p. 14
  15. ^ a b c James 1987, p. 22
  16. ^ a b Orenstein 1991, p. 111
  17. ^ Orenstein 1991, p. 110
  18. ^ a b James 1987, p. 20
  19. ^ a b Kelly
  20. ^ a b James 1987, p. 21
  21. ^ a b c James 1987, p. 101
  22. ^ Orenstein 1991, p. 17
  23. ^ Orenstein 1991, p. 24
  24. ^ Orenstein 1991, p. 25
  25. ^ Orenstein 1991, p. 28
  26. ^ Orenstein 1991, p. 29
  27. ^ Orenstein 1991, p. 37
  28. ^ a b James 1987, p. 33
  29. ^ Orenstein 1991, pp. 39, 155
  30. ^ Larner, pp. 76-78
  31. ^ James 1987, p. 40
  32. ^ Ravel and Holland on the Ravel website
  33. ^ James 1987, pp. 40, 46
  34. ^ Orenstein 1991, p. 31
  35. ^ a b Orenstein 1991, p. 127
  36. ^ a b James 1987, pp. 30–31
  37. ^ Orenstein 1991, p. 33
  38. ^ a b James 1987, p. 46
  39. ^ Orenstein 1991, p. 67
  40. ^ James 1987, p. 44
  41. ^ Orenstein 1991, p. 163
  42. ^ Orenstein 1991, p. 166
  43. ^ Orenstein 1991, p. 39
  44. ^ Orenstein 1991, p. 169
  45. ^ Orenstein 1991, p. 171
  46. ^ James 1987, p. 61
  47. ^ James 1987, p. 62
  48. ^ a b Orenstein 1991, p. 65
  49. ^ James 1987, p. 65
  50. ^ Orenstein 1991, p. 60
  51. ^ James 1987, pp. 71–72
  52. ^ Orenstein 1991, p. 177
  53. ^ James 1987, p. 72
  54. ^ James 1987, p. 79
  55. ^ Entretien avec Jean Echenoz et Philippe Barrot, La Quinzaine littéraire du 16 janvier 2006
  56. ^ James 1987, p. 78
  57. ^ a b James 1987, p. 83
  58. ^ a b James 1987, p. 81
  59. ^ the musicologist Joseph de Marliave, who during the war was a Captain in the French army.
  60. ^ James 1987, p. 86
  61. ^ Orenstein 1991, p. 78
  62. ^ Schonberg 1981, p. 486
  63. ^ Orenstein 1991, p. 77
  64. ^ Orenstein 1991, p. 81
  65. ^ Orenstein 1991, pp. 82–83
  66. ^ a b c Orenstein 1991, p. 82
  67. ^ a b James 1987, p. 99
  68. ^ a b Orenstein 1991, p. 84
  69. ^ James 1987, p. 108
  70. ^ Orenstein 1991, p. 197
  71. ^ a b James 1987, p. 118
  72. ^ Orenstein 1991, p. 93
  73. ^ Siegel 2009
  74. ^ Consumer Price Index (estimate) 1800–2014. Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis. Retrieved February 27, 2014.
  75. ^ Orenstein 1991, p. 94
  76. ^ James 1987, p. 119
  77. ^ Orenstein 1991, p. 95
  78. ^ Orenstein 1991, p. 97
  79. ^ Smith 1995, p. 272
  80. ^ Orenstein 1991, p. 98
  81. ^ Orenstein 1991, p. 201
  82. ^ a b James 1987, p. 121
  83. ^ Orenstein 1991, p. 99
  84. ^ James 1987, p. 125
  85. ^ James 1987, p. 126
  86. ^ Orenstein 1991, p. 101
  87. ^ a b c Orenstein 1991, p. 104
  88. ^ Orenstein 1991, pp. 204–5
  89. ^ Orenstein 1991, p. 103
  90. ^ a b James 1987, p. 132
  91. ^ Orenstein 1991, p. 105
  92. ^ Blakeslee 2008
  93. ^ Amaducci 2002, pp. 75–82
  94. ^ Jourdan-Morhange, Hélène. "Ravel et nous", Éditions du milieu du monde, 1945, p. 252
  95. ^ James 1987, p. 136
  96. ^
  97. ^ a b Orenstein 1991, p. 112
  98. ^ Nichols, Roger (1987). Ravel Remembered. London: Faber and Faber Limited. p. 35. 
  99. ^ Limelight 2008, p. 11
  100. ^ Nichols 2011, p. 117
  101. ^ Lamaze 2009
  102. ^ Lipkis, Larry (1 July 2000). Library Journal 125 (12): 97. 
  103. ^ Copyright Act / Loi sur le droit d’auteur 
  104. ^ "Jon Henley investigates Ravel's missing millions". The Guardian (London). May 8, 2001. 
  105. ^ Jankélévitch 1995, pp. 7–8
  106. ^ Ravel 1989, p. 327. "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.
  107. ^ a b Orenstein 1991, p. 18
  108. ^ a b Orenstein 1991, p. 131
  109. ^ Orenstein 1991, p. 132
  110. ^ James 1987, p. 75
  111. ^ Orenstein, 1991, p. 190
  112. ^ Orenstein 1991, p. 203
  113. ^ Orenstein 1991, p. 193
  114. ^ Orenstein 1991, p. 192
  115. ^ a b Orenstein 1991, p. 135
  116. ^ Orenstein 1991, pp. 117–8
  117. ^ Orenstein 1991, p. 134
  118. ^ Orenstein 1991, p. 217
  119. ^ a b James 1987, p. 103
  120. ^ Orenstein 1991, p. 118
  121. ^ Lanford, p. 245-246.
  122. ^ Lanford, p. 248-249.
  123. ^ a b Orenstein 1991, p. 136
  124. ^ James 1987, p. 30
  125. ^ Orenstein 1991, p. 137
  126. ^ Orenstein 1991, p. 138
  127. ^ a b Orenstein 1991, p. 208
  128. ^ Orenstein 1991, p. 209
  129. ^ Orenstein 1991, p. 139
  130. ^ Orenstein 1991, p. 92
  131. ^ a b Orenstein 1991, p. 87
  132. ^ Orenstein 1991, p. 120
  133. ^ Orenstein 1991, p. 123
  134. ^ Orenstein 1991, p. 125
  135. ^ Weinstein 1988. Abstract: Follows Ravel's life and career through the presentation of his many works by the Montreal Symphony Orchestra.
  136. ^ Weinstein 2001. 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.


See also

  • Canadian filmmaker Larry Weinstein has produced two documentaries about Ravel, Ravel (1987)[135] and Ravel's Brain (2001).[136] The second of these two films dramatizes the musician's illness and death.
  • Maurice Ravel is played as a "bit role" by actor Gershwin film biography Rhapsody in Blue.
  • Radiolab – Unraveling Bolero

Media depictions

Notable compositions

Though never a paid critic as Debussy had been, Ravel had strong 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 or 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, Mendelssohn, and Schubert.[133] Despite what he considered its technical deficiencies, Ravel was a strong advocate of Russian music and praised its spontaneity, orchestral color, and exoticism.[134]

Ravel was always a supporter of young musicians, through his society and associations and through his personal individual advice and his help in securing performance dates. His closest students included Maurice Delage, Manuel Rosenthal, Ralph Vaughan Williams, Alexis Roland-Manuel and Vlado Perlemuter.[97] Ravel modeled his teaching methods after his own teacher Gabriel Fauré, avoiding formulas and emphasizing individualism. Ravel's preferred way of 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?" and then ask the student to invent his own solution.[132]

Musical influence

Ravel was and is a leading figure in the art of and Limoges and applies artistic license to some particulars of dynamics and notation as well as putting forth the virtuoso effort of a master colourist throughout.

Transcriber and orchestrator

Though a competent pianist, Ravel decided early on to have virtuosi, like Ricardo 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 during a tour, both of which he considered chores in the same mold as "circus performances". Only rarely did he conduct works of other composers.[130] 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".[131] As to how his music was to be played, Ravel was always clear and direct with his instructions.[131]

Pianist and conductor

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. Early printed editions of his works were prone to errors so he worked painstakingly with his publisher, Durand, to correct them.[127]

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 notated quickly, and refined painstakingly.[127] When a piece would not progress, he would abandon a piece until inspired anew.[128] 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.[7] Though wide-ranging in his music, Ravel avoided the symphonic form as well as religious themes and forms.[129]

Ravel’s great 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”.[125] 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.[126]

Many of his most innovative compositions were developed first 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.[115] This demonstrates the great regard he had for the piano traditions of Couperin, Scarlatti, Mozart, Chopin and Liszt.[123] For example, Gaspard de la nuit can be viewed as an extension of Liszt’s virtuosity and advanced harmonics.[124] 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.[123]

Michael Lanford has observed that "on at least three different published occasions, Ravel testified that 'my teacher in composition was Edgar Allan Poe because of his analysis his wonderful poem 'The Raven.' Poe taught me that true art is a perfect balance between pure intellect and emotion."[121] Therefore, he draws parallels between Ravel's working process and the readings of Poe by French scholars like Charles Baudelaire, who "believed that the ‘unity of impression, the totality of effect’ described by Poe endowed a composition ‘a very special superiority… If the first sentence is not written with the idea of preparing this final impression, the work has failed from the start. There must not creep into the entire composition a single word which is not intentional, which does not tend, directly or indirectly, to complete the premeditated design."[122]

”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.”[119]

More specifically he stated:

His own composing method was 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.[119] Ravel, who sometimes spent years refining a piece, said, “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.”[120]


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 its 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.[118]

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

Ravel considered himself in many ways a classicist. He often relied on traditional forms, such as the ternary form, as well as traditional structures as ways of presenting his new melodic and rhythmic content, and his innovative harmonies.[115] 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 cannot undertake to do, or dare, or portray, provided it continues to charm and always remain music."[116] 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.[117]

Ravel has almost always been considered one of the two great French impressionist composers, the other being Debussy. In reality Ravel was much more than an Impressionist (and in fact he resented being labelled as such). For example, he made extensive use of rollicking jazz tunes in his Piano Concerto in G Major in the first and third movements.[112] Ravel also imitates Paganini's and Liszt's virtuoso gypsy themes and technique in Tzigane.[113] In his À la manière de...Borodine (In the manner of...Borodin), Ravel plays with the ability to both mimic and remain original. In a more complex situation, A la manière 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 Chabrier. He also composed short pieces in the manner of Haydn and his teacher Fauré.[114] Even in writing in the style of others, Ravel's own voice as a composer remained distinct.

He believed that composers should be aware of both individual and national consciousness. For him, Basque music was influential. He intended to write an earlier concerto, Zazpiak Bat, but it was never finished. The title is a result of his Basque heritage: meaning 'The Seven Are One' (see Zazpiak Bat), it refers to the seven Basque regions, and was a motto often used in association with the idea of a Basque nation.[110] 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.[111]

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 his characteristic harmonies are largely the result of a fondness for unresolved appoggiaturas, such as in the Valses nobles et sentimentales.[109] He was inspired by various dances, his favorite being the minuet, composing the Menuet sur le nom d'Haydn in 1909, to commemorate the centenary of the death of Joseph Haydn. Other forms from which Ravel drew material include the forlane, rigaudon, waltz, czardas, habanera, passacaglia, and the boléro.

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 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 favor two modes: the Dorian and the Phrygian.[108] 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."[108]

Musical style

Certain aspects of his music can be considered to belong to the tradition of 18th-century Pictures at an Exhibition. Additionally, he variously cited Mozart, Saint-Saëns, Schubert and Schoenberg as inspirations for various pieces.

"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."[107]

Ravel was a remarkable synthesist of disparate styles. His music matured early into his innovative and distinct style. As a student, he studied the scores of composers of the past methodically: as he stated, "in order to know one's own craft, one must study the craft of others."[107] Though he liked the new French music, during his youth Ravel still felt fond of the older French styles of Franck and the Romanticism of Beethoven and Wagner.[15] Or, as Viñes put it, discussing Ravel's aesthetics (not his religion):

Ravel's musical language was ultimately very original, neither absolutely modernist nor impressionist. Like Debussy, Ravel categorically refused this description of “impressionist” which he believed was reserved exclusively for painting.[106]

Active during a period of great artistic innovation 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."[105]

Musical sources


[104] Instead, Edouard consigned the rights to his nurse, Jeanne Taverne, and her husband Alexandre, a chauffeur. When Edouard Ravel died in 1960, the Ravel estate fell subject to extensive litigation for ten years, reaching France's highest appellate court. Jeanne Taverne died before the litigation ended. During this period, Jean-Jacques Lemoine, the legal director of

The composer died childless and left everything to his brother Edouard who turned Ravel's house into a museum. Edouard was severely injured in a car accident in 1954 and required near constant care. In 1957, Edouard announced his intention to deed 80% of the composer's posthumous royalties to the city of Paris and endow a Nobel Prize in music.

Many of Ravel's works are protected by copyright in the US. In countries where copyright extends for the life of the composer plus fifty years, such as Canada,[103] or plus seventy years, such as the EU, Ravel's works fell into the public domain in December 1987 or January 1, 2008.


In his Maurice Ravel: A Life, published in 2000, biographer Benjamin Ivry presents evidence in support of his thesis that Ravel's lack of known intimate relationships may be explained if he was a "very secretive" gay man. Ivry also attempts to illustrate examples where Ravel's sexuality may have been expressed in his musical compositions. In his review[102] of Ivry's biography for Library Journal Larry Lipkis is persuaded by Ivry's research that "There seems to be little question that Ravel was an affected, intensely secretive dandy with gay inclinations", but also expresses the view that Ivry's work is less persuasive in definitively linking Ravel's sexuality to characteristics of his musical oeuvre.

A recent hypothesis presented by David Lamaze, a composition teacher at the Conservatoire de Rennes in France, is that he hid in his music representations of the nickname and the name of Casino de Paris where the Ravel family had a number staged, Tourbillon de la mort ("Whirlwind of Death"). The family of her half-brother, Cipa Godebski, is said to have been like a second family for Ravel. In 1907 on Misia's boat L'Aimée, Ravel completed L'heure espagnole and the Rapsodie espagnole, and at the premiere of Daphnis et Chloé, Ravel arrived late and did not go to his box but to Misia's, where he offered her a Japanese doll. In her memoirs, Misia hid all these facts.[101]

Ravel never married and had no children. He is not known to have had any intimate relationships at all, and his personal life remains a mystery. 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.[97] However, according to close friend and student Manuel Rosenthal, he asked violinist Hélène Jourdan-Morhange to marry him, although 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".[98] He is quoted as saying "The only love affair I have ever had was with music".[99] Some of his friends suggested that Ravel frequented the bordellos of Paris, but no factual evidence has ever been found to substantiate this rumor.[100]

Personal life

On December 30, 1937, Ravel was buried next to his parents in a granite tomb at the cemetery at Levallois-Perret, a suburb of northwest Paris. Ravel was an atheist.[96]

Ravel's death was probably a result of the brain surgery, with the underlying cause arguably being a George Gershwin had died from a brain tumor only five months earlier.

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 tumor, and on December 19 operated on Ravel. No tumor was found, but there was some shrinkage of the left hemisphere of his brain, which was re-inflated with serous fluid. When Ravel awoke from the anesthesia, he asked for his brother, but quickly sank into a deep coma, from which he never awoke.[94] He died on December 28, at the age of 62, in Paris. His friend Maurice Delage was with him at his death.

On April 8, 2008, the New York Times published an article suggesting Ravel may have been in the early stages of frontotemporal dementia during 1928, and this might account for the repetitive nature of Boléro.[92] This accords with an earlier article, published in a journal of neurology, that closely examines Ravel's clinical history and argues that Boléro and the Piano Concerto for the Left Hand both indicate the impacts of neurological disease.[93] This is contradicted somewhat, however, by the earlier cited comments by Ravel about how he created the deliberately repetitious theme for Boléro.

In 1932, Ravel suffered a major blow to the head in a taxi accident. This injury was not considered serious at the time.[90] However, afterwards he began to experience 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 à Dulcinée, and have been performed and recorded.[90]

Illness and death

Ravel, ever modest, was bemused by the critics' sudden favor of him 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.”[87]

The other piano concerto was completed a year later. Its lighter tone follows the models of Mozart and Saint-Saëns, and also makes use of jazz-like themes.[88] 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.[89] 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.

Remarkably, Ravel composed both of his piano concertos simultaneously.[84] 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.”[85] Ravel, not proficient enough to perform the work with only his left hand, demonstrated it with two-hands 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.”[86] In 1933, Wittgenstein played the work in concert for the first time to instant acclaim.[87] Critic Henry Prunières wrote, “From the opening measures, we are plunged into a world in which Ravel has but rarely introduced us.”[87]

in 1930. Lamoureux Orchestra with the Boléro Ravel made one of the few recordings of his own music when he conducted his [83] A public dispute began with conductor [82] 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 its popular success.[82] 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.”[81]. Ravel called it “an experiment in a very special and limited direction”.Fandango, originally called Boléro After returning to France, Ravel composed his most famous and controversial orchestral work

Final years

Ravel then visited New Orleans and imbibed the jazz scene there as well. His admiration of jazz, increased by his American visit, caused 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 made Ravel famous internationally.[80]

He also met the American composer George Gershwin.) In any event, this had to have been before Ravel wrote Boléro, which became financially very successful for him.

After two months of planning, in 1928 Ravel made a four-month concert tour in North America, for a promised minimum of $10,000[71] (approximately $137,000, adjusted for inflation[74]). In New York City, he received a standing ovation, unlike any of his unenthusiastic premieres in Paris. His all-Ravel concert in Boston was equally acclaimed.[75] The 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.”[76] Ravel conducted most of the leading orchestras in the U.S. from coast to coast and visited twenty-five cities.[77]

Ravel at the piano, accompanied by Canadian singer George Gershwin.

American tour

Ravel also served as a juror with Florence Meyer Blumenthal in awarding the Prix Blumenthal, a grant given between 1919 and 1954 to young French painters, sculptors, decorators, engravers, writers, and musicians.[73]

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 nearly every year from then until his death.[71] 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.[72]

Around 1922, Ravel completed his famous orchestral arrangement of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, commissioned by Serge Koussevitzky, which through its widespread popularity brought Ravel great fame and substantial profit.[21] 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 sortilèges, with its significant jazz and ragtime accents. Famed writer Colette provided the libretto.[69] Around this time, he also completed Chansons madécasses, the summit of his vocal art.[70]

In post-war Paris, American musical influence was strong. Jazz particularly was played in the cafes and became popular, and French composers including Ravel and Darius Milhaud were applying jazz elements to their work.[21] Also in vogue was a return to simplicity in orchestration and a transition from the great scale of the works of Gustav Mahler and Richard Strauss. Igor Stravinsky and Sergei Prokofiev were in the ascendant, and Arnold Schoenberg's experiments were leading music into atonality.[68] 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.[68]

The English, in particular, lauded Ravel, as The Times reported April 16, 1923, “Since the death of Debussy, he has represented to English musicians the most vigorous current in modern French music."[66] 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.[67] Ravel was fully aware of this, and was mostly effective in preventing a serious breach between his generation of musicians and the younger group.[67]

In 1920, the French government awarded Ravel the Légion d'honneur, but he refused it.[63] The next year, he retired to the French countryside where he continued to write music, albeit even less prolifically, but in more tranquil surroundings.[64] He returned regularly to Paris for performances and socializing, and increased his foreign concert tours. Ravel maintained his influential participation with the SMI which continued its active role of promoting new music, particularly of British and American composers such as Arnold Bax, Ralph Vaughan Williams, Aaron Copland, and Virgil Thomson.[65] With Debussy’s death, Ravel became perceived popularly as the main composer of French classical music. As Fauré stated in a letter to Ravel in 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.”[66] 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.[66]

Around 1920, Diaghilev commissioned Ravel to write La valse (The Waltz), 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, ended the relationship.[61] 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, but friends persuaded Diaghilev to recant. The two never met again.[62]

Ravel's house in Montfort-l'Amaury, where the composer lived from 1921 until his death


Ravel was exhausted and lacking 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 had a new style to which Ravel would shortly re-group and make his contribution.[60]

“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 art, so rich at the present time, would soon degenerate and become isolated by its own academic formulas.”[57]

Although he considered his small stature of 1.61 metres (5 ft 3 in)[55] 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.[56] Instead, he became a truck driver stationed at the Verdun front.[57] With his mother’s death in 1917, his fondest relationship ended and 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. However, during the war years, Ravel did manage some compositions, including one of his most popular works, Le tombeau de Couperin, a commemoration of the musical ideals of François Couperin, the early 18th-century composer, which premiered in 1919.[58] Each movement is dedicated to a friend of Ravel's who died in the war, with the final movement dedicated to the deceased husband[59] of Ravel’s favorite pianist Marguerite Long.[58] During the war, the Ligue Nationale pour la Defense de la Musique Française (National League for the Defense of French Music) was formed but Ravel, despite his strong antipathy for the German aggression, declined to join stating:

War years

Ravel began work with impresario Sergei Diaghilev during 1909 for the ballet Daphnis et Chloé commissioned by Diaghilev with the lead danced by the famous ballet dancer and choreographer Vaslav Nijinsky. Diaghilev had taken Paris by storm the previous year in his Parisian opera debut, Boris Godunov.[48] Daphnis et Chloé took three years to complete, with conflicts constantly arising among the principal artists, including Léon Bakst (sets and costumes), Michel Fokine (libretto), and Ravel (music).[50] In frustration, Diaghilev nearly cancelled the project. The ballet had an unenthusiastic reception and lasted only two performances, only to be revived to acclaim a year later. Igor 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".[51] 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.[52] So exhausting was the effort to score the ballet that Ravel's health deteriorated, with a diagnosis of neurasthenia soon forcing him to rest for several months.[53] During 1914, just as World War I began, Ravel composed his Piano Trio (for piano, violin, and cello) with its Basque themes. The piece, difficult to play well, is considered a masterpiece among trio works.[54]

Daphnis et Chloé

[49] during 1909 and 1911.Scotland Looking to expand his contacts and career, Ravel made his first foreign tours to England and [48]

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