Born: March 7, 1875 – Ciboria, Pyrénées-Atlantiques, France

Died: December 28, 1937 – Paris, France

 

A Few Facts about Joseph-Maurice Ravel:

  • Ravel’s father Pierre-Joseph was an engineer and manufacturer who invented an early version of the internal combustion engine. He also created “The Whirlwind of Death” a circus machine which sadly lived up to its name in 1903 when an accident took the life of a performer with the Barnum and Bailey Circus.

  • He was close to his mother who was of Basque origin. Her Basque-Spanish heritage was to be a strong influence in his life; much of the music he heard as a child were folk melodies from the region.

  • As a young child he received little in the way of a formal education but was chiefly taught by his father. He attributed his musical interest to his father’s influence. “Throughout my childhood I was sensitive to music. My father, much better educated in this art than most amateurs are, knew how to develop my taste and to stimulate my enthusiasm at an early age.”

  • He attempted to win the prestigious Prix de Rome five times. In 1900 he was eliminated; in 1901 he came in second; and in 1902-03 he won nothing. In his final attempt in 1905 he was eliminated in the first round which set up howls of protest from even his strongest critics.  L’affaire Ravel became a national scandal and led to the removal of the director of the Conservatoire de Paris.

  • Serving as a munitions truck driver at the Verdun front during the Great War he came under frequent heavy enemy bombardment. In letters to his ailing mother, signed “Driver Ravel”, he called his truck “Adélaïde”. The war affected his physical and mental health. Dysentery led to a bowel operation in 1917 and later that winter his feet were severely frost-bitten. After the Armistice his musical output, always limited, was greatly decreased and he suffered frequent bouts of depression.

  • Le Tombeau de Couperin, his solo piano suite, was composed between 1914-1917 and premiered in April of 1919. Each movement is dedicated to a friend who had died in the Great War.  When criticized for its sometime light-hearted, though reflective, tone he responded, “The dead are sad enough, in their eternal silence.” 

  • In 1928 he undertook a tour of North America, conducting and giving recitals, to general acclaim, in 25 cities including Vancouver, Montréal and Toronto. His fee was a guaranteed minimum of $10,000 USD and a constant supply of Gauloises cigarettes.

  • As early as 1927 friends noticed that Ravel was frequently absent-minded or confused. In 1932, he suffered a blow to the head in a taxi accident which caused further loss of speech and concentration. He stopped composing in 1933. The remainder of his life was plagued by a malfunction of the brain attributed to several possible causes including dementia, Alzheimer’s or Creutzfeldt–Jakob disease. He died after a final, unsuccessful operation in December 28th

 

 

His Works

  • By his own admission Ravel wrote fewer pieces than most composers and it would seem that composing for him was a long and often arduous process.
  • Though his compositions are amongst the most glorious of the early 20th century he may be most remembered for his orchestral arrangement of another composer’s piano suite. His version of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition is one of the most performed pieces in the orchestral repertoire.  And it didn’t hurt that the royalties made him a very rich man.
  • His 15-minute ballet Boléro has been mocked for its insistent repetitiveness but has been played by every major orchestra, conducted by every great conductor, and recorded more often than any other piece of the period.

 

A complete listing of all his compositions  can be found at: Maurice Ravel – Compositions.

 

A Few Quotes from Maurice Ravel:

I did my work slowly, drop by drop.  I tore it out of me by pieces.

You might lose your spontaneity and, instead of composing first-rate Gershwin, end up with second rate Ravel. – to George Gershwin when he asked if he could study with him.

Music, I feel, must be emotional first and intellectual second.

We should always remember that sensitiveness and emotion constitute the real content of a work of art.

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