“The only love affair I have ever had was with music.” – Maurice Ravel
If you had to describe Ravel’s music in a single word, it would have to be “exquisite”. He was a master craftsman with an astonishing eye for detail, dubbed by Stravinsky “the most perfect of Swiss watchmakers.” Ravel certainly lived up to the title in the way he conducted his personal life, always focused on the smallest details; he lived in a tiny cottage meticulously decorated to his taste, tended to a miniature ornamental garden, and had a fondness for intricate mechanical devices. Always impeccably groomed and dressed, Ravel himself was a man in miniature, slender and standing at just 5’3″ – and you can almost hear it in his music. An article for The Guardian entitled “Ravel: small is beautiful” makes the apt remark “Ravel was a small composer but not a minor one; great… but the opposite of grand.”
Take a tour of his house and you’ll see how his personality is woven into his music:
Ravel often wrote in static harmonies and played with instrumental timbres, so it’s perhaps inevitable that along with Debussy he’s classed as an Impressionist (though both objected to the term). Beneath the shimmering textures of his music however, each note is placed with absolute purpose and precision. It’s this painstaking attention to detail, combined with his strikingly original and experimental nature, that really sets his music apart. It’s remarkable that his compositions are both innovative yet so perfectly conceived, a unique gift that I’ll speculatively attribute to his mixed lineage: perhaps Ravel inherited his meticulousness from his father, a Swiss inventor, and his panache from his Spanish mother.
Daphnis et Chloé, Suite No. 2, played by the Boston Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Seiji Ozawa
Like Debussy, Ravel readily incorporated new sounds into his music, and though he wrote comparatively little in his lifetime (being the obsessive perfectionist that he was), his body of work is very varied and endlessly creative. He embraced the influence of eastern music that he heard at the 1889 World Fair in Paris, and was also a great admirer of jazz. He put a lot of stock in originality; when he met the American composer Gershwin he responded to a request for mentorship by saying “Why would you wish to be a second-rate Ravel when you can be a first-rate Gershwin?” Ravel’s music is full of allusion, but never succumbs to mere imitation.
String Quartet in F Major, 2nd movement, played by the Attacca Quartet, a typically audacious masterpiece paying homage to sounds from the Orient
Given his outstanding facility for creating subtle effects and colours, it’s unsurprising that Ravel is known as one of history’s greatest orchestrators. It was actually his flair for orchestration that serendipitously led him to create his best-known work, when he undertook a project to orchestrate Spanish composer Albéniz’s piano suite Iberia. On discovering that another composer already held the orchestration rights, Ravel decided to compose an original score, to be built upon a single theme (he later described it as an “experiment” in an interview to the Daily Telegraph). When he composed the theme he immediately played it for a friend, asking “Don’t you think that has an insistent quality? I’m going to try to repeat it a number of times without any development, gradually increasing the orchestra as best I can.” Boléro was premiered at the Paris Opéra in 1928 to a thunderous ovation; in the midst of it all a woman could be heard screaming: “Au fou, au fou!” (“The madman! The madman!”), to which Ravel replied “That lady… she understood.”
Boléro, played by the London Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Valery Gergiev
Torvill & Dean winning the 1984 Olympics to Ravel’s Boléro
Evocación and El Puerto from Iberia, arranged for guitar, played by Jorge Caballero
Promenade from Pictures at an Exhibition played by the Rotterdam Philharmonic, conducted by Valery Gergiev. It is Ravel’s orchestrated version of Mussorgsky’s masterpiece which is most commonly played today.
As with many musical pioneers, Ravel’s career was not without its clashes with the establishment. Perhaps the most notable example of this was his numerous bids for the Prix de Rome, France’s most prestigious prize for young composers; Ravel failed to win the prize in five attempts, in what turned out to be an early-20th century precursor to Leonardo DiCaprio at the Oscars. Wikipedia writes of the scandal: “In 1905 Ravel, by now thirty, competed for the last time, inadvertently causing a furore. He was eliminated in the first round, which even critics unsympathetic to his music… denounced as unjustifiable. The press’s indignation grew when it emerged that the senior professor at the Conservatoire… was on the jury, and only his students were selected for the final round; his insistence that this was pure coincidence was not well received. L’affaire Ravel became a national scandal, leading to the early retirement of Dubois and his replacement by Fauré.”
It was during Ravel’s study under Fauré at the Paris Conservatory that he wrote what is in my opinion one of the most stunning miniature masterpieces in history, Pavane pour une infante défunte (“Pavane for a Dead Princess”). When asked about the cryptic title, Ravel answered “Do not be surprised, that title has nothing to do with the composition. I simply liked the sound of those words and I put them there, c’est tout.” Here it is played by Elena Kuschnerova:
Now listen to the piece again in its orchestral version, and see how masterfully Ravel casts the music in a new light:
This masterpiece was influenced by the work of Ravel’s contemporary, Emmanuel Chabrier. Have a listen to the first of Chabrier’s Trois Valses Romantiques, played on two pianos by Jacques Rouvier and Prisca Benoit.
When the War struck Europe, Ravel applied to join the French Infantry – at just 48kg however, he was below the minimum weight. He eventually found work driving ambulances, but his perennial ill health ultimately saw him discharged from the military. During this period, Ravel composed his wonderful Le tombeau de Couperin (literally translated as “Couperin’s Grave”, though a “tombeau” in this context is a musical term for a piece of music written as a memorial), a six movement suite dedicated to his fallen comrades, played below by the Berlin Philharmonic, conducted by Pierre Boulez (music starts at 0:46):
Sonatine, 1st movement, played by Martha Argerich
The War deeply affected Ravel, and a number of his later compositions took a decidedly more introspective tone. Nowhere is this more evident than in Ravel’s Piano Concerto for the Left Hand, commissioned by the pianist Paul Wittgenstein, who lost his arm in action. Here it is played by the Orchestra of the University of Music Franz Liszt Weimar, conducted by Nicolás Pasquet:
You may have gathered by now that I’m a huge fan of Ravel’s music. A criticism I’ve come across (which I personally don’t agree with) is that his music, so carefully contrived, lacks some of the emotional punch of other great composers (like Debussy for example, to whom he is often compared). Indeed, even the article from The Guardian quoted at the beginning of the post writes:
“Such attention to appearance… lays Ravel open to a common complaint: that he is artificial. That he does not express himself, is self-effacing, even hides his real nature. The idea of the music as a mask for the man has had considerable currency – and it’s not exactly wrong. He cut his cloth to suit his musical subject and, in accordance with the ideas of Edgar Allen Poe, whom he much admired, he was more interested in composition and poetic effect than in emotional revelation.”
Ravel himself would no doubt object to such an interpretation of his work, once remarking “Music, I feel, must be emotional first and intellectual second.” I’ll leave you with another favourite of mine from a French contemporary of Ravel, Darius Milhaud’s Scaramouche, 2nd movement, played by Andrej Antonić: