Lesson Tutor: Classical Composer Biography: Maurice Ravel

Classical Composer Biography: Maurice Ravel
by Betty Fry

The mere mention of his name brings ‘Bolero’ to mind, and of course I am playing it now as I begin to tell you about the man and his music. With its relentless, pulsating rhythm, this bravura piece for orchestra is probably Maurice Ravel’s best known work.

‘Bolero’ was choreographed as a ballet by Bronislava Nijinska (the sister of Vaslav Nijinsky) and was first performed at the Paris Opera in 1928. It was an overnight sensation.

Fifty years later ‘Bolero’ again fired the public imagination when Jayne Torvill and Christopher Dean brought the dance to millions of viewers when they used it for their winning Olympic, World, and European ice dance titles in 1983-4.

In the original ballet production set in a Spanish tavern, a gypsy girl begins the dance on a trestle table with slow seductive movements. Gradually other dancers are drawn in so that by the end everyone is taking part.

Built on a languid hypnotic rhythm that never lets up, the sinuous melody gradually rises to an impassioned climax as the dancers lose themselves in wild self abandon.

Over a period of seventeen minutes the solitary 32 bar tune is sustained in a variety of arrangements that can only be admired. I have heard the piece described as hackneyed, a word that suggests it is trite, dull, stereotyped. But for me at least it is none of these things. It cannot become so just because audiences’ have had an insatiable appetite for the work, any more than the oft repeated phrase ‘I love you’ can fail to please. 

Maurice Raval was born in the Basque region of France in 1875. His father, who was Swiss by birth, had won a prize for piano playing in his youth, but had settled on a career as a mechanical career. Which may explain why some of Raval’s music seems to be inspired by the delight he too found in clockworks and mechanical toys. And as befitted the son of a Swiss engineer, Ravel’s music was never less than exquisitely crafted.

His method of composing, and central to his style, was to perfect small, self contained ‘blocks’ of music, and then assemble them into a larger, more complex structure – much like the many moving parts of a watch. Thus it was that he earned the approval of Stravinsky who once described him as ‘the Swiss Watchmaker’ of music because of Raval’s painstaking attention to detail.

Raval studied at the Paris Conservatoire. Becoming very much the ‘man about town’ and the dapper darling of Parisian café society, he prided himself on having the best collection of neckties in Paris.

In the early 1900’s he joined a group of like minded young artists, writers, and musicians who gathered in a Paris studio every Saturday. They were an intellectual gathering who came together to discuss ideas, and collaborate on projects.

But they often became rowdy and on at least one occasion were forced to change their venue when neighbours became angry. They became known as the ‘Apaches’ after they once jostled a street vendor who shouted out ‘Attention, les Apaches!’ – or ‘Hey, you hooligans’. It seems some things don’t change.

When Raval wrote ‘Un Barque sur l’ocean’ (a Boat on the Ocean) in 1905, the great days of the ocean liner had begun. There was the excitement of the ‘Blue Riband’, awarded to the ship that made the fastest Atlantic crossing. The rivalry was intense.

In 1907 the ‘Lusitania’ won the prize for Britain. The ‘Mauretania’, also a Cunard liner, seized the record in 1909 and kept it for an amazing twenty years, until beaten by Germany’s ‘Bremen’ in 1929. Britain’s ‘Queen Mary’ , and France’s ‘Normandie’ followed. The last winner was the ‘United States’ in 1952.

In the orchestral version of ‘Une Barquesur sur l’ocean’, a languorous theme on the woodwind suggests the ‘barque’ or packet boat, while accompanying strings call to mind images of a sea breeze and shimmering light on water.

As the music proceeds there are other impressions – of a stiffening wind, waves, and spray. But the overall mood remains one of hazy summer light, and calm.

The music comes to an end as the boat finally disappears from sight over the rim of the horizon to the soft, delicate, tinkling chimes of the celesta.

In 1912 Ravel’s ‘Daphnis and Chloe’ was premiered. In a scene from the ballet Ravel evokes sunrise. Dawn approaches on the edge of a sacred wood, life awakens, and against a rippling backdrop, selected woodwind start the dawn chorus.

A long, beautiful theme then unfolds, spreading from lower strings to violins, and all representing the love of the shepherd, Daphnis, and his nymph, Chloe. Finally the music builds to a sensual, shimmering climax before subsiding to a more mysterious mood.

In the story of this ballet, the legendary Pan is the God of the woodland in Greek mythology. From waist up, he is human, but his lower half is that of a goat, representing great sexual powers.

In the third act, just before sunrise, he rescues Chloe from a group of pirates on the island. As the new day begins, he restores her to her lover, Daphnis, and the couple are married later that day.

By 1914 Ravel’s reputation was second only to Debussy. He was renowned for his piano playing and music criticism as well as his composing, and was at the heart of music making in France although he never accepted any official posts.

At the outbreak of war he attempted to enlist but was rejected as being underweight. He was of a very slight stature. Instead he became an ambulance driver, only to be discharged after eighteen months as medically unfit.

In 1921, the French Government decided to recognize Ravel’s achievements by awarding him the much prized ‘Legion d’Honneur’. Unfortunately the award was announced publicly before Ravel himself had been informed of the decision. This oversight piqued him so much he promptly declined to accept it. However one honour he did accept, was an Honorary Doctorate from Oxford University in 1931.

Raval’s piano music is always enchanting. In the Second Movement of his Piano Concert in G major, feelings of solitude abound in the magical movement which opens to the gentle measured strains of the piano.

A flute joins in, soaring high above the orchestra, followed by an oboe, and there is deep passion in the often changing phrases that create an exotic tapestry of sound that is unrelenting, yet beautiful.

As the movement rolls effortlessly to a close, a wondrous harmony emerges. It is said to be some of the most original and inventive music ever written.

While he was writing this particular concerto in 1930 Raval simultaneously worked on a commission from the pianist Paul Wittgenstein for a concerto for the left hand only, because Wittgenstein had lost his right arm in the First World War.

These two piano concertos came at the end of Ravel’s composing career, and the effort of writing them both at once took its toll. He is said to have declared “It nearly killed me”.

In 1932 he suffered concussion in a road accident which led to the onset of bouts of incoordination affecting his balance, speech, and gait.

Sadly he wrote nothing after the Don Quixote songs of 1934 and underwent an operation in 1937. It was unsuccessful and he died in a Paris hospital in December of that year.

From first to last Ravel was a master of orchestral and piano writing, with a harmonic style, or musical language, instantly recognizable as his own. Taking all these things together, Ravel was one of the most original and influential composers of the twentieth century.

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