Maurice Ravel

(7 March 1875, Ciboure - 28 December 1937, Paris)


Joseph-Maurice Ravel was a French composer, pianist and conductor. He is often associated with impressionism along with his elder contemporary Claude Debussy, although both composers rejected the term. Born in a family with artistic background, he started studying piano at the age of 7 with Henry Ghys. Five years later he began studying harmony, counterpoint and composition with Charles-René. His earliest compositions date from this period.

In 1889 he was admitted at the Paris Conservatoire, where he studied piano and counterpoint with André Gedalge (later progressing to the class of Charles-Wilfrid de Bériot), and composition with Gabriel Fauré, where he remained until 1905. During the period spent at the Conservatoire, Ravel composed some of his best known works, which include: Sérénade grotesque (1893), Pavane pour une infante défunte (''Pavane for a Dead Princess'', 1899), the famous Jeux d'eau ("Playing water" or literally "Water Games", 1901, for piano), Myrrha (1901), String Quartet (1903), Shéhérazade (1903), Miroirs (''Mirrors'', 1905, for piano), Sonatine (1905).

Unlike his contemporary colleagues, Maurice Ravel wasn't preoccupied with the elaboration of a new theory in music and neither with the aesthetic fashion of the time. He was for the most part content to work within the established formal and harmonic conventions of his day, still firmly rooted in tonality. Fascinated by the unusual harmonies and composition techniques used by Eric Satie and Claude Debussy, although criticized for plagiarism, he developed his own style which made his music distinguishable. While his melodies are almost always modal (i.e., based not on the conventional Western diatonic scale but on the old Greek Phrygian and Dorian modes), his harmonies derive their often somewhat acid flavor from his fondness for “added” notes and unresolved appoggiaturas, or notes extraneous to the chord that are allowed to remain harmonically unresolved.

There followed a period (1905-1913) in which Ravel composed reference works such as: L'Heure Espagnole and Rapsodie Espagnole (1907), Gaspard de la nuit (1908, for piano), Ma Mere l'Oye (1908), Valse Nobles et Sentimentales (1911), Daphnis et Chloé (1912).

In comparison to the works of Debussy, his were characterized by critics of the time as lacking sensibility and originality. It is true that Ravel's music was generally lacking that seductive poetry of nature of which most of Debussy's work is pervaded, but Ravel's originality can be observed in the way in which he combined rationality with emotion.

During the first World War, due to his fragile body, he was sent on the front as a truck driver. In 1916 he got sick and so, in 1917 he was discharged. In the same year Ravel composed Le Tombeau de Couperin, a suite for solo piano, in 6 movements, dedicated to his friends who died in the war. Followed by La Valse (1920), L'Enfant et les Sortileges (1919-1925), Chansons madécasses (1922), Tzigane (1924), the famous Boléro (1928), Concerto pour la main gauche (”Concert for the right hand”, 1930), Don Quichotte a Dulcinée (1932).

Of his purely orchestral works, the Rapsodie espagnole and Boléro are the best known and reveal his consummate mastery of the art of instrumentation. But perhaps the highlights of his career were his collaboration with the Russian impresario Serge Diaghilev, for whose Ballets Russes he composed the masterpiece Daphnis et Chloé, and with the French writer Colette, who was the librettist of his best known opera, L’Enfant et les sortilèges.

In addition to orchestral and piano works he also composed Lieder and chamber music. In 1928 Ravel toured Canada and the United States for 4 months, giving concerts that were considered a great success. On this occasion he got acquainted with many celebrities, including George Gershwin. Impressed by Gershwin's music and jazz, in particular, he soon incorporated aspects of this genre into his own music.

The impulses that helped crystallize Ravel's musical language are basically the same as in the case of Debussy: French folk music, the baroque harpsichordists, Spanish music, exotic music and the Russian national school. 

Marcel Marnat's catalogue of Ravel's complete works lists eighty-five works, including many incomplete or abandoned. Though that total is small in comparison with the output of his major contemporaries, it is nevertheless inflated by Ravel's frequent practice of writing works for piano and later rewriting them as independent pieces for orchestra. The performable body of works numbers about sixty; slightly more than half are instrumental. Ravel's music includes pieces for piano, chamber music, two piano concerti, ballet music, opera, and song cycles. He wrote no symphonies or religious works. Maurice Ravel was among the most significant and influential composers of the early twentieth century.

Here  you can find a list of Maurice Ravel's works.