Maurice Ravel (French, 1875–1937) 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. In the 1920s and '30s Ravel was internationally regarded as France's greatest living composer. He liked to experiment with musical form, as in his best-known work, Boléro (1928), in which repetition takes the place of development.
The Childhood and Youth of Ravel
Ravel was born in France near Biarritz, but the family moved to Paris three months later and there, a younger brother was born. Maurice Ravel’s father, Pierre-Joseph Ravel, was an educated and successful engineer, inventor and manufacturer. He delighted in taking his sons to factories to see the latest mechanical devices, but he also had a keen interest in music and culture in general. He knew how to develop Maurice Ravel’s taste and to stimulate his enthusiasm at an early age. His mother, Marie, née Delouart, was Basque but had grown up in Madrid. Her Basque-Spanish heritage was a strong influence on Maurice Ravel’s life and music. Among his earliest memories were folk songs she sang to him. The household was not rich, but the family was comfortable, and the two boys had happy childhoods.
When he was seven Ravel started piano lessons with Henry Ghys. Five years later, in 1887, he began studying harmony, counterpoint and composition with Charles-René, a pupil of Léo Delibes. Without being anything of a child prodigy, he was a highly musical boy. Charles-René found that Ravel's conception of music was natural to him and not, as in the case of so many others, the result of effort. Ravel's earliest known compositions date from this period: variations on a chorale by Schumann, variations on a theme by Grieg and a single movement of a piano sonata. They survived only in fragmentary form.
With the encouragement of his parents, Ravel applied for entry to France's most important musical college, the Conservatoire de Paris. In November 1889, playing music by Chopin aged 14, he passed the examination for admission to the preparatory piano class run by Eugène Anthiòme. Ravel won the first prize in the Conservatoire's piano competition in 1891, at age 16, but otherwise he did not stand out as a student. Nevertheless, these years were a time of considerable advance in his development as a composer. For Ravel, the 1890s were a period of immense musical growth from adolescence to maturity.
In 1897, at age 22, Ravel studied composition with Fauré, and took private lessons in counterpoint with André Gedalge. Both teachers regarded him highly and were key influences on his development as a composer. Ravel's standing at the Conservatoire was nevertheless undermined by the hostility of the Director, Théodore Dubois, who deplored the young man's musically and politically progressive outlook. Consequently, Ravel was a marked man, against whom all weapons were good. He wrote some substantial works while studying with Fauré, including the overture Shéhérazade and a violin sonata, but he won no prizes, and therefore was expelled in 1900.
Around 1900 Ravel and a number of innovative young artists, poets, critics, and musicians joined together in an informal group; they came to be known as Les Apaches (The Hooligans), a name representing their status as "artistic outcasts". They met regularly until the beginning of the First World War, and members stimulated one other with intellectual argument and performances of their works. The membership of the group was fluid, and at various times included Igor Stravinsky and Manuel de Falla.
From the start of his career, Ravel appeared calmly indifferent to blame or praise. Those who knew him well believed that this was no pose but wholly genuine. The only opinion of his music that he truly valued was his own, perfectionist and severely self-critical. At twenty years of age he was, self-possessed, a little unapproachable, intellectually biased. He dressed like a dandy and was careful about his appearance. Short in stature, and bony in features, Ravel had the appearance of a well-dressed jockey, whose large head seemed suitably matched to his formidable intellect.
In May 1921 Ravel moved to the country at Le Belvédère, a small house 88 kilometres west of Paris. Looked after by a devoted housekeeper, he lived there for the rest of his life. His touring schedule increased considerably in the 1920s, with concerts in Britain, Italy, Sweden, Denmark, the US, Canada, Spain and Austria.
In October 1932 Ravel suffered a blow to the head in a taxi accident. The injury was not thought serious at the time, but it may have exacerbated an existing cerebral condition. As early as 1927 close friends had been concerned at Ravel's growing absent-mindedness, and within a year of the accident he started to experience symptoms suggesting aphasia. The exact nature of his illness is unknown. Experts have ruled out the possibility of a tumour, and have variously suggested frontotemporal dementia, Alzheimer's disease and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease.
In 1937 Ravel began to suffer pain from his condition. A well-known Paris neurosurgeon tried surgical treatment which seemed to bring an improvement, but it was short-lived, and Ravel soon lapsed into a coma. He died on 28 December, at the age of 62.
Many of Ravels works from the 1920s are noticeably sparer in texture than earlier pieces. Other influences on him in this period were jazz and atonality. Jazz was popular in Parisian cafés. Ravel commented that he preferred jazz to grand opera, and its influence is heard in his later music. Arnold Schönberg's abandonment of conventional tonality also had echoes in some of Ravel's music such as the Chansons madécasses (1926). His other major works from the 1920s include the orchestral arrangement of Mussorgsky's piano suite Pictures at an Exhibition (1922), the opera L'enfant et les sortilèges (1926), Tzigane (1924) and the Violin Sonata (1927).
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