The French composer Maurice Joseph Ravel (1875-1937) wrote works in an impressionistic idiom that are characterized by elegance and technical perfection.
Maurice Ravel was born on March 7, 1875, at Ciboure, Basses-Pyrénées. From his Swiss father, a gifted engineer and inventor of a petroleum engine and combustion machine, he seems to have inherited that feeling for precision which dominates his scores and which once prompted Igor Stravinsky to characterize them (not unsympathetically) as the products of a "Swiss watchmaker." From his Basque mother Ravel learned to love the Basque and Spanish cultures. In later life there would be the summers spent in Saint-Jean-de-Luz (twin city of Ciboure). There would also be, spanning his entire creative life, works on Spanish themes: Habañera (1895) for piano, later orchestrated and incorporated in the Rapsodie espagnole (1907); Pavane pour une infante défunte (1899); Alborada del gracioso (1905); the opera L'Heure espagnole (1907); and Boléro (1928), virtually synonymous with the composer's name.
Although Ravel was continually attracted to cultures outside his immediate sphere of acquaintance as sources of musical inspiration—Greece (Mélodies populaires grecques, 1907), the Near East (Schéhérazade, 1903), Palestine (Mélodies hébraïques, 1914), Vienna (Valses nobles et sentimentales, 1911; La Valse, 1920), and Africa (Chansons madécasses, 1925)—the imprint of Spain in his work has special significance. The Spanish elements in his music, although they did not alter his natural style, are an inseparable part of it.
Ravel grew up in Paris, where his family moved 3 months after his birth. It was natural for a boy of his talents to enter the conservatory at age 14, less natural to emerge at age 30. That Ravel, already the author of Jeux d'eau (1901) and the String Quartet (1903), chose to remain in Gabriel Fauré's composition class is testimony to a certain humility. But there were political reasons as well: his enrollment at the conservatory qualified him for the coveted Prix de Rome. Ironically, the prize was never to be his. After three unsuccessful attempts (1901-1903) he was denied the right to compete in 1905.
In the next few years Ravel wrote many of the works for which he is best remembered: Ma me‧re l'oye (1908), Gaspard de la nuit (1908), Daphnis et Chloë (1912), and the Piano Trio (1914). During World War I he served as an ambulance driver at the front. The war, coupled with the loss of his mother in 1917, left him physically and spiritually debilitated.
In 1921, sensing the need for further isolation in the interests of his work, Ravel moved to the village of Montfort l'Amaury. At this point his music changed radically. Unlike Claude Debussy, for whom understatement was a natural language capable of expressing the most elemental thoughts, Ravel had been an impressionist in sound only, not in spirit. The seductive sonorities of impressionism were now abandoned for a sparer texture, of which the Duo for Violin and Cello (1922) and the Sonata for Violin and Piano (1927) are the most austere examples. In spite of their less appealing surface, these pieces continued to enhance Ravel's reputation in France and abroad. His American tour of 1928 was a triumph, and that year Oxford awarded him an honorary doctorate.
In 1932 Ravel suffered a concussion in an automobile collision. After the accident he never finished another piece. The first symptoms of brain damage manifested themselves in his handwriting and then in his speech; the intelligence, unimpaired, continued to produce beautiful ideas, but the concentration necessary to put them together could not be sustained. In 1937 he consented to a brain operation; it was not successful, and he died on December 28.
The case of Ravel remains something of an enigma. His position as a composer of the first rank is unquestioned, yet his achievement, viewed historically, had little consequence. His formal procedures, however masterfully they were realized, were not very innovative.
From the esthetic standpoint, Ravel's work poses a number of paradoxes. In 1912 he stated, "My aim is technical perfection … in my view, the artist should have no other goal." But in other places he spoke of the dependence of invention on instinct and sensibility and stressed the importance of emotionality over intellectuality in the creative process. In 1928 he wrote, "A composer … should create musical beauty straight from the heart and feel intensely what he composes."
Furthermore, according to Ravel a work of art exists in and of itself; the composer must take care not to write himself into it. However sincerely meant, this is something of a fallacy; an artistic creation is necessarily a reflection of its creator, if only in the sense that it owes its existence to him and is imbued with his esthetic intention. Ironically, Ravel may be present in his music much more than he would have wished—in the form of that "reticence" which was a determining factor in his emotional makeup. "People are always talking about my having no heart. It's not true. But I am a Basque and the Basques feel very deeply but seldom show it, and then only to a very few."
Opinion has traditionally refrained from conferring the epithet "great" on Ravel's total accomplishment. However, of the 60 works he wrote, perhaps not one is lacking in distinction. The works must finally speak for themselves: they continue, even the less famous ones, to be played; their powers of attraction seem not to have diminished over the years.
Further Reading on Maurice Joseph Ravel
Rollo H. Myers, Ravel: Life and Works (1960), and Hans Heinz Stuckenschmidt, Maurice Ravel: Variations on His Life and Work (trans. 1968), are not intended as scholarly works, but they are dependable and useful. Material on Ravel and general background information are in Joseph Machlis, Introduction to Contemporary Music (1961).
Additional Biography Sources
Demuth, Norman, Ravel, Westport, Conn.: Hyperion Press, 1979.
James, Burnett, Ravel, London: Omnibus Press, 1987.
James, Burnett, Ravel, his life and times, Tunbridge Wells, Kent: Midas Books; New York: Hippocrene Books, 1983.
Marnat, Marcel, Maurice Ravel, Paris: Fayard, 1986.
Nichols, Roger, Ravel remembered, New York: Norton, 1988, 1987.
Orenstein, Arbie., Ravel: man and musician, New York: Dover Publications, 1991.