March 7, 2013
On Mar. 7, 1875, Maurice Ravel was born in in the Basque town of Ciboure, France, near Biarritz, close to the border with Spain. One of the great composers of the 20th century, he is most famous for “Bolero,” a work he dismissed as trivial.
His mother was a Basque, who grew up in Madrid; her interest in Spanish music and folk songs can be heard in many of Ravel’s pieces. His father was born on French-Swiss border and was an engineer and inventor, and his influence can be seen in the orchestral precision Ravel was known for.
The family moved to Paris when Ravel was just a few months old. Ravel started taking piano lessons when he was six.
The late 19th century saw the rise of Impressionism in Paris, and, though neither Ravel nor Claude DeBussy (the two started out as friends, but wound up rivals for public favor) embraced the term, the two composers have been called the most prominent of Impressionist music.
Ravel studied piano at the Conservatoire de Paris (Paris Conservatory), and won the student piano competition in 1891; he apparently did not excel at his non-musical studies, though he was a voracious reader. He was forced to leave the school in 1895 when he failed to win another competition (students were required to win medals). He turned down a position in Tunisia, and in 1898, returned to the Conservatoire to study composition with Gabriel Fauré.
Ravel’s early pieces were for the piano, beginning with “Pavane pour une infante défunte” and “Jeux d'eau.” Ravel never won the prestigious Prix de Rome scholarship (nor did the Impressionist artists Édouard Manet or Edgar Degas); his final failure, in 1905, outraged the Paris art community, and forced a re-organization of the Conservatoire and elevating his teacher, Fauré, to the held of the school.
In 1909, he was commissioned to write a ballet for Sergei Diaghilev, founder of the The Russian Ballets (Ballets Russes). It took him three years to complete “Daphnis et Chloé,” and it was a flop when first performed in 1912. But Diaghilev tried it again a year later to acclaim. Igor Stravinsky called Daphnis et Chloé "one of the most beautiful products of all French music." With its rhythmic diversity, lyricism, and evocations of nature, many think it is Ravel’s best piece. The score utilizes a large orchestra and two choruses, one onstage and one offstage. (The Nashville Symphony Orchestra performed it in November 2012.)
Ravel tried to enlist as pilot during World War I, but was rejected for health reasons; he became a truck driver stationed at the Verdun front.
After the war, Diaghilev commissioned another ballet, but ending up rejecting the piece, “it’s not a ballet. It’s a portrait of a ballet,” he said of the “The Waltz.” The relationship ended, badly, and in 1925 Diaghilev challenged Ravel to a duel – it never happened.
During the 1920s, Ravel became the dean of French composers, and spent significant time advocating on the behalf of new music and composers. His own works, however, were no longer as popular with the Avant Garde. A very successful tour to America tour in 1928 revived his popularity.
In 1928, he wrote about American composers’ reluctance to use blues and jazz to create a national style, he described “those musicians whose greatest fear is to find themselves confronted by mysterious urges to break academic rules rather than belie individual consciousness.”
And when he returned to Paris, he composed his most popular piece, “Bolero,” originally entitled Fandandgo. He also composed his piano piece, “Concerto for the Left Hand.”
Ravel died on Dec. 28, 1937.