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The life of composer Maurice Ravel

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June 5th, 2015
Maurice Ravel
Maurice Ravel

“Music, I feel, must be emotional first and intellectual second.” Maurice Ravel stood by this statement in each of his compositions.

There is no single word one can use to describe his work. Depending on the piece, his material could be whimsical, cinematic, seductive, romantic, sometimes rigid and militant. 

Yet, he always infused his music with a palpable energy that captivated audiences. For a composer who himself had admittedly “written relatively little,” there can be no doubt that he invested everything in what he did do.

Early years

Joseph-Maurice Ravel was born in Ciboure, France, in 1875, to parents who were worlds apart socially. 

His father Joseph was an engineer and inventor responsible for a number of innovations, including an internal combustion engine. His mother Maria meanwhile was illegitimate and illiterate.

Even so, their marriage was a good one, and as parents, Joseph and Maria were doting and deeply involved in their son’s formative years. 

Early on, Ravel had virtually no access to formal education, but his father personally saw to his son’s instruction, teaching him reading, writing, and arithmetic. He also introduced him to the fields of engineering and invention, taking him to factories and mechanical shops to tout the wonders of science.

But it wasn’t science that fascinated the boy—it was music. Although he was hardly a prodigy, he was a gifted musician and, by the age of seven, was a serious student of the piano.

Into his teen years, Ravel studied playing techniques as well as counterpoint, harmony, and composition on theoretical and practical levels. By the age of 14, he had gained admission to the prestigious Conservatoire de Paris.

Ravel was a difficult student, the kind of pupil who, in the words of one musicologist, was “only teachable on his own terms.” At first he showed promise, but it wasn’t long before his inflexibility rubbed faculty members the wrong way.

In 1895, Ravel was expelled from the conservatory and readmitted two years later. This time around, he focused his efforts less on musicianship and more on composition. 

Driven perfectionist

According to those who knew him, he was a perfectionist, attentive to detail and acutely self-critical. In fact, these facets of his personality came through in his fastidious appearance, which unlike wild-haired composers such as Beethoven and Berlioz was prim, manicured, and stylish.

Like the consummate perfectionist, Ravel was stubbornly determined. After completing his studies at the conservatory, he composed ballets and orchestral works, competing annually for France’s highest prize in classical music, the Prix de Rome. 

In all five years he entered, he lost. Still, he continued to write.

The early twentieth century was Ravel’s most productive period, which included collaborations with greats like Stravinsky along with multiple compositions of his own. In 1912 alone, he premiered three ballets, one of which, Adelaide ou le langage des fleurs, entailed his most complex orchestral endeavor.

The war’s impact

But in 1914, work stopped for Ravel, as it did for most others in Europe. After Germany invaded France, the composer enlisted in the French Army as a truck driver for the 13th Artillery Regiment. 

His duties required him to haul ammunition to the front under heavy German artillery fire. The stress of such dangers combined with health problems took a toll on him. 

A case of amoebic dysentery required surgery, and frostbitten feet limited his mobility. On the heels of these setbacks came news of his mother’s death in 1917.

Understandably, Ravel had composed little during the war. The combined trauma of his mother’s loss and the horrors of combat only reduced his output further; then in the early 1920s, he began touring with his music.

World tours

In 1921, he played for audiences in England, Sweden, Italy, Spain, the United States, and Canada. In the U.S., he was particularly enamored with the proficiency of American orchestras, jazz, and Negro spirituals. 

Around this time, Ravel also finished his best-known work, Bolero. 

In the coming years, he continued his world tours, broken up by restful interludes at his home in France. After completing his last two piano concertos in 1932, he sustained a head injury in a car accident, which doctors now believe had worsened a possible case of dementia or Alzheimer’s.

By 1937, Ravel was incapacitated. 

Suffering from consistent bouts of pain, he underwent brain surgery. Following the procedure, the composer lapsed into a coma and, on December 28, 1937, passed away at the age of 62.

Ravel died young, but he created a brilliant artistic legacy before he left. 

“The only love affair I have ever had was with music,” he once confessed. To listen to his work is to know how true this was.

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Ravel’s notable works

 

Pavane pour une infante defunte (1899)

Jeux d’eau (1901)

Rapsodie espagnole (1908)

Valses nobles et sentimentales, score for the ballet Adelaide ou le langage des fleurs (1912)

Bolero (1928)

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