Maurice Ravel  (1875 - 1937)

As a composer Ravel was a master craftsman. Stravinsky called him a "Swiss watchmaker", in reference to his perfectly constructed music. And what do you know - Ravel kept an extensive mechanical toy collection in his villa at Montfort l'Amaury, just west of Versailles,

and his father was a Swiss inventor of machinery. 

Amateur psychology, anyone?

His output was small and he once famously moaned about it.  His rather bleak utterance is quoted in every potted history of his life (and who are we to break with tradition!):

"I have failed in my life.  I am not one of the great composers.  All the great have produced enormously.  There is everything in their work - the best and the worst, but there is always quantity.  But I have written relatively little... and I did it with great difficulty.  I did my work slowly, drop by drop.  I have torn all of it out of me by pieces... and now I cannot do any more and it does not give me any pleasure."

This is uncannily reminiscent of the sketch that George Sand left about Chopin's composing method - working for days on end at his pieces, weeping, pacing about, repeating and changing a single bar a hundred times in desperation.   

What Ravel did produce was without exception exquisite.... IMHO.  

Rather amusingly, he holds the world record for the longest time spent studying in a music faculty. He entered the Paris Conservatoire in 1889 and studied there for the best part of 16 years, which is pretty bonkers.  Whereas his rival Debussy won the prestigious Prix de Rome in 1884, Ravel never won it.   He never forgave the French

Ravel timeline

1875   Born in Ciboure, France

1878   Moves to Paris

1882   Begins study of music

1889   Enters Paris Conservatoire

1893   Starts composing

1899   Shéhérazade is a big hit

1901   Jeux d'eau

1905   "L'affaire Ravel" - public 

             scandal when Ravel was not 

             in the final of Prix de Rome

1905   Miroirs

1912   Daphnis & Chloe

1914   WW1. Ravel enlisted as truck


1920   Refuses Légion D'Honneur

1921   Buys villa at Monfort l'Amaury

1928   Boléro

1932   Suffers blow to head in major


1937   Brain surgery.  Dies

Other topics on Ravel

Marta Argerich - Jeux d'eau

Samson Francois - Jeux d'eau

​establishment for that.  So when he was awarded the Legion D'Honneur, France's highest honour, in 1920 he refused it and subsequently accepted instead a decoration from the King of Belgium and an honorary doctorate from Oxford.   Ha!  Stick that in your savoury-filled croissant!  But if the jury of the Prix de Rome stubbornly didn't recognise him, everyone else certainly did.  

Ravel had ingenious ideas about the kind of sound you could make.  He believed he had introduced something new with Jeux d'eau, composed in 1901.   This perhaps was the beginning of impressionism at the piano.  Debussy's piano music came later and Ravel insisted that if anyone had copied anyone, then Debussy had copied from him.  "Copied" is too strong maybe.  Debussy was 13 years older and had been active for some time by 1901.  His ravishing Prélude à l'Après-midi d'un faune had premiered in 1894.  Ravel admired it and it is unthinkable that he wasn't influenced by it.  

Parts of Jeux d'eau are strikingly original and clever even to modern pianists who think they have seen everything.  Watch Marta Argerich above and you will see that the hands have to be coordinated in a radically different way - check out at 0:32 and 0:58 for example where the hands are on top of each other.  Ravel made sounds at the piano in Jeux d'eau that were evocative of fountains and water, from peaceful pools of rippling water to cascades and even falling water and a big splash - see 2:28 in the Argerich recording.  Many pianists play it at quite a lick - Richter for instance although perhaps it does not need to be quite that fast.

More exceptional piano writing followed with the 1905 set of pieces entitled Miroirs.  No. 4 in the set is the famous Alborada del gracioso ("The morning song of the jester"), which Ravel also orchestrated some years later.  Ravel's taste for all things Spanish came from his mother who was of Basque origin.  Alborada is full of Spanish flavour with guitar-strumming sounds, expressive Spanish melodies, strict Spanish rhythms and virtuosic glissandi over distinctive Spanish harmonies.   Alborada is full of charm - rhythmically exciting, witty, slightly self-mocking. 

Ravel's ballet Daphnis et Chloe was completed in 1912. Ravel described his score as "faithful to the Greece of my dreams, which inclined readily enough to what French artists of the late eighteenth century imagined..." (see an example below).  The ballet is scored for a huge orchestra plus a wind machine (huh?!) and a wordless choir.  The music is dream-like.  The flute features extensively in order to represent the god Pan, who appears in the ballet and who of course played his pipes.  The novel use of the choir together with the absence of any firm tonal centre lends the music a very strong mystical and mythological feel.   As a ballet, it never really caught on.  The story was slow and the choreography uninspiring.  But the music was totally brilliant and

Daphnis et Chloe Suite No. 2

the two orchestral suites from the ballet became major successes as pieces in their own right.  Suite No. 2 is amongst the best-loved orchestral music of the twentieth century.   

Jean-Baptiste Regnault:  Ariadne & Theseus

There is always colour and imagination in Ravel's music.  He was a  master orchestrator and a  blender of  harmonies, so he caught the imagination of legions of musicians, from classical instrumentalists to big band arrangers to film score composers.  "What music do you listen to?" Johnny Carson asked Frank Sinatra once on The Tonight Show.  "Daphnis and Chloe" replied Sinatra.