Childhood & Early Life
Maurice Ravel was born on 7 March 1875 in Ciboure, a small village on the river Nivelle in the Pyrenees region of France, close to its border with Spain. His father, Pierre-Joseph Ravel, was born in Switzerland. He was a successful engineer, inventor and manufacturer, who was equally passionate about music.
His mother, Marie, née Delouart, was Basque. Although she was barely literate she was a freethinker and imbibed in his son both Basque and Spanish culture. Ravel later recalled his mother singing Spanish folk songs to him.
Three months after his birth, the family moved to Paris, where his younger brother, Édouard, was born three years later. Since no record of his schooling has been found it is not known if Maurice entered any school for his formal education. .
Most biographers believe that his parents, on recognizing his talent early in his childhood, decided to allow him to pursue music, educating him at home. To supplement their bookish education, his father often took the two boys to different factories, teaching them about the latest discoveries in science.
When he was seven years old, Maurice Ravel started piano lessons with Henry Ghys. However, here too his parents played an active role. He had later recalled, ‘My father… knew how to develop my taste and to stimulate my enthusiasm at an early age.”
In 1887, he began studying harmony, counterpoint and composition with Charles-René. Charles-René found Ravel to be a highly musical boy, whose conception of music was natural. Ravel’s earliest known composition was written sometime during this period.
In 1888, Ravel befriended the young pianist Ricardo Viñes, who eventually became an important link between him and Spanish music. A friend for life, Viñes also became an important interpreter of Ravel’s works.
In 1889, Ravel started studying piano with Emile Decombes. In June, during the Paris World Exhibition, he took part in a formal concert arranged by Decombes. Aged fourteen, this was his first public performance.
In November 1889, he passed the entrance examination at the Conservatoire de Paris, playing music by Chopin, to enter the preparatory piano class run by Eugène Anthiome. Except for a short break in mid 1890s, he remained with the institution for the next fourteen years.
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Initially, Maurice Ravel did not enjoy working at the piano; but bribed by his mother, he practiced enough to earn the ‘premier prix’ (first prize) in 1891 and with that he moved from preparatory to advance level, attending the class of Charles-Wilfrid de Bériot. Concurrently, he studied harmony with Émile Pessard.
Encouraged by Bériot, he made spectacular improvement, composing ‘Sérénade grotesque’, for piano, and ‘Ballade de la Reine morte d'aimer’ on a poem by Rolande de Marès in 1893. These are two of his earliest works to survive in full.
Like most geniuses, Ravel had an independent mind, learning on his own terms, something that was not appreciated by the faculty members. He therefore, failed to earn any other prize, leading to his expulsion from the Conservatoire in 1885.
By now, he had realized that he would not make a great pianist and therefore concentrated on composition, publishing ‘Menuet Antique’ in 1895. It was his first published work. Later in the same year, he wrote ‘Habanera’, a Spanish-themed work for two pianos with Viñes.
In 1897, Ravel was readmitted to the Conservatoire, studying composition with Gabriel Fauré. Fauré not only understood him, but also yielded considerable influence on his development as a composer. Concurrently, Ravel also took private lessons in counterpoint with André Gedalge.
Ravel continued to flourish under Fauré, gaining in maturity, writing substantial works including ‘Shéhérazade’ (1898) and ‘Pavane pour une infante défunte’ (1899). Also in May 1899, he conducted the first performance of the Shéhérazade overture at the Societe Nationale de Musique.
Unfortunately, the Conservatoire Director, Théodore Dubois, disliked Ravel as much for his music as for his political outlook, using every weapon against him. In 1900, Ravel was expelled once again from the Conservatoire for not winning any prize. But as a former student, he was allowed to attend Fauré’s class.
Also, in 1900, he became co-founder of Les Apaches (The Hooligans), an informal group of artists, poets, critics, and musicians. In the same year, he submitted a fugue and choral piece for Prix de Rome; but was eliminated in the first round. Nonetheless, he continued with his endeavour.
In 1901, he once again tried for Prix de Rome, this time submitting ‘cantata Myrrha’, but won only a lower second position. Thereafter, in 1902 and 1903, he submitted ‘cantata Alcyon’ and ‘cantata Alyssa’ respectively; but failed to win any position.
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In 1905, he submitted a ‘Fugue in C’ and a choral piece ‘L'Aurore’ for Prix de Rome. This time, he was not only eliminated in the first round, but was also disqualified from attempting any further. Meanwhile in March 1904, he received critical success with his chamber piece ‘Quartet in F major’.
His elimination in 1905 created a furor, with many prominent musicians and musicologists taking his side; publicly condemning the panel of judges. It resulted in the resignation of the Conservatoire Director, Théodore Dubois; but by then Ravel had also left the Conservatoire.
Maurice Ravel was a meticulous but slow worker and thus produced limited number of works. By the end of the first decade of the 1900, he established a pattern by which he created works for piano, later arranging them for full orchestra.
First important work in the line was ’Miroirs’, a piece written for piano in 1904-1905. It consisted of five movements. In 1906, Ravel orchestrated its thirds and fourth movement, ‘Une barque sur l'océan’ and ‘Alborada del gracioso’.
During this period, Ravel also wrote many original works, premiering ‘Histoires Naturelles’ in 1907. Consisting of satirical verses on animals and biting music, it led him into another controversy. Critics claimed that he had plagiarized Claude Debussy’s work.
While the debate raged in the press, Ravel remained calm, orchestrating ‘Rhapsodie espagnole’ section of ‘Habanera’, a work that reflected his Spanish heritage. Premiered in 1908 in Paris, it quickly entered the international repertoire. It is now considered one of his first major works for orchestra.
Continuing to work successfully, Ravel visited London in 1909, playing for the Société des Concerts Français. It not only gained him favorable reviews, but also enhanced his international reputation.
Returning home from England, he got together with few of his classmates to set up Société Musicale Indépendente, with their teacher, Gabriel Fauré, as its president. In the inaugural concert, which took place on 20 April 1910, Ravel’s original piano duet version of ‘Ma mère l'Oye’ was performed.
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In May 1911, he had his first opera, ‘L'heure espagnole’ premiered at Opéra-Comique, Paris. Although it was modestly successful at that time it became very popular by 1920s.
In 1912, he premiered his first ballet, an expanded version of ‘Ma mère l'Oye’. It received great reviews both in Paris and London. Later in the same year, he premiered two other ballets, ‘Adélaïde ou le langage des fleurs’ and ‘Daphnis et Chloé’, which were also equally popular.
World War I
As the First World War broke out in 1914, Maurice Ravel tried to enlist in the French Air Force; on failing to do so due to his small stature, he joined the Thirteenth Artillery Regiment as a lorry driver in March 1915.
During the war, he had to transport munitions at night under heavy German bombardment. He also suffered from insomnia and digestive problems, undergoing a bowel operation in September 1916. In the following winter he had frostbite in his feet. His mother’s death in 1917 also sent him into depression.
In spite of that, he continued to work, albeit in much reduced volume. ‘Le tombeau de Couperin’, composed between 1914 and 1917, was an important work during this period.
After the War
Always a slow but meticulous worker, Ravel’s output further diminished in the post war period. Now he began to produce on an average one work per year. In 1920, he completed ‘La valse’, the third ballet commissioned by Russian the impresario, Sergei Diaghilev.
Diaghilev found ‘La valse’ a masterpiece; but not a ballet. Therefore he rejected it. Although Ravel did not protest, he stopped working with Diaghilev. ‘La Balse’ was later performed successfully by others.
Continuing to write, he next published ‘Sonata’ and ‘Tableaux d'une’ in 1922; ‘Tzigane’ in 1924; ‘L'Enfant et les sortilèges’ in 1925; ‘Chansons madécasses’ in 1926, ‘Violin Sonata’ in 1927 and ‘Boléro’ in 1928. Although all of them were masterpieces, ‘Boléro’ became most famous.
In 1928, he went on a four-month tour of North America, where he visited 25 cities. Everywhere, he appeared with the leading orchestras and the shows were warmly received. As his fees, he demanded a minimum amount of $10,000 and a constant supply of Gauloises cigarettes.
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After his tour of North America, he was able to produce only three works. The first was ‘Concerto for piano in D Major for Left Hand’. It was written in 1930 for the Austrian pianist Paul Wittgenstein, who had lost his right arm during the war.
The second work was ‘Piano Concerto in G Major’ which he completed in 1931. Premiered in January 1932, it earned great praise for his score. After that, he could complete only one score, ‘Don Quichotte à Dulcinée’ for voice with piano or orchestra (1932).
Awards & Achievements
In 1920,Maurice Ravel was offered the Légion d'honneur; but he declined to accept it. Later, he also refused election to the Institut de France.
Although, he declined French honors he was not averse to receiving them from foreign institutions, accepting honorary membership of the Royal Philharmonic Society, United Kingdom, in 1921, Belgian Ordre de Léopold in 1926 and honorary doctorate from the University of Oxford in 1928.
Personal Life & Legacy
Maurice Ravel remained unmarried all his life. Although there are many speculations about his love life there is no proof about them. His private life remains a mystery till date.
In October 1932, Ravel hurt his head in a taxi accident. Within a year, he started showing symptoms of aphasia, slowly losing his ability to create music. However, he remained physically and socially fit.
In 1937, he began to suffer pain and underwent an operation, after which there seemed to be a temporary improvement in his condition. But he soon lapsed into coma; dying on 28 December 1937 at the age of 62. He lies buried at the cemetery at Levallois-Perret, in the suburbs of Paris.
Ravel’s home at 5, Rue Maurice Ravel in Montfort-l'Amaury, has been turned into museum, named ‘maison-musée de Maurice Ravel’ after him. The house, left as he had known, is open to guided tour.
His birth certificate, witnessed by a fisherwoman, has been preserved in Ciboure’s town hall.