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Maurice Ravel

Maurice Ravel once remarked, “A composer who shows no influences should change his profession.”  Ravel’s own compositions demonstrate that he was aware of and interested in an enormous variety of music, everything from flamenco to French Baroque, masterworks to jazz.  In his youth, Ravel’s eclecticism earned him nothing but disdain from the French musical establishment.  After World War I, however, he became the leading representative of French music both at home and abroad.

Ravel at the Paris Conservatoire

Joseph Maurice Ravel was born on March 7, 1875 in the Basque village of Ciboure.  Shortly after his birth however, his parents, Pierre Joseph Ravel and Marie Delouart, moved with their new family to Paris.  Though Pierre Joseph Ravel made a living as a civil engineer and an inventor, working mostly in the early automobile industry, he loved music and supported his eldest son’s ambitions.  Maurice began piano lessons in 1882 at the age of seven, and he soon also showed an aptitude for composition. 

At fourteen, he was admitted as a piano student to the conservatory in Paris.  There he studied piano and harmony, but after a promising start and an award for piano in 1891, his further efforts went unrecognized.  He was in fact dismissed in 1895, after which he focused on composition.

Ravel himself wrote that the composers Emmanuel Chabrier and Erik Satie influenced his earliest works, such as the Sérénade grotesque for piano and the Ballade De la Reine morte d’aimer (Ravel wrote both of these works in 1893, but they remained unpublished until 1975).  Also at this time, musical experiments in the company of Ricardo Viñes, a close friend from the conservatory, led to some of Ravel’s first significant works, including the “Habanera,” written for two pianos in 1895.

Two years later, in 1897, he enrolled yet again in the conservatory.  This time he joined the composition studio of Gabriel Fauré.  His work, however, still failed to impress the faculty and he was dismissed from his composition class in 1900.  But he must have felt that he was on the right path, as he stayed on at the conservatory, auditing classes with Fauré until 1903.  His compositions from this period include the piano piece Pavane pour une infante défunte (1899) and the String Quartet in F (1902-3), both of which are still performed regularly today.

Establishing a Reputation

While at the conservatory, Ravel and Viñes were active with a group of young musicians, writers, and artists christened “Les Apaches” by Viñes.  Members met regularly on Saturday nights from around 1900 until the onset of the First World War.  Among other events, Viñes premiered several of Ravel’s piano compositions, including Miroirs; in homage to his supportive friend, Ravel dedicated the piano work Gaspard de la nuit (1908) to Viñes.  Ravel also participated in other important Parisian circles, and his early works gained a following among his contemporaries.

However, Ravel continued to suffer disappointments at the conservatory.  He competed for the Prix de Rome five times, but never received an award higher than third place.  His submissions for this contest, from 1900 to 1905, included Les Bayadères for chorus, and the three cantatas Myrrha, Alcyone, and Alyssa.  Other pieces, such as the 1901 Jeux d’eau for piano, and the 1903 exotic orchestral song cycle Shéhérazade, set to poetry by fellow Apache Tristan Klingsor, were considered controversial by the some of the faculty members. 

His compositions, however, helped him to make a name for himself, not only among the other Apaches, but also at the Société Nationale de Musique, where Fauré had negotiated premieres of the piano piece Sites auriculaires and the Shéhéradzade overture (to an unfinished opera).

Ravel’s early career continued to see its share of controversy. Aside from the faculty response to the Shéhérazade song cycle, Ravel’s premature elimination from the 1905 Prix de Rome competition caused an outright scandal that exposed a case of favoritism, and eventually led to the resignation of the conservatory’s director (Fauré was then appointed to fill the vacancy).  And, in 1906, when the song set Histoires Naturelles premiered at the Société, it was thoroughly criticized for its unconventional setting of the text.  Some listeners, led by critic Pierre Lalo, also found it to be derivative of Debussy’s musical writing.  There was an upside to this exposure, however.  The Prix de Rome scandal brought Ravel to the attention of the publishing firm Durand, which began printing his compositions.

In 1907, he began work on the one-act opera L’Heure espagnole, to a libretto by the young poet Maurice-Etienne Legend.  While the Opéra-Comique agreed to produce L’Heure espagnole before Ravel had even orchestrated it, in the end the little opera buffa about infidelity was considered a bit too risqué.  It did not premiere until 1911, when it was performed as an opening act before another play at the Paris Odéon.

National and International Success

Ravel found the atmosphere of the Société Nationale de Musique to be dominated by followers of composer Vincent d’Indy’s Schola Cantorum, an institution established in 1894 for the study of early music and counterpoint.  The Schola Cantorum’s conservative musical approach proved to be the source of significant antagonism towards Ravel, and he decided in 1909 to establish a separate association, the Société Musicale Indépendente.  With Fauré as president, the group launched its own concert series in 1910

Around this time, Ravel also became involved in a circle of artists associated with Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes.  In 1909, the company’s inaugural year, Diaghilev commissioned Daphnis et Chloé.  The ballet was not finished until 1912, but the scandal caused only days before by the choreography in Debussy’s L’après-mide d’un faune eclipsed any critical interest in Ravel’s work.  However, two compositions originally for piano, Ma Mère L’Oye (1908-10) and Valses nobles et sentimentales (1911), were reworked during these years into ballet scores for Diaghilev’s troupe.  Additionally, Ravel made the acquaintance of Igor Stravinsky through their mutual association with the Ballets Russes.  Stravinsky’s own work influenced Ravel, particularly the songs of Trois poèmes de Stéphane Mallarmé (1913). 

During World War One, Ravel’s patriotic spirit led him to take part in the war effort.  However, since weak health prevented him from enlisting, he drove a truck for the Thirteenth Artillery Regiment.  Before the end of the war, Ravel’s mother died.  He was deeply affected by this loss, and his compositional output slowed drastically thereafter.  Each work took longer to complete, and there were only one or two produced each year. Among these works was a ballet commissioned by Dialghilev, La valse (1919-20), but which, in the end, he decided not to stage (it was premiered as a ballet in 1929).  Pianist Marguerite Long premiered Le tombeau de Couperin (1914-7) at the Société Musicale Indépendente in 1919 to strong approbation, and this suite of piano pieces later became a ballet score as well. 

In the post-war period, Ravel inherited Debussy’s position as France’s foremost composer.  However, he felt compelled to refuse the Légion d’Honneur when it was awarded to him in 1920 because of his previous negative experience with the government regarding the Prix de Rome.

During the 1920s and 1930s, Ravel spent divided his time between Paris, Basque country, and Montfort l’Amaury, where he procured a comfortable villa.  He also embarked upon numerous concert tours.  On his 1928 tour of the United States, he visited more than two-dozen North American cities, performing, conducting, lecturing, and giving interviews for many prominent publications.  At New York’s Carnegie Hall, the Boston Symphony Orchestra played an entire program of Ravel’s works under the baton of Serge Koussevitzky.  Ravel was received there with great enthusiasm and critical approval. 

New works progressed slowly in the 1920s, but included a number of significant compositions: the Sonata for violin and piano (1923-7), the Chansons madécasses (1925-6), the beloved ballet score for Boléro (1928).  There was also his operatic collaboration with the writer Colette, L’Enfant et les sortileges, which debuted in Monte Carlo in 1925.  And for the Austrian pianist Paul Wittgenstein (later an American citizen), who had been injured during the war, Ravel wrote a concerto for the left hand.  This work, the Piano Concerto for the Left Hand in D (1929-30), was followed by the more traditional Piano Concerto in G (1929-31).  Marguerite Long premiered the latter, and throughout 1932 she toured with Ravel, who served as conductor.

Don Quichotte à Dulcinée

Ravel had been experiencing intermittent insomnia and weakness for more than a decade, and exhaustion forced him at last to take time away from his busy schedule.  Around this same time, an accident in a Parisian taxi initially seemed to only leave him with minor injuries, but is thought to have hastened the final decline of his health. 

While recuperating in Basque country, he worked on a ballet (left unfinished), and a set of songs.  These were written for a film version of Don Quixote, directed by Georg Pabst and starring the great Russian bass Feodor Chaliapin.   However, Pabst seems secretly to have commissioned several composers to provide the same material, and in the end chose the settings of Jacques Ibert.  The baritone Martial Singher ultimately premiered Ravel’s songs, Don Quichotte à Dulcinée, in their orchestrated form in a 1934 Paris concert. 

These songs were his last.  In 1933, he had begun to experience increasing difficulty with muscle coordination and speech, symptoms of Pick’s Disease (a form of dementia).  He continued to travel and to conduct between periods of rest, but his condition worsened, and in 1937 Ravel agreed to undergo brain surgery.  Though he was conscious for two days following the operation, he then fell into a coma, and died on December 28, 1937.


Kelly, Barbara L.  “History and Homage.”  The Cambridge Companion to Ravel.  Ed. Deborah Mawer.  Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2000.  7-26.

Kelly, Barbara L.: ‘Ravel, (Joseph) Maurice’, Grove Music Online ed. L. Macy (Accessed 9 March 2006), <>

Nichols, Roger.  “Ravel: Don Quichotte à Dulcinée.”  Notes to José Van Dam and the Orchestre de l’Opéra de Lyon.  Cond. Kent Nagano.  Virgin Classics 7 59236 2, 1992.

Orenstein, Arbie, ed.  A Ravel Reader.  New York: Columbia University Press, 1990.

Smith, Richard Langham.  “Ravel’s Operatic Spectacles: L’Heure and L’Enfant.”  The Cambridge Companion to Ravel.  Ed. Deborah Mawer.  Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2000.  188-210.