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Joseph Maurice Ravel (1875-1937).

  • Profession: Composer.
  • Residences: Paris.
  • Relation to Mahler:
  • Correspondence with Mahler: No.
  • Born: 07-03-1875 Cibourne, France.
  • Died: 28-12-1937 Paris, France.
  • Buried: 30-121937 Ravel was buried next to his parents in a granite tomb at the cemetery at Levallois-Perret, a suburb of northwest Paris. Ravel was an atheist and there was no religious ceremony.

Joseph Maurice Ravel was a French composer, pianist and conductor. He is often associated with impressionism along with his elder contemporary Claude Debussy, although both composers rejected the term. In the 1920s and '30s Ravel was internationally regarded as France's greatest living composer.

Born to a music-loving family, Ravel attended France's premier music college, the Paris Conservatoire; he was not well regarded by its conservative establishment, whose biased treatment of him caused a scandal. After leaving the conservatoire Ravel found his own way as a composer, developing a style of great clarity, incorporating elements of baroque, neoclassicism and, in his later works, jazz. He liked to experiment with musical form, as in his best-known work, Boléro (1928), in which repetition takes the place of development. He made some orchestral arrangements of other composers' music, of which his 1922 version of Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition is the best known.

As a slow and painstaking worker, Ravel composed fewer pieces than many of his contemporaries. Among his works to enter the repertoire are pieces for piano, chamber music, two piano concertos, ballet music, two operas, and eight song cycles; he wrote no symphonies or religious works. Many of his works exist in two versions: a first, piano score and a later orchestration. Some of his piano music, such as Gaspard de la nuit (1908), is exceptionally difficult to play, and his complex orchestral works such as Daphnis et Chloé (1912) require skilful balance in performance.

Ravel was among the first composers to recognise the potential of recording to bring their music to a wider public. From the 1920s, despite limited technique as a pianist or conductor, he took part in recordings of several of his works; others were made under his supervision.

Paris Conservatoire

With the encouragement of his parents, Ravel applied for entry to France's most important musical college, the Conservatoire de Paris. In November 1889, playing music by Chopin, he passed the examination for admission to the preparatory piano class run by Eugène Anthiòme. Ravel won the first prize in the Conservatoire's piano competition in 1891, but otherwise he did not stand out as a student. Nevertheless, these years were a time of considerable advance in his development as a composer. The musicologist Arbie Orenstein writes that for Ravel the 1890s were a period "of immense growth ... from adolescence to maturity." 

In 1891 Ravel progressed to the classes of Charles-Wilfrid de Bériot, for piano, and Émile Pessard, for harmony. He made solid, unspectacular progress, with particular encouragement from Bériot but, in the words of the musical scholar Barbara L. Kelly, he "was only teachable on his own terms". His later teacher Gabriel Fauré understood this, but it was not generally acceptable to the conservative faculty of the Conservatoire of the 1890s.

Ravel was expelled in 1895, having won no more prizes. His earliest works to survive in full are from these student days: Sérénade grotesque, for piano, and "Ballade de la Reine morte d'aimer", a mélodie setting a poem by Rolande de Marès (both 1893).

Ravel was never so assiduous a student of the piano as his colleagues such as Viñes and Cortot were. It was plain that as a pianist he would never match them, and his overriding ambition was to be a composer. From this point he concentrated on composition. His works from the period include the songs "Un grand sommeil noir" and "D'Anne jouant de l'espinette" to words by Paul Verlaine and Clément Marot, and the piano pieces Menuet antique and Habanera, the latter eventually incorporated into the Rapsodie espagnole.  At around this time, Joseph Ravel introduced his son to Erik Satie, who was earning a living as a café pianist. Ravel was one of the first musicians – Debussy was another – who recognised Satie's originality and talent. Satie's constant experiments in musical form were an inspiration to Ravel, who counted them "of inestimable value".

In 1897 Ravel was readmitted to the Conservatoire, studying composition with Fauré, and taking private lessons in counterpoint with André Gedalge. Both these teachers, particularly Fauré, regarded him highly and were key influences on his development as a composer. As Ravel's course progressed, Fauré reported "a distinct gain in maturity ... engaging wealth of imagination". Ravel's standing at the Conservatoire was nevertheless undermined by the hostility of the Director, Théodore Dubois, who deplored the young man's musically and politically progressive outlook. Consequently, according to a fellow-student, Michel-Dimitri Calvocoressi, he was "a marked man, against whom all weapons were good".

He wrote some substantial works while studying with Fauré, including the overture Shéhérazade and a violin sonata, but he won no prizes, and therefore was expelled again in 1900. As a former student he was allowed to attend Fauré's classes as a non-participating "auditeur" until finally abandoning the Conservatoire in 1903.

In 1899 Ravel composed his first piece to become widely known, though it made little impact initially: Pavane pour une infante défunte ("Pavane for a dead princess"). It was originally a solo piano work, commissioned by the Princesse de Polignac. In the same year he conducted the first performance of the Shéhérazade overture, which had a mixed reception, with boos mingling with applause from the audience, and unflattering reviews from the critics. One described the piece as "a jolting debut: a clumsy plagiarism of the Russian School" and called Ravel a "mediocrely gifted debutant ... who will perhaps become something if not someone in about ten years, if he works hard." Another critic, Pierre Lalo, thought that Ravel showed talent, but was too indebted to Debussy and should instead emulate Beethoven. Over the succeeding decades Lalo became Ravel's most implacable critic.

From the start of his career, Ravel appeared calmly indifferent to blame or praise. Those who knew him well believed that this was no pose but wholly genuine. The only opinion of his music that he truly valued was his own, perfectionist and severely self-critical. At twenty years of age he was, in the words of the biographer Burnett James, "self-possessed, a little aloof, intellectually biased, given to mild banter.". He dressed like a dandy and was meticulous about his appearance and demeanour. Orenstein comments that, short in stature,light in frame, and bony in features, Ravel had the "appearance of a well-dressed jockey", whose large head seemed suitably matched to his formidable intellect. During the late 1890s and into the early years of the next century, Ravel was bearded in the fashion of the day; from his mid-thirties he was clean-shaven.

Les Apaches and Debussy

Around 1900 Ravel and a number of innovative young artists, poets, critics, and musicians joined together in an informal group; they came to be known as Les Apaches ("The Hooligans"), a name coined by Viñes to represent their status as "artistic outcasts". They met regularly until the beginning of the First World War, and members stimulated one other with intellectual argument and performances of their works. The membership of the group was fluid, and at various times included Igor Stravinsky and Manuel de Falla as well as their French friends.

Among the enthusiasms of the Apaches was the music of Debussy. Ravel, twelve years his junior, had known Debussy slightly since the 1890s, and their friendship, though never close, continued for more than ten years. In 1902 André Messager conducted the premiere of Debussy's opera Pelléas et Mélisande at the Opéra-Comique. It divided musical opinion. Dubois unavailingly forbade Conservatoire students to attend, and the conductor's friend and former teacher Camille Saint-Saëns was prominent among those who detested the piece. The Apaches were loud in their support. The first run of the opera consisted of fourteen performances: 

Debussy was widely held to be an impressionist composer – a label he intensely disliked. Many music lovers began to apply the same term to Ravel, and the works of the two composers were frequently taken as part of a single genre. Ravel thought that Debussy was indeed an impressionist but that he himself was not. Orenstein comments that Debussy was more spontaneous and casual in his composing while Ravel was more attentive to form and craftsmanship. Ravel wrote that Debussy's "genius was obviously one of great individuality, creating its own laws, constantly in evolution, expressing itself freely, yet always faithful to French tradition. For Debussy, the musician and the man, I have had profound admiration, but by nature I am different from Debussy ... I think I have always personally followed a direction opposed to that of (his) symbolism". During the first years of the new century Ravel's new works included the piano piece Jeux d'eau (1901), the String Quartet and the orchestral song cycle Shéhérazade (both 1903). Commentators have noted some Debussian touches in some parts of these works. Nichols calls the quartet "at once homage to and exorcism of Debussy's influence".

The two composers ceased to be on friendly terms in the middle of the 1900s, for musical and possibly personal reasons. Their admirers began to form factions, with adherents of one composer denigrating the other. Disputes arose about the chronology of the composers' works and who influenced whom. Prominent in the anti-Ravel camp was Lalo, who wrote, "Where M. Debussy is all sensitivity, M. Ravel is all insensitivity, borrowing without hesitation not only technique but the sensitivity of other people." The public tension led to personal estrangement.

Ravel said, "It's probably better for us, after all, to be on frigid terms for illogical reasons." Nichols suggests an additional reason for the rift. In 1904 Debussy left his wife and went to live with the singer Emma Bardac. Ravel, together with his close friend and confidante Misia Edwards and the opera star Lucienne Bréval, contributed to a modest regular income for the deserted Lilly Debussy, a fact that Nichols suggests may have rankled with her husband.