This past Saturday was the 140th anniversary of Ravel's birthday. We celebrated with great music throughout the day and a deeper look into the composer's life.
Maurice Ravel was born March 07, 1875. He was a leading classical composer and musician of the Impressionist period who penned works that to this day remain some of the most popular.
1. Ravel was born in Ciboure, France near the border of Spain and the Basque region.
His parents were Joseph Ravel and Marie Delouart. Joseph was a Swiss inventor and industrialist. Some of his inventions were quite important, including an early internal combustion engine and a notorious circus machine, the "Whirlwind of Death", an automotive loop-the-loop that was quite a success until a fatal accident at the Barnum & Bailey Circus in 1903.
See the house Ravel was born in below.
2. He made his first public piano recital at the age of 14.
Ravel received an excellent education that took him to the Conservatoire de Paris where he was taught by Emile Descombes. He received a first prize in the piano student competition in 1891. Overall, however, he was not successful academically even as his musicianship matured dramatically. Considered "very gifted", Ravel was also called "somewhat heedless" in his studies. Around 1893, Ravel created his earliest compositions, and he was introduced by his father to the café pianist Erik Satie, whose distinctive personality and unorthodox musical experiments proved influential.
3. Ravel was embroiled in a scandal, named the "Ravel Affair" by the Parisian press, while at the Conservatoire.
During his years at the Conservatoire, Ravel tried numerous times to win the prestigious Prix de Rome, but to no avail; he was probably considered too radical by the conservatives, including Director Théodore Dubois. Ravel's String Quartet in F is now a standard work of chamber music, though at the time it was criticized and found lacking academically. In 1905, Ravel's final year of eligibility for the Prix de Rome, Ravel did not even pass the preliminary test, despite being favored to win one of the two first prizes available. Instead, all six selected finalists were students of Charles Lenepveu, a member of the jury and heir apparent of Dubois as director of the Conservatoire. The "Ravel Affair" engaged the entire artistic community, pitting conservatives against the avant-garde that eventually caused the resignation of Dubois. He was replaced by Gabriel Fauré instead of Lenepveu, a vindication of sorts for Ravel. Below, a picture of the Conservatoire in the late 1800s.
4. One of his contemporaries and friends was Claude Debussy.
Debussy was older than Ravel by twelve years. His pioneering Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune was very influential among the younger musicians including Ravel, who were impressed by the new language of impressionism. The two musicians also appreciated much the same musical heritage and operated in the same artistic milieu, but they differed in terms of personality and their approach to music. Debussy was considered more spontaneous and casual in his composing while Ravel was more attentive to form and craftsmanship.
5. He was a sensitive, short dapper man who took care with his appearance and dressed well.
He also possessed a good sense of humor but was shy and introvert. He was well-read and later accumulated a library of over 1,000 volumes. He became a lifelong tobacco smoker in his youth, and he enjoyed strongly flavored meals, fine wine, and spirited conversation. Ravel never married.
6. Ravel was a member of "Les Apaches."
A creative group of Impressionists consisting of writers, poets, painters and musicians referred to as 'artistic outcasts' and included Igor Stravinsky and Manuel de Falla as its members. The name means hooligans. It was coined by pianist Ricardo Viñes to represent his band of "artistic outcasts". The group met regularly until the beginning of World War I and the members often inspired each other with intellectual argument and performances of their works before the group. One of the first works Ravel performed for the Apaches was Jeux d'eau, his first piano masterpiece and clearly a pathfinding impressionistic work.
7. Writing the music for the ballet Daphnis et Chloé nearly killed Ravel.
Ravel began work with impresario Sergei Diaghilev during 1909 for the ballet commissioned by Diaghilev with the lead danced by the famous ballet dancer and choreographer Vaslav Nijinsky. It took three years to complete, with conflicts constantly arising among the principal artists, including Léon Bakst (sets and costumes), Michel Fokine (libretto), and Ravel (music). The ballet had an unenthusiastic reception and lasted only two performances, only to be revived to acclaim a year later. The score utilizes a large orchestra and two choruses, one onstage and one offstage. So exhausting was the effort to score the ballet that Ravel's health deteriorated. He was diagnosed with neurasthenia, forcing him to rest for several months.
Igor Stravinsky called Daphnis et Chloé "one of the most beautiful products of all French music" and author Burnett James claims that it is "Ravel's most impressive single achievement, as it is his most opulent and confident orchestral score".
8. "Why do you want to become a second-rate Ravel when you are already a first-rate Gershwin?"
This was the response, according to George Gershwin, made by Ravel when Gershwin told him he wanted to study with the French composer. The second part of the story has Ravel asking Gershwin how much money he made. Upon hearing Gershwin's reply, Ravel suggested that maybe HE should study with Gershwin. George Gershwin and Ravel met in 1928 when Ravel made a 4-month concert tour of North America. Ravel conducted most of the leading orchestras in the U.S. from coast to coast and visited twenty-five cities. The great success of his tour made Ravel famous internationally. Although the tour was conducted mainly in the United States, he was doubtless pleased to include three Canadian cities in his itinerary, both for their French affinity and for the opportunity to make sight-seeing visits to places like Niagara Falls. His engagements took him to Vancouver, Toronto and Montreal.
Pictured below: Ravel at the piano, accompanied by Canadian singer Éva Gauthier, during his American tour, March 7, 1928. Third from right (standing) is conductor-composer Manoah Leide-Tedesco. At far right is George Gershwin. Eva aranged the party in New York to celebrate Ravel's 53rd birthday
9. Ravel's most popular work, Bolero, was actually an experiment.
Ravel called it "an experiment in a very special and limited direction". He stated his idea for the piece, "I am going to try to repeat it a number of times on different orchestral levels but without any development." He conceived of it as an accompaniment to a ballet and not as an orchestral piece as, in his own opinion, "it has no music in it", and was somewhat taken aback by its popular success. A public dispute began with conductor Arturo Toscanini. The Italian maestro, taking liberties with Ravel's strict instructions, conducted the piece at a faster tempo and with an "accelerando at the finish". Ravel insisted "I don't ask for my music to be interpreted, but only that it should be played." In the end, the feuding only helped to increase the work's fame. A Hollywood film titled Bolero (1934), starring Carole Lombard and George Raft, made major use of the theme. Ravel made one of the few recordings of his own music when he conducted his Boléro with the Lamoureux Orchestra in 1930.
Watch Valery Gergiev conduct the London Symphony Orchestra in a performance of Ravel's Bolero
10. According to SACEM (the organization that collects and distributes royalties in France), as recently as 2009 Ravel has been on the list of the top 20 artists whose works have generated the most royalties abroad.
Despite Ravel's success, he never felt he deserved it and was always taken aback by people's reponse.