Maurice Ravel

A biography and discussion of Maurice Ravel's life and compositions.

Maurice Ravel was born on March 7th, 1875 in Ciboure, France which is located in the heart of the Basque country in southwestern France. His mother, a Basque woman named Marie Deluart came from a family of fisherman and sailors. His father, Joseph Ravel, was of Franco-Swiss descent, and an engineer by trade. The Ravel family lived in a 17th century Hollandaise styled house built by a Dutch architect that faced the harbour of St. Jean de Luz, until Maurice was

about three or four month old, before moving to Montmartre. He was christened Joseph Maurice Ravel in a tiny 16th century church called St. Vincent's just behind their house in Ciboure, several weeks after his birth.

In Paris, Ravel grew up among many artists and musicians, and began his musical studies with piano lessons when he was seven years old. He would later write that his father, who had been educated in music, was the one who nurtured Ravel's interest in music, and helped develop his

musical tastes.

It was not long after he began piano lessons that he and his father were performing duets together. When he was fourteen he entered the Paris Conservatoire de Musique where he continued to study until he was thirty years old. In 1897, he studied under the tutelage of French composer Gabriel Faure.

In 1895 and 1898, Ravel had finished his first works, Menuet Antique and Les Sites Auriclaires, which were both written for the piano. During his first year at the conservatory, he met Eric Satie and was fascinated with his unorthodox harmonies and techniques. His first compositions were strongly influenced by Satie's style of music. However, he was to receive only minimal recognition for these two pieces. One of his teachers, Gedalge, was to later refer to him as the most remarkable counterpoint student he had ever had. His professors, it appears, were not too pleased though when he startled them one day by playing Satie's Gymnopedies. Then in 1901

he finally published Jeux D'Eau (Water Games) followed by SHEHERAZADE in 1903, and STRING QUARTET IN F in 1904.

Strongly influenced by the works of Liszt, Mussorgsky, and Faure, Ravel, along with Claude Debussy created a style of music that was largely inspired by the Impressionist paintings of Claude Monet. Impressionistic music dealt largely with evoking images of moods and places.

In 1905, Ravel left the Paris Conservatoire, after having spent sixteen years of studying there. He then proceeded to compose numerous works including: Sonatine, and five Miroirs in 1905, Introduction and Allegro in 1906 , L'Heure Espagnole in 1907, Rapsodie Espagnole in 1907, Gapspard de la Nuit in 1908, Ma Mere L'Oye in 1908, Valeses Nobles et Sentimentales in 1911, and a ballet Daphnis et Chloe in 1912.

Ravel's style of music began to change around the time of Claude Debussy's death in 1918. His work became more abstract and closer to the neo-classical styles of Stravinsky, incorporating early jazz rhythms and harmonies. However, Ravel retained that quality of style which made all his music instantly recognizable as his own.

Stravinsky once referred to Ravel as "the Swiss watchmaker" because of his painstaking attention to detail. He would perfect small, self contained blocks of music before integrating them into a larger, more complex structure of his composition, much like the many moving parts of a watch.

Apparently, Ravel did not feel that composing music came easily to him. He wrote, "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 very little . . . and at that, I did it with a great deal of 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."

In 1928, Ravel wrote his most famous piece of music, Bolero, while on holiday in his hometown, Ciboure. Each year, his whole family would return to visit Ciboure for their annual vacation, and he had continued to visit even after his parents deaths. Bolero is built upon two musical themes which is repeated eighteen times during the work. It is not an attempt of Spanish dance music, nor is it a bolero or folk dance at all. It is slower in tempo than a bolero dance, and is a combination of a polonaise, chaconne, and zarabande while throughout the piece the rhythm of a snare drum beats relentlessly. Most people either love or hate this piece. Many think it is repetitive and boring while others find it hypnotizing and fascinating. It is, in any event, the world's longest musical crescendo.

In fact, on Sept 1, 1997, a British study published in 'Psychiatric Bulletine' claims Ravel may have been in the early stages of Alzheimer's disease because of its repetitive melody. Dr. Eva Cybulska, the author of the study, suggests this possibility due to the fact that most people with this affliction suffer from an obsession with repeating words and gestures.

When Ravel was in his fifties, he traveled to America for the first time, for a four month tour and was deemed an immediate success. He was to meet many celebrities, including Gershwin, whom he very much admired.

In 1927 Ravel began to show signs of dementia, and suffered from muscle problems and aphasia. After a car crash in 1932, his symptoms worsened and he eventually lost all ability to communicate. In 1937 he underwent brain surgery due to a brain tumor, but died later that year, in Paris, at the age of sixty-two. He was buried in the cemetery of Levallois Perret with his parents.

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