(Joseph) Maurice Ravel
(Born; Ciboure, 7 March 1875; Died; Paris, 28 Dec 1937). French
composer. His father's background was Swiss and his mother's Basque, but he was brought up
in Paris, where he studied at the Conservatoire, 1889-95, returning in 1897 for further
study with Fauré and Gédalge. In 1893 he met Chabrier and Satie, both of whom were
influential. A decade later he was an established composer, at least of songs and piano
pieces, working with luminous precision in a style that could imitate Lisztian bravura (Jeux
d'eau) or Renaissance calm (Pavane pour une infante défunte); there was also
the String Quartet, somewhat in the modal style of Debussy's but more ornately
instrumented. However, he five times failed to win the Prix de Rome (1900-05) and left the
Conservatoire to continue his life as a freelance musician.
During the next decade, that of his 30s, he was at his most
productive. There was a rivalry with Debussy and some dispute about priority in musical
discoveries, but Ravel's taste for sharply defined ideas and closed formal units was
entirely his own, as was the grand virtuosity of much of his piano music from this period,
notably the cycles Miroirs and Gaspard de la nuit. Many works also show his
fascination with things temporally or geographically distant, with moods sufficiently
alien to be objectively drawn: these might be historical musical styles, as in the
post-Schubertian Valses nobles et sentimentales, or the imagination of childhood,
as in Ma mère l'oye Or the composer's inspection might be turned on the East (Shéhérazade) or, as happened repeatedly, on Spain (Rapsodie espagnole, the comic opera L'heure espagnole). Or there might be a double focus, as in the vision of ancient Greece through the modification of 18th century French classicism in the languorous ballet Daphnis et Chloé;, written for Dyagilev.
The Ballets Russes were also important in introducing him
to Stravinsky, with whom he collaborated on a version of Musorgsky's Khovanshchina,
and whose musical development he somewhat paralleled during the decade or so after The
Rite of Spring. The set of three MallarmEacute; songs with nonet accompaniment were
written partly under the influence of Stravinsky's Japanese Lyrics and Schoenberg's
Pierrot lunaire, and the two sonatas of the 1920s can be compared with Stravinsky's
abstract works of the period in their harmonic astringency and selfconscious use of
established forms. However, Ravel's Le tombeau de Couperin, just as selfconscious,
predates Stravinsky's neo-classicism, and the pressure of musical history is perhaps felt
most intensely in the ballet La valse where 3/4 rhythm develops into a dance
macabre : both these works, like many others, exist in both orchestral and piano
versions, testifying to Ravel's superb technique in both media (in 1922 he applied his
orchestral skills tellingly to Musorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition). Other
postwar works return to some of the composer's obsessions: with the delights and dangers
of the child's world in the sophisticated fantasy opera L'enfant et les sortilèges,
with musical Spanishness in Boléro and the songs for a projected Don Quixote film,
and with the exotic in the Chansons madécasses. His last major effort was a pair
of piano concertos, one exuberant and cosmopolitan (in G major), the other (for left hand
only) more darkly and sturdily single-minded. He died after a long illness.
Operas: L'heure espagnole (1911); L'enfant
et les sortilèges (1925).
Ballets: Ma mère l'oye (1911); Daphnis et Chloé (1912); La valse (1920, perf. 1928); Boléro (1928).
Orchestral music: Rapsodie espagnole
(1908); Pavane pour une infante déunte (1910); Valses nobles et sentimentales (1912); Pf
Conc., left hand (1930); Pf Conc., G (1931).
Chamber music: Str Qt (1903); Introduction and Allegro, harp, 6 insts (1905); Pf Trio (1914); Sonata, vn, vc (1922); Tzigane, vn, pf (1924); Sonata, vn, pf (1927).
Piano music: Menuet antique (1895); Pavane pour une infante défunte (1899); Jeux d'eau (1901); Sonatine (1905); Miroirs (1905); Gaspard de la nuit (1908); Ma mère l'oye, 4 hands (1910); Valses nobles et sentimentales
(1911); Le tombeau de couperin (1917).
Songs with instruments: Shéhérazade (1903); Trois poèmes de Mallarmé (1913); Don Quichotte à Dulcinée (1933); Chansons
Songs with piano: 5 méodies populaires grecques (1906); Histoires naturelles (1906); Chants populaires (1910); 2 mélodies
hébraïques (1914); Ronsard à son Âme (1924).
© Groves Dictionaries, MacMillan Publishers Limited, UK