Ravel,(Joseph) Maurice , great French composer; b. Ciboure, Basses-Pyrénées, March 7, 1875; d. Paris, Dec. 28, 1937. His father was a Swiss engineer, and his mother of Basque origin. The family moved to Paris when he was an infant. He began to study piano at the age of 7 with Henri Ghis and harmony at 12 with Charles-René. After further piano studies with Emile Descombes, he entered the Paris Cons. as a pupil of Eugène Anthiôme in 1889. He won first medal (1891), and passed to the advanced class of Charles de Bériot; also studied harmony with Emile Pessard. He left the Cons. in 1895 and that same year completed work on his song Un Grand Sommeil noir, the Menuet antique for Piano, and the Habanera for 2 Pianos (later included in the Rapsodie espagnole for Orch.); these pieces, written at the age of 20, already reveal great originality in the treatment of old modes and of Spanish motifs; however, he continued to study; in 1897 he returned to the Cons. to study with Fauré (composition) and Gédalge (counterpoint and Orch.estration); his well-known Pavane pour une infante défunte for Piano was written during that time (1899). On May 27, 1899, he conducted the premiere of his overture Shéhérazade in Paris; some elements of this work were incorporated in his song cycle of the same name (1903). In 1901 he won the 2nd Prix de Rome with the cantata Myrrha; but ensuing attempts to win the Grand Prix de Rome were unsuccessful; at his last try (1905) he was eliminated in the preliminaries, and so was not allowed to compete; the age limit then set an end to his further effort to enter. Since 6 prizes all went to pupils of Lenepveu, suspicion of unfair discrimination was aroused; Jean Marnold publ. an article, “Le Scandale du Prix de Rome,” in the Mercure de France (June 1905) in which he brought the controversy into the open; this precipitated a crisis at the Cons.; its director, Théodore Dubois, resigned, and Fauré took his place. By that time, Ravel had written a number of his most famous compositions, and was regarded by most French critics as a talented disciple of Debussy. No doubt Ravel’s method of poetic association of musical ideas paralleled that of Debussy; his employment of unresolved dissonances and the enhancement of the diatonic style into pandiatonicism were techniques common to Debussy and his followers; but there were important differences: whereas Debussy adopted the scale of whole tones as an integral part of his musical vocabulary, Ravel resorted to it only occasionally; similarly, augmented triads appear much less frequently in Ravel’s music than in Debussy’s; in his writing for piano, Ravel actually anticipated some of Debussy’s usages; in a letter addressed to Pierre Lalo and publ. in Le Temps (April 9, 1907), Ravel pointed out that at the time of the publication of his piano piece feux d’eau (1902) Debussy had brought out only his suite Pour le piano, which had contained little that was novel. In Paris, elsewhere in France, and soon in England and other European countries, Ravel’s name became well known, but for many years he was still regarded as an ultramodernist. A curious test of audience appreciation was a “Concert des Auteurs Anonymes” presented by the Société Independante de Musique on May 9, 1911; the program included Ravel’s Valses nobles et sentimentales, a set of piano pieces in the manner of Schubert; yet Ravel was recognized as the author. Inspired evocation of the past was but one aspect of Ravel’s creative genius; in this style are his Pavane pour une infante defunte, Le Tombeau de Couperin, and La Valse; luxuriance of exotic colors marks his ballet Daphnis et Chloé;, his opera L’Heure espagnole, the song cycles Shéhérazade and Chansons madécasses, and his virtuoso pieces for Piano Miroirs and Gaspard de la nuit; other Works are deliberately austere, even ascetic, in their pointed classicism: the piano concertos, the Piano Sonatina, and some of his songs with piano accompaniment. His association with Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes was most fruitful; for Diaghilev he wrote one of his masterpieces, Daphnis et Chloé; another ballet, Boléro, commissioned by Ida Rubinstein and performed at her dance recital at the Paris Opéra on Nov. 22, 1928, became Ravel’s most spectacular success as an Orch. piece.
Ravel never married, and lived a life of semiretirement, devoting most of his time to composition; he accepted virtually no pupils, although he gave friendly advice to Vaughan Williams and to others; he was never on the faculty of any school. As a performer, he was not brilliant; he appeared as a pianist only in his own Works, and often accompanied singers in programs of his songs; although he accepted engagements as a conductor, his technique was barely sufficient to secure a perfunctory performance of his music. When World War I broke out in 1914, he was rejected for military service because of his frail physique, but he was anxious to serve; his application for air service was denied, but he was received in the ambulance corps at the front; his health gave way, and in the autumn of 1916 he was compelled to enter a hospital for recuperation. In 1922 he visited Amsterdam and Venice, conducting his music; in 1923 he appeared in London; in 1926 he went to Sweden, England, and Scotland; in 1928 he made an American tour as a conductor and pianist; in the same year he received the degree of D.Mus. honoris causa at the Univ. of Oxford. In 1929 he was honored by his native town by the inauguration of the Quai Maurice Ravel. Shortly afterward, he began to experience difficulties in muscular coordination, and suffered from attacks of aphasia, symptoms indicative of a cerebral malady; he underwent brain surgery on Dec. 19, 1937, but it was not successful; he died 9 days later.
DRAMATIC : Opera : L’Heure espagnole, opera (1907–09; Paris, May 19, 1911); L’Enfant et les sortilèges, fantaisie lyrique (1920–25; Monte Carlo, March 21, 1925). Bal1et : Ma Mère l’Oye (1911; Paris, Jan. 21, 1912; based on the piano work with additional material); Daphnis et Chloé; (1909–12; Paris, June 8, 1912); Adélaïde, ou Le Langage des fleurs (Paris, April 22, 1912; based on the Valses nobles et sentimentales); Le Tombeau de Couperin (Paris, Nov. 8, 1920; based on the piano work); La Valse (Paris, Dec. 12, 1920); Boléro (Paris, Nov. 22, 1928). ORCH.: Shéhérazade, ouverture féerique (1898; Paris, May 27, 1899); Une Barque sur l’océan (1906; based on the piano work); Rapsodie espagnole (Paris, March 15, 1908); Pavane pour une infante défunte (Paris, Dec. 25, 1910; based on the piano work); Daphnis et Chloé;, 2 suites (1911, 1913); Alborada del gracioso (Paris, May 17, 1919; based on the piano work); La Valse, poème chorégraphique (Paris, Dec. 12, 1920); Le Tombeau de Couperin (Paris, Feb. 28, 1920;) based on the piano work); Tzigane, rapsodie de concert for Violin and Orch. (Paris, Dec. 7, 1924; based on the work for Violin and Piano); Menuet antique (1929; based on the piano work); Piano Concerto in D for Left Hand Alone, written for Paul Wittgenstein (1929–30; Vienna, Nov. 27, 1931); Piano Concerto in G major (1929–31; Paris, Jan. 14, 1932). CHAMBER : Violin Sonata (1897); String Quartet in F major (1902–03); Introduction et Allegro for Harp, Flute, Clarinet, and String Quartet (1905; Paris, Feb. 22, 1907); Piano Trio (1914); Le Tombeau de Claude Debussy for Violin and Cello (1920); Sonata for Violin and Cello (1920–22); Berceuse sur le nom de Gabriel fauré; for Violin and Piano (1922); Violin Sonata (1923–27); Tzigane, rapsodie de concert for Violin and Piano (London, April 26, 1924). Piano : Sérénade grotesque (c. 1893); Menuet antique (1895); Sites auriculaires for 2 Pianos (1895–97): Pavane pour une infante défunte (1899) and Jeux d’eau (1901); Sonatine (1903–05); Miroirs (1904–05); Gaspard de la nuit (1908); Menuet sur le nom d’Haydn (1909); Ma Mère l’Oye, 5 “pièces enfantines” for Piano, 4-Hands (written for Christine Verger, age 6, and Germaine Durant, age 10, and first perf. by them, Paris, April 20, 1910); Valses nobles et sentimentales (1911); Prélude (1913); À la manière de…Borodin (1913); A la manière de…Chabrier (1913); Le Tombeau de Couperin (1914–17); Frontispiece for 2 Pianos, 5-Hands (1918); La Valse for 2 Pianos (1921; based on the Orch. work); Boléro for 2 Pianos (1930; based on the Orch. work). VOCAL : Les Bayadáres tournent légères for Soprano, Chorus, and Orch. (1900); 3 cantatas, all for 3 Solo Voices and Orch.: Myrrha (1901), Alcyone (1902), and Alyssa (1903); Tout est lumière for Soprano, Chorus, and Orch. (1901); La Nuit for Soprano, Chorus, and Orch. (1902); Matinée de Provence for Soprano, Chorus, and Orch. (1903); Manteau de fleurs for Voice and Orch. (1903; based on the song for Voice and Piano); Shéhérazade for Mezzo-soprano and Orch. (1903; Paris, May 17, 1904); Noël des jouets for Voice and Orch. (1905; 2nd version, 1913; based on the song for Voice and Piano); L’Aurore for Tenor, Chorus, and Orch. (1905); Chanson de la Mariée and Tout gai for Voice and Orch. (1904–06; based on songs nos. 1 and 5 from the cycle Cinq mélodies populaires grecques for Voice and Piano); Trois poèmes de Stéphane Mallarmé; for Voice, Piccolo, Flute, Clarinet, Bass Clarinet, Piano, and String Quartet (1913; Paris, Jan. 14, 1914); Trois chansons for Chorus (1914–15); Deux mélodies hébraïques for Voice and Orch. (1919; based on the songs for Voice and Piano); Chanson hébraïque for Voice and Orch. (1923–24; based on song no. 4 from the cycle Chants populaires for Voice and Piano); Chansons madécasses for Voice, Flute, Piano, and Cello (1925–26); Don Quichotte à Dulcinée for Baritone and Orch. (1932–33; Paris, Dec. 1, 1934); Ronsard à son âme for Voice and Orch. (1935; based on the song for Voice and Piano). Songs : Ballade de la Reine morte d’aimer (c. 1893); Un Grand Sommeil noir (1895); Sainte (1896); Deux épigrammes de Clément Marot (1896–99); Chanson du rouet (1898); S; morne! (1898); Manteau de fleurs (1903); Shéhérazade (1903; based on the work for Mezzo-soprano and Orch.); Noël des jouets (1905); Cinq mélodies populaires grecques (1904–06); Histoires naturelles (1906); Les Grands Vents venus d’outremer (1907); Sur l’herbe (1907); Vocalise-étude en forme de habanera (1907); Tripatos (1909); Chants populaires (1910); Trois poèmes de Stéphane Mallarmé; (1913; based on songs for Voice and Various Instruments); Deux mélodies hébraïques (1914); Trois chansons (1914–15; based on the choral work); Ronsard à son âme (1923–24); Chansons madécasses (1926; based on the work for Voice, Flute, Piano, and Cello); Rêves (1927); Don Quichotte à Dulcinée (1932–33; based on the work for Baritone and Orch.). OTHER : Various arrangements, including a celebrated version of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition for Orch. (Paris, Oct. 19, 1922, Koussevitzky conducting).
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—Nicolas Slonimsky/Laura Kuhn/Dennis McIntire