Maurice Ravel

1875–1937

20th Century

Maurice Ravel was a forward-thinker: he liked new ideas. He wasn’t afraid to be creative, but his boldness was always mixed with the skill and determination to get the details right. A winning combination!

Ravel was born in the Basque region of France, near the Spanish border. His mother was a free-thinker, and his father was an engineer and inventor who loved taking Ravel and his brother to see the latest mechanical devices. This was no ordinary family!

Gabriel Fauré taught him composition at the Paris Conservatoire and held him in high esteem, though many of the other teachers disliked him because his open-minded nature challenged their traditional views. At the Paris Exposition in 1889, Ravel was impressed by the performance of new Russian music, and by the exotic sound of the Javanese gamelan. These, as well as Spanish music, would all contribute to his composition.

Although a small man (only 5 feet tall) he pushed to fight in the First World War and was accepted as a lorry driver. It was a dangerous job and took huge courage. Affected by the death of his friends and of his mother, he wrote less after the war.

Ravel was 12 years younger than Debussy. People have called the music of both composers ‘impressionistic’, but their styles are different. Debussy’s music is free and harmonically daring; Ravel’s has more melodies, and a kind of sweet innocence and clarity. It is as if Debussy painted pictures with his music while Ravel held up a mirror and reflected reality with his.

Ravel’s famous Boléro – one long crescendo with a lot of repetition – showed how he liked to experiment with musical form. He himself said ‘unfortunately there’s no music in it’! But it has people hooked. He wrote some exotic-sounding pieces, bringing out wonderful colours from the orchestra; you can hear some of these in his Rapsodie espagnol, for example.

In 1913, Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring shocked listeners so much that there was a riot in the concert hall: according to the composer, Ravel was the only person who immediately understood the music. He was always ready to embrace the future.

Maurice Ravel

Play Music!

Play Music!

Have a go at listening to Ravel…

Boléro

This is one of the most popular of all classical works. Boléro is one long crescendo. Listen to that relentless snare drum: it begins on its own and gradually builds up tension with its repeated rhythm until, at the end, the music explodes in musical fireworks!

Performers: Orchestre National de Lyon; Leonard Slatkin

Taken from Naxos 8.572887

Jeux d’eau (‘Water Games’)

Ravel’s liquid-like piano piece gives the impression of a fountain, with its silvery cascades of notes. It was inspired by Liszt’s work Les Jeux d’eau à la Villa d’Este.

Performers: François-Joël Thiollier, piano

Taken from Naxos 8.552125-26

Rapsodie espagnole: IV. Feria

Ravel’s first major orchestral work shimmers with different sounds and Spanish dance rhythms. This final movement ends in a joyful outburst of orchestral colour!

Performers: Orchestre National de Lyon; Leonard Slatkin

Taken from Naxos 8.572887

Do You Know?

Do You Know?

See if you can answer the questions below!

 Ravel wrote a ballet about which two people?

a. Daphnis and Chloe
b. Antony and Cleopatra
c. Orpheus and Eurydice

 Ravel wrote a famous work in which a snare drum repeats a rhythm all the way through. What is the work called?

a. The Nutcracker
b. The Sorcerer’s Apprentice
c. Boléro

 Ravel fought in which war?

a. First World War
b. Second World War
c. Franco-Prussian War

 What is special about the piano concerto Ravel wrote for Paul Wittgenstein?

a. It’s written for two pianos.
b. It’s written for the left hand only.
c. It begins with a whip crack.

 Ravel was often compared with which French composer who lived at the same time?

a. Debussy
b. Berlioz
c. Saint-Saëns


Key Facts...

Key Facts…
  1. Ravel loved fine clothes, fine wine and good conversation.
  2. Ravel’s father was an inventor who invented ‘the whirlwind of death’ for circuses!
  3. Ravel collected mechanical toys as a hobby.
  4. Ravel wrote a piano concerto for one hand: Paul Wittgenstein, a pianist who had lost his right arm in the First World War, asked him to write it.
  5. A taxi accident in 1932 caused Ravel a nasty head injury, and he never recovered from the effects of this.

Play More Music!

Play More Music!

Here is more music to listen to. Click the + to see tracks and information about each work!

Orchestral Music


Ma Mère l’oye (‘Mother Goose’): Suite

Ravel originally wrote this five-piece suite as a piano duet for two children he knew, aged 6 and 7. He arranged it for orchestra a few years later – this is the version we most often hear. (Later still, it was expanded into a ballet.) The pieces are based on fairytales. Ravel used the instruments of the orchestra like a painter uses paints: listen to the high piccolo at 1:57 in the second piece, like a bird call in the trees; or, at 1:04 in the third piece, the grumbling low contrabassoon representing the beast!

Performers: Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra; Kenneth Jean

Taken from Naxos 8.550173


Daphnis et Chloé Suite No. 1

The complete ballet Daphnis et Chloé (‘Daphnis and Chloe’) is one of Ravel’s masterpieces and his longest work. It tells the story of the shepherd Daphnis’s love for Chloe. Ravel made two ‘suites’ from the ballet music: each a shorter collection of pieces. There are voices here too – listen to them in the second movement, creating a spooky atmosphere.

Performers: Slovak Philharmonic Chorus; Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra; Kenneth Jean

Taken from Naxos 8.550173


Pavane pour une infant défunte (‘Pavane for a dead princess’) (version for orchestra)

This slow and solemn piece has become one of Ravel’s most popular works. A pavane is a stately dance. Right from the start, a soft brass sound gives us the sad melody: this is a solo French horn. We often think of brass instruments as loud and brash, but this is completely different! The horn player needs good control to play this solo well.

Performers: Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra; Kenneth Jean

Taken from Naxos 8.556789


Pictures at an Exhibition (Mussorgsky, orch. M. Ravel) (extract)

Pictures at an Exhibition was written by the Russian composer Mussorgsky for the piano, but it is better known in Ravel’s imaginative orchestration: he created a version of it for the whole orchestra. The work depicts an exhibition of drawings and watercolours by a friend of Mussorgsky’s. Here is the final movement, describing a design for a huge gate at the entrance to the city of Kiev.

Performers: Slovak Philharmonic Orchestra; Daniel Nazareth

Taken from Naxos 8.550051

Piano Music


Piano Concerto for the Left Hand

This late, dark masterpiece was written for the pianist, Paul Wittgenstein, who lost his right arm in the First World War. So it is for one hand instead of two. (Prokofiev wrote a piano concerto for him too.) You might think this would be obvious from the sound of it – perhaps it would sound easier. But it doesn’t! It’s astonishing to think that just four fingers and a thumb play this piano part. The work begins very quietly, gradually waking and rising from the depths… Then at 2.34 the piano enters completely on its own. There is a wild, Romantic power in this music.

Performers: François-Joël Thiollier, piano; Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra; Antoni Wit

Taken from Naxos 8.550753


Piano Concerto in G major

This Piano Concerto begins in a completely different way from the Piano Concerto for Left Hand – and the whole work is lighter. It is full of jazz rhythms, and blues-like themes. It begins with a whip crack – that is certainly unusual! The second movement (track 2) has a long, dreamy melody played over a slow waltz rhythm: can you hear the ‘1 – 2 – 3, 1 – 2 – 3’ underneath?

Performers: François-Joël Thiollier, piano; Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra, Antoni Wit

Taken from Naxos 8.550753


Miroirs

This is a set of five atmospheric pieces for piano, each dedicated to one of Ravel’s artistic friends. It contains the famous ‘Alborada del gracioso’, with its strong Spanish flavour. Ravel was good at writing Spanish-sounding music! He was born in the Basque region of France, only a few kilometres from Spain. All the pieces are descriptive – in ‘A Boat on the Ocean’, for example, you can almost feel the rocking as it moves along, and hear the rolling waves underneath. And in ‘The Valley of the Bells’, Ravel creates bell-like chimes on the keyboard. He always chose which notes went together perfectly!

Performers: François-Joël Thiollier, piano

Taken from Naxos 8.550683


Le tombeau de Couperin

In the title, ‘tombeau’ means ‘a piece written as a memorial’. Though there was more than one composer called Couperin, it probably referred to François Couperin (1668–1733) – but it pays homage to the Baroque keyboard suite in general, and each movement is dedicated to a friend who died in the First World War. Ravel imitates the structure of a Baroque keyboard suite here, with the contrasting dance-like movements, but using his own 20th-century melodies and harmonies. There is a real peace in this music. Although Ravel wrote it after the death of his mother as well as several friends in the First World War, it is light-hearted and positive overall.

Performers: Klára Körmendi, piano

Taken from Naxos 8.550254

Chamber Works


Piano Trio in A minor

Ravel spent months pondering how to ensure that each instrument in a piano trio (piano, violin and cello) could be clearly heard – because the cello can sometimes be overpowered by the others. He decided to use the extreme pitch ranges of the instruments (the high notes and low notes) and the result is a captivatingly rich sound. Each instrument has equal weight. Just listen, for example, to the violin coming in at 0.18 in movement 1 with the melody just introduced by the piano – it plays it high up, alongside the piano, and the effect is magical. And at 2.36, when the violin is really high and the piano has occasional, quiet chords, the cello comes in with a clear melody. Everything is balanced and beautiful.

Performers: Joachim Trio

Taken from Naxos 8.550934


String Quartet in F major

Ravel finished his String Quartet (a work for two violins, viola and cello) in 1903. He modelled it on the structure of Debussy’s String Quartet, written about 10 years earlier, though the ideas of each quartet are very different. Movement 1 is gently exploring; movement 2 opens (like Debussy’s) with pizzicato (plucked) notes and is jazzy with unexpected, fun rhythms; movement 3 begins and ends tenderly but has a few tense moments in the middle; and movement 4 grabs you straight away with its stormy start!

Performers: Kodály Quartet

Taken from Naxos 8.550249