Happy Birthday Maurice Ravel!

Happy Birthday to Maurice Ravel

Happy Birthday Ravel!

The French composer, pianist and conductor Maurice Ravel was born on this day in 1875. During the 1920s and 30s, he was generally considered France’s greatest living composer.

Ravel was born in the town of Ciboure, France, just 11 miles from the Spanish border. His father Joseph was a successful engineer, manufacturer and inventor. His parents’ marriage was controversial; Ravel’s mother was illegitimate and barely literate, and so it was seen (in 19th century terms) that Joseph had married beneath his status.

Ravel’s family moved to Paris three months after his death. The family were comfortable although not rich, and Ravel and his younger brother Edouard seem to have had happy childhoods.

The start of a musical education

At the age of seven he began taking piano lessons with Henri Ghys. Although not what would be termed a child prodigy, he showed promise and was highly musical. He began composing from around 1887 (at age 12); variations on a theme by Grieg and a single movement of a piano sonata.

In 1888 Ravel met the young pianist Ricardo Vines. Vines became an important link between Ravel and Spanish music. The two shared an appreciation of Russian music and of Wagner. While visiting the Exposition Universelle in Paris in 1889, Ravel was inspired by the new Russian works being conducted by Nikolia Rimsky-Korsakov. This music made a lasting impression on both Ravel and another French composer of the time, Claude Debussy.

In 1889 Ravel gave his first public performance. At just fourteen years old he took part in a concert at the Salle Erard. With the encouragement of his parents he applied for entry to France’s most prestigious musical college, the Conservatoire de Paris. He passed the admission examination playing music by Chopin. He won the Conservatoire’s piano competition in 1891, but otherwise did not stand out as a student. But it is during this time that he underwent huge growth and development as a composer. It became clear that his overriding ambition was to become a composer, not a pianist.

It was around this time that Ravel was introduced by his father to the musician Erik Satie, who was working as a cafe pianist. Ravel was one of the first musicians to recognise the talents of Satie, whose experiments in musical form were an inspiration to Ravel.

In 1897 he began studying under Gabriel Faure, who became a key influence on him as a composer. During this time he wrote some substantial works, including the overture Sheherazade and a violin sonata. In May 1897 he conducted the first performance of Sheherazade. It received a very mixed reception, from boos mingled with applause. Throughout his career, Ravel was largely indifferent to either criticism or praise. The only opinion of his music that he valued was his own.

The Hooligans

In 1899 Ravel composed his first piece to become widely known: Pavane pour une infante defunte (Pavane for a dead princess). The following year he and a number of innovative young artists, poets and musicians joined together in a group which became known as “The Hooligans” – a name coined by Ricardo Vines to describe their position as “artistic outcasts”. They met regularly until the outbreak of World War I, with members stimulating one another with their intellectual arguments and performances.

One of the common enthusiasms which ran through the group was the love of the music of Debussy. Ravel was a great supporter of Debussy and had known the fellow composer, albeit slightly, since the 1890s. Both men were labelled as Impressionist composers; a label both highly disliked. Ravel believed Debussy to, in fact, be an Impressionist, but did not believe he himself fell into this category.

Ravel as a Teacher

Although not a natural teacher, Ravel did give a few lessons to some young musicians he felt could benefit from them. It is said that he was a very demanding teacher when he thought his pupil had talent. Like his own teacher Faure, he was concerned that each pupil should find their own individual voice and not be too heavily influenced by established masters. When George Gershwin asked him for lessons in the 1920s, Ravel – after serious consideration – refused, saying that lessons would probably lead Gershwin to “write bad Ravel and lose his great gift of melody and spontaneity.” The best-known composer who took lessons with him was Ralph Vaughan Williams, who was his pupil for three months in 1907-08.

In the 1910s Ravel and several other former students of Gabriel Faure, set up a new, modernist organisation to promote the music of emerging French composers. With the support of this organisation, Ravel premiered two new operas in 1911, with three ballets premiering the following year. The reviews were excellent. He composed very little in 1913, apart from collaborating with Stravinsky on a version of Mussorgsky’s unfinished opera Khovanshchina.

World War I

At the outbreak of World War I, Ravel tried to join the French Air Force. However, he was rejected due to his age and a minor heart complaint. After several unsuccessful attempts to enlist, he instead joined the Thirteenth Artillery Regiment as a lorry driver in March 1915, at the age of 40. Shortly after this, his health began to deteriorate; he suffered from insomnia and digestive problems, undergoing a bowel operation in September 1916, and suffered frostbite in his feet the following winter.

After the war it was noticed that Ravel lost much of his physical and mental stamina. His musical output became much smaller, averaging only one composition a year. However, when fellow composer Debussy died in 1918, he was still regarded by most as the leading French composer of the time.


Ravel’s final composition in the 1920s was to become his most famous. Bolero was written as an “experiment in a very special and limited direction…a piece lasting seventeen minutes and consisting wholly of orchestral tissue without music…one long, very gradual crescendo.” The work became a massive success and has since been recorded several hundred times. Bemused, Ravel commented “I’ve written only one masterpiece – Bolero. Unfortunately there’s no music in it.”

At the beginning of the 1930s he completed the Piano Concerto in D Major for the Left Hand. This was commissioned by the Austrian pianist Paul Wittgenstein, who had lost his right arm during the war. Ravel was fascinated by the technical challenges facing him with this work. He was not proficient enough to perform the piece with only his left hand, though, and so used both hands when demonstrating it.

In October 1932 Ravel suffered a blow to the head in a taxi accident. The injury wasn’t thought to be too serious at the time, but is now thought to have exacerbated an existing cerebral condition. The exact nature of his illness is unknown, with experts suggesting dementia among other things. In 1937 he began to suffer pain from the condition and surgery was recommended. After the operation things seemed to improve, but this was short-lived and Ravel soon lapsed into a coma. He died on 28th December at the age of 62.

Spread the word. Share this post!