See biographies by M. Goss (1940), V. I. Seroff (1953), H. H. Stuckenschmidt (tr. 1968), A. Orenstein (1975), and B. Ivry (2000); study by R. Nichols (1977).
Joseph-Maurice Ravel (March 7, 1875 – December 28, 1937) was a Basque French composer and pianist of Impressionist and Expressionist music, known especially for the subtlety, richness and poignancy of his melodies, orchestral and instrumental textures and effects. Much of his piano music, chamber music, vocal music and orchestral music have become staples of the concert repertoire.
Ravel's piano compositions, such as Jeux d'eau, Miroirs and Gaspard de la Nuit, demand considerable virtuosity from the performer, and his orchestral music, including Daphnis et Chloé and his arrangement of Modest Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition, uses tonal color and variety of sound and instrumentation very effectively.
According to SACEM, Ravel's estate earns more royalties than that of any other French musician. According to international copyright law, Ravel's works are public domain since January 1, 2008 in most countries. In France, due to anomalous copyright law extensions to account for the two world wars, they will not enter the public domain until 2015.
He studied composition at the Conservatoire under Gabriel Fauré for a remarkable fourteen years. During his years at the Conservatoire, Ravel tried numerous times to win the prestigious Prix de Rome, but to no avail. After a scandal involving his loss of the prize in 1905 to Victor Gallois despite being favored to win, Ravel left the Conservatoire. The incident — named the "Ravel Affair" by the Parisian press — also led to the resignation of the Conservatoire's director, Théodore Dubois.
Diaghilev commissioned Ravel to write La Valse (1920), originally named Wien (Vienna), and Ravel was hurt by the fact that Diaghilev never used the composition. When the two men met again in 1925, Ravel refused to shake Diaghilev's hand, and Diaghilev challenged Ravel to a duel (friends talked Diaghilev out of it). The men never met again.
In 1928, Ravel made a concert tour in America. In New York City, he received a moving standing ovation which he remarked was unlike any of his underwhelming premieres in Paris. He traveled as far west as San Francisco, where he conducted a concert of his orchestral music. That same year, Oxford University awarded him an honorary doctorate. He also met George Gershwin and the two became friends. Ravel's admiration of American jazz led him to include some jazz elements in a few of his later compositions, especially the two piano concertos.
Ravel is not known to have had any intimate relationships. Many of his friends have suggested that Ravel was known to frequent the bordellos of Paris, but the issue of his sexuality remains largely a mystery. Rumors have surfaced from time to time that Ravel was homosexual, possibly because of his association with Diaghilev. No factual (or reliably anecdotal) evidence has ever been found to substantiate this rumor. Ravel made a remark at one time suggesting that because he was such a perfectionist composer, so devoted to his work, that he could never have a lasting intimate relationship with anyone. He is quoted as saying "The only love affair I have ever had was with music".
Although he considered his small stature and light weight an advantage to becoming an aviator, during the First World War Ravel was not allowed to enlist as a pilot because of his age and weak health. Instead, upon his enlistment, he became a truck driver. He named his truck "Adelaide". Most references to what he drove in the war indicate it was an artillery truck or generic truck. No primary source mentions him driving an ambulance.
Ravel made one of his few recordings when he conducted his Boléro with the Lamoureux Orchestra in 1930. He also made a number of recordings of his piano music. Ravel reportedly conducted a group of Parisian musicians following the world premiere of his second piano concerto, the Concerto in G, with Marguerite Long, who had been the soloist in the premiere. EMI later reissued the 1932 recording on LP and CD. Although Ravel was listed as the conductor on the original 78-rpm discs, this is now disputed and it is possible he merely supervised the recording.
On April 8, 2008, the New York Times published an article saying Ravel may have been in the early stages of frontotemporal dementia in 1928, and this might account for the repetitive nature of Boléro. This is in line with an earlier article, published in a journal of neurology, that closely examines Ravel's clinical history and argues that his works Boléro and Piano Concerto for the Left Hand both indicate the impacts of neurological disease.
In late 1937, Ravel consented to experimental brain surgery. One hemisphere of his brain was re-inflated with serous fluid. He awoke from the surgery, called for his brother Edouard, lapsed into a coma and died shortly afterwards. Ravel died as a result of a brain injury caused by an automobile accident and not from a brain tumor as some believe. This confusion may arise because his friend George Gershwin had died from a brain tumour only five months earlier. Ravel was buried with his parents in a granite tomb at the cemetery at Levallois-Perret, a suburb of northwest Paris.
Ravel's music was innovative, though it did not follow the contemporary trend towards atonality. In keeping with the French school pioneered by Chabrier, Satie, and Debussy (to name a few), Ravel's compositions rely upon modal melodies instead of using the major or minor scales for their predominant harmonic language. He preferred modes with major or minor flavors – for example the Mixolydian (with its flat leading tone) instead of the major, and the Aeolian instead of the harmonic minor. As a result, there are virtually no leading tones in his output. Melodically, he tended to favor two modes: the Dorian and the Phrygian. He was in no way dependent on exclusively traditional modal practices; he used extended harmonies and intricate modulations. Ravel was fond of chords of the ninth and eleventh, and the acidity of his harmonies is largely the result of a fondness for unresolved appoggiaturas (listen to the Valses nobles et sentimentales). His piano music, some of which is noted for its technical challenges (for example Gaspard de la nuit), was an extension of Lisztian virtuosity. Even his most difficult pieces, however, are marked by elegance and refinement. He was inspired by various dances, his favorite being the minuet. Other forms from which Ravel drew material include the forlane, rigaudon, waltz, czardas, habanera, passacaglia, and the boléro.
Ravel has almost always been considered one of the two great French impressionist composers, the other being Debussy. In reality Ravel is much more than an Impressionist (it is worth noting that both Ravel and Debussy rejected this description of their styles). For example, he made extensive use of rollicking jazz tunes in his Piano Concerto in G, even employing a whipcrack for special effects in the first and third movements. Ravel also imitates Pablo de Sarasate's late-Romantic virtuoso style in Tzigane. In his A la maniere de...Borodine (In the manner of...Borodine), Ravel plays with the ability to both mimic and remain original. In a more complex situation, A la maniere de...Emmanuel Chabrier /Paraphrase sur un air de Gounod ("Faust IIème acte"), Ravel takes on a theme from Gounod's Faust and arranges it in the style of Emmanuel Chabrier. Even in writing in the style of others, Ravel's own voice as a composer remained distinct.
Ravel crafted his manuscripts meticulously. Unfortunately, early printed editions of his works were prone to errors. Painstakingly, he worked with his publisher, Durand, in correcting them. In a letter, Ravel wrote that when proofing L'enfant et les sortilèges, after many other editors had proofread the opera, he could still find ten errors per page. Each piece was carefully crafted, although Ravel wished that, like the historical composers he admired, he could write a great quantity of works. Igor Stravinsky once referred to Ravel as the "Swiss Watchmaker", a reference to the intricacy and precision of Ravel's works.
A characteristic example of the detail of Ravel's works can be found in Une barque sur l'ocean, one of his piano pieces from the set Miroirs; in the piece one finds harmonies representing waves in different quantities that are meticulously numbered. For example, one arpeggio in the left hand will appear three times the first time, and two times the next. Each time, the quantity of arpeggios is thought out and deliberate, with the general trend of reducing the number of arpeggios in subsequent repeats, perhaps with a consciousness that the listener will more quickly recognize the pattern the second time it appears.
Active in a period of great artistic innovations and diversification, Ravel benefited from many influences, though his music defies any facile classification. As Vladimir Jankélévitch notes in his biography, "no influence can claim to have conquered him entirely […]. Ravel remains ungraspable behind all these masks which the snobbery of the century has attempted to impose. Ravel's musical language was ultimately highly original, neither absolutely modernist nor impressionist. Like Debussy, Ravel categorically refused this description which he believed was reserved exclusively for painting.
Nonetheless, Ravel was very open to influences and was a remarkable synthesist of disparate styles. Certain aspects of his music can be considered to fall into the lineage of 18th century French classicism beginning with Couperin and Rameau as in Le tombeau de Couperin. The uniquely 19th century French sensibilities of Fauré and Chabrier are reflected in Sérénade grotesque, Pavane pour une infante défunte, and Menuet antique, while pieces such as Jeux d’eau, and the String Quartet owe something to the innovations of Satie and Debussy. The virtuosity and poetry of Gaspard de la nuit and Concerto pour la main gauche hint at Liszt and Chopin. His admiration and interest in American jazz is echoed in L’Enfant et les sortilèges, Sonate pour violon and the Piano Concerto in G, while the Russian school of music inspired homage in In the style of Borodin and the orchestration of Pictures at an Exhibition. He variously cited Mozart, Saint-Saëns, Schubert and Schönberg as inspirations for various pieces.
Ravel wrote, in 1928, that composers should be aware of both individual and national consciousness. That year, Ravel had toured the United States and Canada by train performing piano recitals in the great concert halls of twenty-five cities. In their reluctance to take jazz and blues as a nationalistic style of music, he stated American composers' "greatest fear is to find themselves confronted by mysterious urges to break academic rules rather than belie individual consciousness. Thereupon these musicians, good bourgeois as they are, compose their music according to the classical rules of the European epoch."
There is a story that when American composer George Gershwin met Ravel, he mentioned that he would have liked to study with the French composer, if that were possible. (Generally, Ravel did not take students.) According to Gershwin, the Frenchman retorted, "Why do you want to become a second-rate Ravel when you are already a first-rate Gershwin?The second part of the story has Ravel asking Gershwin how much money he made. Upon hearing Gershwin's reply, Ravel suggested that maybe he should study with Gershwin. (This tale may well be apocryphal: Gershwin seems also to have told a near-identical story about a conversation with Arnold Schoenberg, some have claimed it was with Igor Stravinsky; see the Wikipedia article for George Gershwin.) In any event, this had to have been before Ravel wrote Boléro which became financially very successful for him. He intended to write an earlier concerto, Zazpiak Bat, but it was never finished. The title reflects his Basque heritage: meaning 'The Seven Are One', it refers to the seven Basque regions, and was a motto often used in connection with the idea of a Basque nation. Surviving notes and fragments also confirm that this naturally was to be heavily influenced by Basque music. Instead, Ravel abandoned the piece, using its nationalistic themes and rhythms in some of his other pieces.
Ravel commented that André Gédalge, his professor of counterpoint, was very important in the development of his skill as a composer. As an orchestrator, Ravel studied the ability of each instrument carefully in order to determine the possible effects. This may account for the success of his orchestral transcriptions, both of his own piano works and those of other composers, such as Mussorgsky, Debussy and Schumann.