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Maurice Ravel - the Composer

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Maurice Ravel was a French composer who studied at the end of the Romantic period, worked through the Impressionist period and into the Modern period. He was born in Paris in 1875, and died in quiet, rural retirement in 1937.

He studied music at the Paris Conservatory, where his tutor, and a significant influence on his style, was Faure. His composition was also influenced by the styles of Chabrier and Satie. Ravel showed much promise as a young composer, and was nominated, by Faure, for a number of awards. To the surprise of many of his contemporaries, he was overlooked for these awards and he left the Conservatory bitterly disappointed.

During the First World War (1914 - 1918) he was unfit for service, and volunteered to work as an orderly in a military hospital. After the war, his health, which had never been robust, deteriorated. He moved to the village of Tourador, continuing to compose until shortly before his death, though during the last ten years of his life he produced only a few works.

Major Compositions

These are listed in chronological order. It is not a complete list - just highlights.

  • Pavan for a Dead Princess (piano) (1899)
  • Mirrors (piano) (1904)
  • Sonatina (piano) (1905)
  • Gaspard of the Night (piano) (1908)
  • L'heure Espagnole (opera) (1909)
  • Minuet on the Name of Haydn (piano) (1909)
  • Pavan for a Dead Princess (orchestral) (1910)
  • Mother Goose (piano, then orchestral) (1911)
  • The Tomb of Couperin (piano) (1917)
  • The Tomb of Couperin (orchestral) (1919)
  • The Child and the Furniture (opera) (1925)
  • Bolero (orchestral) (1928)
  • Don Quixote and Dulcinea (vocal) (1932)

Technique and Style

Ravel is a contemporary of Debussy, and, although classified with him as using the Impressionist style, Ravel's compositions are more classical, with disciplined harmonies and part work. He did not, for example, adopt the whole tone scale or pentatonic scale for any of his major works. His music, however, is certainly not typically classical or Romantic.

He heard the use of new intervals - 9ths, 11ths and 13ths - in jazz, but used them very differently in his compositions, splitting them between parts, and applying a technique called the 'long pedal', in which the pianist is instructed to keep the dampers (the 'loud' pedal') raised for extended periods. The result of this is that the strings can resonate at the harmonics of the notes being played. This technique, pioneered successfully by Beethoven in his later works, had fallen into disuse because, if applied without great skill, it sounds 'muddy'. Ravel showed that it can highlight relationships between notes played at different times.

He made extensive use of the technique of first composing a work at the piano, and later orchestrating it. As a result, many of his works exist both as piano pieces and orchestral scores. Later in his life, he also produced orchestral arrangements of the works of other composers, including

  • Debussy (Sarabande, Tarantelle)
  • Chabrier (Picture Pieces)
  • Musorgsky (Pictures at an Exhibition)

Some Interesting Pieces

Even a small study of the pieces can tell you a lot about the musician.

The suite of orchestral pieces called The Tomb of Couperin contains many classical elements, and is rightly understood to be a sincere homage to the classical French composer Fran├žois Couperin (1688 - 1733) and to that school and style of music. The later orchestral version is written like that, and that's the interpretation that most people pick up. If you play the original version, written for piano, exactly as written, you discover that all the pieces have an overlay of intense sadness. On the original manuscript, each piece is dedicated to a soldier, and it turns out that each one was nursed by Ravel; each one later died of wounds received in battle. As well as a homage to things past, Ravel was mourning the passing of that civilization, for he felt at the time that the war would be lost, and France would be overrun.

The Mother Goose suite was written for two pianos. Although it sounds 'full', each piano part is not very difficult technically. It was intended to be performed by children - as it was at its premiere.

The Minuet on the Name of Haydn assigns letters of the alphabet to the notes on the piano (as expected, but extended beyond one octave), and weaves a three-part minuet using those notes as the theme. At some points in the piece, the name can be detected running backwards. To achieve this, and still sound musical, shows the highest technical skill

Although it is a piece that has been done to death in recent years, Bolero must be mentioned. If this is the only piece by Ravel that you know, do not let it put you off trying some others. It is by far the most overtly dramatic piece that he wrote. It was written for an avant-garde dance troupe, and was designed to make the dancers work against it - the opposite of conventional dance music. Ravel described it as 'anti-music'. At the end of the first performance, someone in the audience shouted 'This is madness!'. Ravel shouted back 'Yes! Someone understands!'.

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