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Maurice Ravel

World Changes

France had suffered defeat to Prussia (Germany) in the War of 1870 and was in an upheaval. French arts were flourishing, but the legal system was in decay. It was the age of emerging science, the climax of railways, and the beginning of aviation. In 1875, when Maurice Ravel was born, the world was in a big hurry to change.

Today we are also facing a time of great change in the world. How many changes have you seen so far in your life?

Home Life

Maurice Ravel was born on March 7, 1875, at Ciboure near the Spanish border. He had a Swiss father and a Basque mother, but his family really came from France. Maurice's father was a highly skilled engineer and inventor. Ravel adored his mother. They were a happy family! When Maurice was three years old, his brother Édouard was born. The brothers were close all their lives.

Edouard became an engineer and his father's partner.
Can you imagine a somersaulting car? They invented one. In 1903, it appeared in Barnum & Bailey's Circus in the United States. Unfortunately it crashed and killed the driver.

Ravel was interested in both mechanics and music. Sometimes on his music tours he would find interesting mechanical information and send it to his father.

Studies

When Ravel was seven years old he began both piano and harmony lessons. Guess what? He liked playing outside more than practising. That probably doesn't surprise you at all.

At 14, Maurice enrolled at the Paris Conservatory, but he didn't get very good marks. He actually got expelled for a while for not paying attention!

When Ravel went back, he studied under Gabriel Fauré. They became great friends, although they were 40 years apart. Ravel was a student at the Conservatory for 14 years. He composed several pieces, but never won the coveted Prix de Rome that he hoped for.

The Apache Club

In 1900, Maurice Ravel joined a group of artists and intellectuals called the Apache Club. No girls were allowed in this club! Their activities involved all the arts. It lasted until 1914. Ravel met fellow Apache members Erik Satie, Jean Cocteau, André Gide, Paul Valéry, Igor Stravinsky, Nijinsky and Serge Diaghilev, among others. They met in the home of Ida and Cyprien Godebski. Maurice composed his Ma Mere L'Oye (Mother Goose Suite) for the Godebski children.

Igor Stravinsky said Ravel wasn't a handsome man, but he was a great dresser. He was short, wiry, with a large head, dark hair, and stylish and carefully trimmed beard and moustache.

In 1901, Ravel composed Jeux d'eau. It was his first masterpiece.

Ravel felt that Chabrier, Satie, Mozart and Saint- Saëns had the greatest influence on his music. It was said that he and Debussy influenced each other. The public considered them rivals, but their coolness toward one another was only a publicity stunt.

In 1905, Ravel tried again for the Prix de Rome.
His entry was rejected because of the politics that surrounded this competition. There was a huge uproar by everyone but Maurice. He didn't let himself get involved in the fight over what became known as the "affaire Ravel". Maurice did not let this repeated disappointment defeat him. He turned the rejection into the most creative time of his career.

October 1908 was a sad time for Ravel. His father died. Although a confirmed bachelor, Maurice assumed the role as head of his family.

Ravel's Spanish Period

Maurice Ravel's Spanish period began in 1907.
He had never spent much time in Spain, but his mother had grown up in Madrid. She had sung the theatre and folk songs of her youth around their home. Those songs had been important to Maurice. Ravel wrote three "Spanish" pieces specifically for the orchestra: Rhapsodie, La Valse, and Bolero.

During this time, he began international concert tours, beginning in England in 1909. On one trip to England, he met the author Joseph Conrad, who gave him a gift of cigarettes. Ravel was a very heavy smoker. His biggest worry on some of his foreign tours was how to get the French cigarettes he loved.

One of Ravel's best ballets, Daphnis and Chloe, premiered in 1912. The production was a mess because of problems between the musicians and dancers. Even Diaghilev and the great dancer Nijinsky were involved Maurice was so exhausted and upset by everything that he left for a year to recover his health.

World War I, Ravel and Adelaide

In 1914, Europe was thrown into war.
Ravel became a truck driver, posted to the Verdun front. He named his truck Adelaide. They had many exciting and dangerous encounters together during that time. In his cheery letters home, he described those adventures with Adelaide. Maurice signed each letter "Driver Ravel".
One night, Adelaide lost a wheel and slid into a ditch. Not long after, Ravel became ill and required surgery.

On his sick leave to Paris he found his mother very ill. She died in January 1917. Ravel had a very difficult time dealing with his loss. He called it "Cet horrible désespoir" (this horrible despair).

Belvedere

After the war, Ravel bought a house in Montfort l'Amaury, a little French town west of Paris. He fixed the house up and named it Belvedere. Maurice lived there the rest of his life, hosting Sunday lunches for his Paris art community friends. He refused to buy a vehicle and walked 10 km in the woods every day. Ravel avoided trips to Paris. He preferred the exotic plants and miniature Japanese trees in his garden. Maurice collected beautiful 17th and 18th century French first-edition novels and exquisite Japanese prints. Belvedere became an extension of Ravel's personality. It has been described as an enlarged doll's house and remains today almost exactly as he left it.

Legion d'honneur

In 1920, Maurice Ravel was nominated for the French Légion d'honneur award. He immediately rejected it. No one knows why. He had received many foreign honours during his life. He was always uncomfortable accepting anything from France. Maybe he worried that he would have to give up some of his freedom in return. Ravel was a fiercely independent thinker.
His fellow composer Erik Satie said this about Maurice's response:

"Monsieur Ravel has refused the Legion d'honneur, but all his music accepts it."

Recording Star

Ravel was one of the first composers to realize how important recordings would be. The first recording of his music was done in 1917 by the London String Quartet. The second one was in 1928 and after that it was done regularly. Stravinsky followed Ravel's lead in recognizing the importance of recordings.

North America

Ravel visited Canada and the United States in 1928.
He performed in great concert halls and private homes. He liked the warmth and hospitality that greeted him, but did not like the food. Maurice was a vegetarian. On that tour he travelled to 25 cities and towns by train because he got to sleep the train. Ravel usually suffered from insomnia. His letters home to his brother were filled with descriptions of the beautiful scenery. He particularly like the Grand Canyon. Maurice spent time in Harlem and New Orleans, enjoying the jazz and ragtime music. Everyone but the French press greeted Ravel as the greatest living French composer. The French press just ignored him.

During this tour, Ravel met the American composer George Gershwin. Gershwin asked him for music lessons. Ravel told him it was not a good idea, saying:

"You would only lose your own spontaneity and end up by writing bad Ravel."

More Honours

England's Oxford University gave Maurice Ravel an honourary doctorate degree in 1928. After the ceremony, Ravel conducted an all-Ravel concert at the Town Hall.

In 1929, the town of his birth renamed the street where he was born Quai Maurice Ravel.
Do you remember the name of that town?

The Final Chapter

Ravel's health was failing. He was barely able to write and unable to compose by 1934. His mind was full of ideas, but he just couldn't get them written down. They operated for a brain tumour, but nothing was found. Maurice survived the operation and seemed to be recovering, but then lapsed into a coma. He died on December 28, 1937, without regaining consciousness. Maurice Ravel was 62 years old. His illness remains a mystery.