Maurice Ravel (1875-1937)

The songs

Cinq melodies populaires grecques M.A 9, 10, 4, 5, 11        Score     


From today's perspective it is hard to imagine that the composer of the “Boléro” of “La Valse” or “Ma Mère l'Oye” and many other well-known works was successful - in the sense of numerous performances - but was never undisputed as a composer . Not only the unfortunate comparison with Claude Debussy, which the Ravel critic P. Lalo brought into the world and which continues in the reception of his work, has had a lasting influence on the perception of his work. The great success that his music had with the audience was interpreted after 1945 as an indication of a lack of critical awareness. This reservation and the perception of his music as one that worked more on the surface of the sonic and less struggled for truth also hampered a productive examination of his music after 1945.


Ravel, born in Cibourne (Basses-Pyrénées) in 1875 as the eldest son of the engineer and inventor Pierre-Joseph Ravel and his wife Marie, who comes from the Basque Country, cultivated a thoroughly critical, if not disparaging, attitude towards academic standards and music institutions. This attitude had a lasting influence on his studies at the Paris Conservatory. For example, he failed several times in the competition for the coveted Rome Prize, the win of which could often advance a career as a composer. The nonconformist attitude that Ravel displayed corresponded to a dandyism that he maintained throughout his life. A photograph from 1928 shows Ravel sitting in a distinguished pose in a leather armchair. He is dressed in a fine suit with a vest, a silk tie and handkerchief adorn the well-groomed appearance. However, this outwardly manifested lifestyle correlated with an inner attitude. Above all, this included independence from the judgment of others, as well as a distanced approach.


For the artistic development of Ravel, influences and experiences outside the institution of the conservatory were particularly influential. This included personal encounters with Emmanuel Chabrier and Erik Satie, intensive preoccupation with Russian music, the discovery of the literature of Edgar Allan Poe, Charles Baudelaire, Joris-Karl Huysmans and Arthur Rimbauds and the enthusiasm for painters such as Odilon Redon and Eduard Manet. The artist group "Les Apaches" was also an important circle for Ravel, consisting of painters, musicians, critics and writers, in which he could expose his aesthetic ideas to discussion.

As a composer, Ravel then increasingly appeared in public from 1898. The response to his music was split. After initial failures, the first performance of the piano works “Pavane pour une infante défunte” and “Jeux d'eau” in 1902 brought first recognition, the first performance of his string quartet in 1904 the breakthrough. Already in these works he realized his specific musical poetics of indirectness and refraction, which he achieved through novel processes in the composition of harmony and timbres and in the orchestration, as well as through the examination of existing music and its formal models, which he reformulated.


Up until the beginning of the First World War, Ravel developed his oeuvre continuously and differentiated his musical language. And in 1908 he reached a large audience with the “Rapsodie espagnole”. Ravel's new musical direction was finally consolidated in the songs “Histoires naturelles” based on poems by Jules Renard, which, however, in their novelty at the premiere on January 12, 1907, provoked a similar scandal as Schoenberg did a year earlier with his Chamber Symphony and the composer's founding initiated a separate forum for the presentation of his and other contemporary music, the Société Musicale Indépendante.


The war years were decisive for Ravel in several ways. Both the war experiences and the death of his mother in 1917 plunged him into a deep crisis that prevented him from composing for almost three years. But when he overcame this crisis and found his way back to concert life, musical life in France had changed. Ravel met a younger generation of composers who pursued different musical attitudes and aesthetics and for whom his anti-bourgeois attitude was no longer understandable from the spirit of dandyism. In the 1920s he dedicated himself to his career as a pianist and conductor and undertook extensive concert tours through Europe and America. Despite great physical tension, his works such as "Boléro", "L'Enfant et les sortilèges", the concerto for the left hand, the "Chansons madécasses", are still successful today. During this time, a physical ailment became noticeable, which became more pronounced after a car accident in 1932. Ravel suffers from symptoms of ataxia and aphasia and this increasingly prevents him from composing, traveling or even leaving the house. Ravel dies in 1937.



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