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Timeline: Maurice Ravel

U.S. Public Domain
Maurice Ravel's music touches on almost every genre of his time. His orchestrations showed a unique ear for instrumental color and nusiance that would influence a generation of orchestrators and composers.

French composer, Maurice Ravel was short in stature, slight of frame, impeccably dressed and careful about his manner. He lived a private life, but perhaps you could have found him walking in the woods outside of Paris at night pondering music in his head. “It’s lucky I’ve managed to write music,” Ravel wrote, “because I know perfectly well I should have never been able to do anything else.”

Ravel’s father was an engineer and his mother was raised in Madrid. Her Basque heritage influenced a great deal of Ravel’s music. The family moved to Paris when Maurice was very young and his entire life revolved around that city. At the age of 14, Ravel enrolled as a piano student at the Paris Conservatory. He was not a great pupil and had several issues with members of the faculty. He preferred to spend his time experiencing the music of Wagner, the Russian Five, Chabrier and Satie.

It wasn’t until his early 20s that Ravel devoted himself to composition. He actually reenrolled at the conservatory in order to study with Gabriel Faure. Ravel was a part of a group of artists, poets and composers that called themselves “The Hooligans”. This group provided support for Ravel’s compositions. His early works Habanera, Pavane for a Dead Princess and Sheherazade Overture met with moderate success. However, his music was often compared to Debussy, a composer whom he admired but did not wish to emulate.

When war was declared in 1914, Ravel believed it was his patriotic duty to enlist in support of his country. He drove a truck in dangerous conditions on the frontline. That was until he was struck with dysentery and was sent back to Paris to recover. During this time he composed Le Tombeau de Couperin a Baroque-style suite where each movement is dedicated to a friend he lost in the war.

After the death of Debussy in 1918, Ravel was considered to be the voice of music in France. In 1920, he was awarded the Legion of Honor, which he declined. In the 1930’s he began to face a new illness that the doctors called “Pick’s Disease”, perhaps a form of dementia or Alzheimer’s. His good friend Igor Stravinsky recounted how difficult it was to see Ravel lose his memory and eventually the ability to even write his own name. Ravel died after a failed operation in 1937.

He left behind a catalogue of works, even pieces that were forgotten, abandoned or incomplete. His music touches on almost every genre of the time, from opera to chamber works. His orchestrations showed a unique ear for instrumental color and nuisance that would influence a generation of orchestrators and composers.

Timeline is an exploration into the development of Western music. Follow the Timeline on our new web app where you can hear all of the episodes in order.

James Stewart is Vermont Public Classical's afternoon host. As a composer, he is interested in many different genres of music; writing for rock bands, symphony orchestras and everything in between.
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