Personalities | Maurice Ravel | Modern Era | Classical

(Mo-res’ Ra-vel’) 1875–1937
French composer

Ravel is often described (like Debussy, but still more misleadingly) as an ‘Impressionist’, but Ravel’s music is in fact precisely and delicately crafted, subtly perfect in its artifice (in the best sense of the word). Influenced by Emmanuel Chabrier (1841–94), Satie and his close friend Stravinsky, attracted to Spain temperamentally (he never visited the country, but his mother came from the Basque region), he absorbed all these factors – and jazz – to produce a style that was entirely his own. Each of his works, even those in the same form, is unique: the sprightly comic opera L’heure espagnole (‘The Spanish Hour’, 1907) is as different from the touching child-like fantasy of L’enfant et les sortilèges (‘The Child and the Spells’, 1925) as his brilliant, Gershwinesque but Mozart-centred Piano Concerto in G is from the sombre and sinewy Concerto for Left Hand (1931).

Ravel wrote very little that was second-rate (though he described his Boléro of 1928 as ‘a piece for orchestra without music’). His ballet Daphnis et Chloé (1912), his orchestral Rapsodie espagnole (1907) and Le tombeau de Couperin (‘The Grave of Couperin’, 1917), his String Quartet (1903) and the late sonatas are among his major works, but none of his songs and very few of his orchestral miniatures or short piano pieces can be called ‘minor’.

Recommended Recording:
Daphnis et Chloé, New England Conservatory Choir, Boston SO (cond) Charles Munch (RCA)

Sounds Familiar

Ravel’s Boléro made unusually rapid progress onto the silver screen, taken up a mere six years after its composition in the 1934 film Bolero, starring George Raft and Carole Lombard. Their dance routine to Ravel’s music was imitated half a century later by ice-skaters Jayne Torvill and Christopher Dean in their gold-medal-winning performance at the 1986 Olympics.

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