Ravel, Maurice (1875-1937)

“Music, I feel, must be emotional first and intellectual second.”

Maurice Ravel was born in Ciboure, France, near the border with Spain, which created a life-long appreciation of Spanish culture. Ravel is slightly younger than Claude Debussy, whose work Ravel admired.

Ravel’s focus on technical perfection of composition surely stems from the detailed work of his father, who was a Swiss watchmaker. Ravel built miniature figures and toys as a child, gaining an appreciation for how perfectly parts need to be aligned in order to function. Ravel often composed pieces on piano before orchestrating them as a way of “starting in miniature” and working larger.

In a time when composers such as Arnold Schoenberg were trying to push music into more mathematical constraints rather than those of melody and harmony, Ravel focused on the importance of melody in music. When describing Ravel, New York Times critic Alex Ross proclaimed that “he could not help pleasing the ear even as he set out to shock it.” Ravel composed music differently, but the result was always beautiful (and well crafted).

Some of Ravel’s works are distinctively Impressionist in nature, earning him a reputation as a significant Impressionist composer. Daphnis and Chloe is a textbook example of Impressionist music. However, he was quite multi-faceted in his composition. Le Tombeau de Couperin looks to the past as an example of neo-Baroque composition (writing in the Baroque style but using modern harmonies). He composed multiple waltzes inspired by the Viennese waltz style, and some compositions incorporate elements of jazz and blues.

Major Works

  • Bolero
  • Daphnis and Chloe
  • Le Tombeau de Couperin
  • Ma Mere L’Oye (Mother Goose Suite)
  • Pavane pour une Infante Defunte (Pavane for a Dead Princess)
  • Rhapsodie Espagnole

Listening – Flute Related

Daphnis and Chloe, Suite No 2

Dahpnis and Chloe was a 3 part ballet inspired by an ancient Greek story and is composed in a distinctly Impressionist style. Ravel composed two orchestral suites based upon the music from the ballet. His second suite is considered a masterpiece and is performed regularly. It features several incidental flute solos, including one that is often used for auditions by major music schools and orchestras.

Video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cnvv89Nd2pg&list=PLxOspkBMgcLkLlVMJ_fVQR1D-RYm7lU7L&index=1

Pavane pour une Infante Defunte

Ravel frequented the salon of Madame René de Saint-Marceaux, which led him to the salon of Princesse de Polignac (Winnaretta Singer), for which the Pavane was composed.

Video 1: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2_c8JRCKq1Ahttps://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2_c8JRCKq1A

Video 2: This one is Ravel playing on piano. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eGybwV3U9W8

Ma Mere L’Oye (Mother Goose Suite)

Mother Goose Suite was originally composed for 4-hand piano for the children of a friend of Ravel. A few years later, Ravel added some movements and orchestrated it for orchestra as a ballet piece. It is best know as a 5-movement concert piece with the following movements:

  • Pavane de la Belle au bois dormant (Pavane of the Sleeping Beauty)
  • Petit Poucet (Little Tom Thumb / Hop-o’-My-Thumb)
  • Laideronnette, impératrice des pagodes (Little Ugly Girl, Empress of the Pagodas)
  • Les entretiens de la belle et de la bête (Conversation of Beauty and the Beast)
  • Le jardin féerique (The Fairy Garden)

The orchestral arrangement features several incidental flute and piccolo solos. This video features an arrangement for chamber orchestra, performed without a conductor. The smaller instrumentation makes it sound quite magical!

Video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wjXQTEqOYi8&list=PLxOspkBMgcLkLlVMJ_fVQR1D-RYm7lU7L&index=2&t=48s

Rhapsodie Espagnole

Ravel grew up in France near the Spanish border and developed a love of Spanish culture. His Rhapsodie Espagnole earned the praise of Spanish composer Manuel de Falla for its authentic Spanish character.

Video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SqDD4vjZJfw&list=PLxOspkBMgcLkLlVMJ_fVQR1D-RYm7lU7L&index=3


Russian dancer Ida Rubenstein commissioned Ravel to compose a Spanish-inspired piece, initially suggesting an orchestration of an existing work by a Spanish composer. Ravel chose instead to produce his own original composition. Bolero consists of a Spanish-inspired dance melody that is orchestrated for 18 variations using different instrumental solos and combinations, all growing in one gigantic crescendo. It opens with a flute solo and features a variation where the piccolo plays quietly in the high register to create the sound of harmonics in an organ.

Video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cmNEvSFWftc

Bonus Listening

Le Tombeau de Couperin

The word “tombeau” means “tomb” or, in a musical sense, “memorial.” Ravel originally began to compose Le Tombeau de Couperin as a piano work in honor of Baroque composer Francois Couperin. During World War I Ravel enlisted in the French Army as an ambulance driver and nurse, exposing him to the horrors of the injuries of war. When Le Tombeau de Couperin was completed, Ravel dedicated each movement to someone who was lost during WWI. (The Indianapolis Symphony has more detailed program notes on this piece and Ravel’s WWI military service)

Video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i5Acvznd7Ts

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