Maurice Ravel (1875–1937)
Maurice Ravel is considered one of the early 20th century’s most original composers. Although he was frequently regarded as an outsider to the developments of French music during his lifetime (a position he himself also somewhat cultivated), he was eventually recognized as one of its key figures. He composed in many of the major genres, including operas, ballets and orchestral suites, vocal and choral works, pieces for chamber ensemble and piano, as well as completed several orchestrations of other composers’ works. His music is characterized by a distinctly refined but also sensual approach to form and sound.
Ravel was born on March 7, 1875, in Ciboure, in the Basses-Pyrénées, but grew up in Paris. In 1889, he was admitted to the city’s famed Conservatoire. Despite his desire to succeed, he struggled to maintain his place; he was dismissed twice—in 1895 and 1900 from the piano and compositional classes, respectively, for failing to win any prizes. He later attempted and failed to win the Prix de Rome five times. Nevertheless, by 1905, several of his works were performed at the Société nationale de musique, the dominant organization for contemporary French music. However, academics and critics relegated him to the margins. To gain independence from their authority, he helped to found a new society in 1909, the Société musicale indépendante, which would perform French and foreign works of all genres and styles.
During WWI, Ravel served his country as a driver for the motor transport corps; his experience, along with personal illness and the death his mother, with whom he was very close, took a toll on his creative work. He eventually recuperated, and by the 1920s, became regarded as France’s leading composer. His reputation abroad was also cemented through many successful tours, including a significant one to the USA and Canada in 1928, during which he conducted, performed, gave interviews, and lectured on contemporary music. Despite his status, Ravel remained alienated from the Parisian music establishment and the avant-garde. For the rest of his life, he lived, with his cats and housekeeper, in Montfort-l’Amaury. He died in Paris on December 28, 1937.
By Dr. Hannah Chan-Hartley